Margaret Stawowy: A Huge Hole in the Safety Net

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Margaret Stawowy

Margaret Stawowy, like most, wanted to keep her mother in familiar surroundings when she began to decline. It was easier said than done.

For five years, I provided care for my mother who experienced dementia. My mother lived in low-income senior housing, and I wanted to keep her in her familiar setting for as long as possible. I thought surely there were programs and safety nets for people on limited incomes like my mother. We lived in one of the most affluent counties in California. I quickly realized that I was both her “program” and “safety net.”

As a person with a full-time job, this was a daunting responsibility. Working with a non-profit social worker, I tried to get my mother the assistance she needed since I couldn’t be with her all day. For more than a year, I was unsuccessful until another social worker in private practice showed me what I was doing wrong and helped me apply successfully. If somebody like me with a college degree couldn’t apply without professional direction, how were struggling elders without children to assist them faring?

Towards the end, when my mother experienced debilitating falls, when I realized I could no longer keep her safe, when her behavior became erratic and violent, I implored her doctor for advice. She recommended my mother for hospice. Then and only then, my mother and I were able to get more services, otherwise unavailable.

I learned firsthand, that a large part of our healthcare system depends upon family members to provide unpaid caregiving, with scant direction or meaningful support.


Caregiving is an equity issue as it is largely unpaid or underpaid, particularly by women, and often by women of color. As a nation, we are failing our vulnerable elders with our spotty, haphazard approaches to caregiving. Unless we improve, we can expect no better for ourselves in our own time of need.

With a Perspective, this is Margaret Stawowy.

Margaret Stawowy is a librarian, poet, and poetry editor living in Marin.