15 Million

15 Million

That's a big number.  The Earth's circumference is only 24,901.55 miles.  The circumference of the Sun is 2.7 Million miles.  The distance between the Earth and the Moon is 406,700 miles at the furthest point.  15 Million is too small a number to be the distance between the Earth and Mars or the Earth and Venus.

Apparently, there are 15 Million women in the US who carry a gun.  While I find that number staggering, it is not the statistic that we're here to discuss today.   We're also not here to discuss that Apple ordered 15 Million of the iPhone 4S.

15 Million is the number of individuals who are providing unpaid care for friends or relatives with dementia in the US alone according to the Alzheimer's Association's 2011 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures (PDF).  Additionally, 80% of the care given to an individual with dementia is done so by family members.  The majority of care providers are women (60%) and the primary bread-winners for the family (55%).

So, 15 Million people are caring for a loved one with dementia.  They are taking on the incredible stress of the shopping, the personal hygiene, supervision and dealing with the paranoia and emotional outbursts.  They are working to make the environment of their loved one a safe, reassuring environment for their loved one.  They are advocating for their loved one with support agencies, medical professionals and other service providers.  They are doing all this while also tending to their other familial obligations AND trying to maintain gainful employment.  No wonder there is a high rate of fatigue and depression amongst our volunteer care providers.  They are doing all of this and getting no pay for it.

So why do the 15 Million step up in the face of the challenges to care for their loved one who has dementia.  The "loved" adjective comes into play here.  The care provider may feel a sense of pleasure resulting from providing care.  They may be trying to satisfy a sense of familial duty.  However, the amount of positive feelings they experience, do not compensate them adequately for the pain, suffering and risk to themselves they experience as a result of the care they provide.  In this sense, I contend that they are doing this work because they are fundamentally altruistic.  In Explaining Altruism: a simulation-based approach and its limits, Eckhart Arnold defines altruism as a trait or type of behavior that "benefits another individual at a cost for the individual itself without immediate or equal return."

Being altruistic in caring for someone with dementia does not make the care provider a saint or a superhero.  They are just another person like you and me.  The difference is that they see a need, believe they can fill that need and step up to do the work.  A common question, and one shared by foster parents, is "If not me, then who?"  If we do not step up to care for others in our lives, who will?

So, if you know someone who is caring for an individual with dementia, don't praise them for their herculean efforts.  Thank them.  Don't rush off to do something.  Stop and listen to them.  Offer up a hug and schedule a lunch date with them.  Offer up your own services to lend them a hand.  They may not accept, but they will definitely appreciate your awareness.

Additional Information Sources:
Explaining Altruistic Behavior in Humans by Gintis, Bowles, Boyd and Fehr
Altruism in Humans by Charles Batson


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