National group gives woman a rare day off
Shelley Merkt has taken care of her mother at home since her father died 19 years ago. Her mother is not sick. She has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, and Merkt must help her eat, dress and most anything else that requires use of the hands.
It's an around-the-clock job, said Merkt, who's 51, that she now takes for granted as part of her life.
"When I look back, we've done a pretty darn good job," she said. "But it's probably aged me a ton."
"The thing is we're not alone," she said. "But I feel like I did the right thing. People said, 'You can't do that. You'll kill yourself.' I have no regrets."
Merkt is among more than 25 million Americans who provide long-term care for friends or family members who need care because of chronic disability or illness or old age. According to a United Hospital Fund study, those family caregivers provide about $196 billion a year worth of services for free. Their own lives and routines are altered and limited. But they are nearly invisible, said Missoula resident Brenda Carpenter, a registered nurse who owns Transformations spa and Montana Mobile Laser and manages the care of her mother.
"These people don't get paid," she said. "It's about those people who just do it out of caring and love."
Carpenter wants to make noise about caregivers and bring them some recognition. In November, National Family Caregivers Month, Carpenter looks for a caregiver in Missoula to honor with a day at her spa. The theme of the month is "sharing the care."
This year's winner is Merkt, who'll spend the day being pampered at Transformations. If she needs it, she'll also get help with a caregiver at home for the day.
Carpenter came to know Merkt through Merkt's business, Penhaligan's Gift Baskets, which she operates out of a studio near her house so she can be close to her mother.
"She is a warm and caring person," Carpenter said. "She has no misgivings about caring for her mom. But you can see the stresses."
Merkt, who was utterly surprised by Carpenter's call, looks at her upcoming day at the spa as "incredible," she said.
"I almost started crying," she said. "Things don't come back to you like that."
Merkt and her husband have raised two sons, and Merkt has operated her business for 11 years, moving it to a studio building on their property eight years ago.
The biggest challenge of giving care at home is finding and keeping reliable help, she said. Nineteen years ago, Merkt and her mother, Dorothy Lombardi, had relative success hiring women who were homemakers who wanted to work limited hours. They were kind, reliable and good cooks, Merkt said.
"Those women have aged," she said. "The group of people coming up, they're a different generation. They're not good cooks, and they don't keep their jobs."
"You have good times, and you have bad times," she said. "We've had good people, and we've had people who've stolen."
Like many people, Merkt's mother could not get help from her health insurance because she is not sick and in need of skilled nursing. That's part of the reason that 26.5 percent of Americans are primary caregivers for loved ones, and another 23.5 percent say they expect to be soon, according to the National Family Caregivers Association.
Merkt and her family now have help from Partners in Home Care for two hours in the mornings, and a friend comes for a couple hours in the afternoons; the friend, also an only child like Merkt, brings her own ailing mother with her.
Merkt and Carpenter both say that it's important for caregivers to get care, too. Friends and family and support from organizations like the National Family Caregivers Association are essential.
"When you're a caregiver, you're just going, going, going," Merkt said. "What's important is for people around you to be supportive. You have to get that, or you can go bankrupt. You have to have that balance."
Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To reach the National Family Caregivers Association, call (800)896-3650 or e-mail email@example.com. Its Web site is www.nfcacares.org. If you are interested in helping form a local chapter, call Brenda Carpenter at her office at Transformations day spa and wellness center, 549-8000.