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Something to Learn From Michael Phelps August 5, 2012

Posted by ijwoods in Blog+.
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I’ve been tuning in to the Olympics this past week and enjoying it quite a bit. One person who will be in Olympic history books for some time is Michael Phelps, now the considered to be the top Olympian ever. When you think of all the competition there is from all over the world it’s really a super human achievement.

I like this one story of a race he swam in the 2008 Olympics when he ran into some serious trouble. During that competition his goggles filled with water so that he couldn’t see anything. Most of us would think “So what? He’s swimming. Not seeing doesn’t seem that bad.” Think about running a race, on a straight track, back and forth and being blindfolded without warning while your competition can see perfectly well. Not only would it be nearly impossible to stay in your lane but you’d be seriously disoriented and freaked out to boot.  That may help to understand the immense challenge. Well, not only did Phelps finish out the race blind, but he took gold!

How did he manage to do this? Preparation. His coach prepared him for such an eventuality knowing that he had to be ready for any surprise. He had Michael do things like swim in the dark or race mentally, imagining his goggles were filled with water. They even calculated the number of strokes he was supposed to take in a lap in case this ever happened. So during that race, once he lost all vision, he mentally played the imaginary “blind” race he had swum many times before, counted his strokes and followed his training to touch the wall perfectly and end the race. Yes, he won the gold and even set a new world record.

It’s quite an inspiration to hear about this and it gives us some insight into what goes in to being the best Olympian in the world. Phelps had a very clever coach, but who’s coaching us? Who prepares us for the inevitable yet often surprising role of caregiver many of us end up doing? Even a tiny bit? It’s an interesting question because outside of a very small community of people, I don’t see many strong initiatives taking place to get people thinking about it.

I was speaking with Beth the other day (http://middlescapes.com) about this very topic and reminisced about growing up and having access to plenty of side studies in public school such as home economics (do they still have this?). Classes like home-ec provided girls some basic skills for life outside the parental nest.

I also remember in high school having to watch movies of car accidents with people’s brains splattered over the road in order to prepare us for the responsibility of obtaining a driver’s license. There was also the mandatory viewing of a film showing a lung operation on someone who had serious lung cancer. The person was supposedly a heavy smoker and her lungs were filled with black tar. It was so gruesome I feinted and never become a smoker. But there was nothing at any time about caregiving even for after school credit.

You may think high school may be too early, but in a recent study conducted in Vancouver, Canada, by the Vanier Institute of the Family “the authors found that 12% of youth are in a caregiving role … with a mean age of 14 years.”  Twelve percent is an amazingly high number in my book. But maybe it’s that Vancouver has a problem. Not quite. In a similar study published in 2005 about caregiving by youth in the USA the National Alliance for Caregiving reported that “Nationwide, there are approximately 1.3 to 1.4 million child caregivers who are between the ages of 8 and 18. “  Now that was back in 2005 when the economy was looking pretty good. It makes me wonder what the situation is now.

Whatever the current firgures are, it means there are a lot of kids having to figure out what to do to provide care. And if you read both the Canadian study and the one from the NAC you’ll find the stress and impact on the kid’s lives is significant. It’s disturbing to think that they have to go into this with little or no preparation and support.

When I review my own experience as a non-professional caregiver I can’t think of one course, lecture or encouragement I ever received early on in my life to try and get me thinking about it, no less ready for it.   It’s true that the entire journey with K happened over two years providing adequate time to research, but I didn’t see the need until her situation moved into a more intensive phase. By then I was ill prepared for the universe of daily surprises I encountered. That lack of preparation could have literally (and maybe still can) cause me an early death or have caused K some unintended stress, pain or even her own premature death.

You would think with something so inevitable we would have a mandatory basic preparation in school. You’d think there would be a well known high quality set of caregiver resources that were constantly updated and improved upon that would be as ubiquitous as the emergency phone numbers we have hanging in the kitchen. We are talking about something more certain than an earthquake or hurricane.

Maybe it’s a stretch to use Michael Phelps’ Olympic preparation as a comparison for caregiver preparation, but I think we can gain something by his preparedness for surprises. If I can be made to watch a lung cancer operation to become aware of the adverse effects of smoking then why not a 2 hr course to explain and provide the basics of caregiving for those in school?

There are some encouraging signs though. I’m beginning to see some initiatives surface, especially for the young. For instance in Moorestown New Jersey, at the Friends School, high school students are learning about end-of-life care and hospice. “Started in 2004, the unusual elective teaches ninth through 12th graders about end-of-life care and dealing with death, grief, and loss.” Wow. Even at age 60 I didn’t know anything significant about grief. The program has these kids actually out there volunteering so they get some first hand experience.

There’s a non-profit called the American Association of Caregiving Youth located in Florida which “is the only organization of its kind in the United States for addressing the issues surrounding the silent, vulnerable and hidden population, conservatively estimated to exceed 1.4 million children, who provide care for family members who are unable to manage life independently.”

Perhaps we are seeing the seeds of something important being sown as non-professional caregiving becomes more widespread.  Learning about this early on won’t make it so foreign to us when caregiving comes our way and can help us to do the caregiving well. It would also help to make more people empathetic to those we know who are in the midst of caregiving.

Michael Phelps has a great coach who helpd him tackle tough surprises successfully, maybe we are beginning to wake up to the coaching opportunity to help those who end up unintended caregivers. I hope more of this happens and gets the support it needs.

Here’s an enlightening video created by the AACY about caregiving youth. Listen to what these kids are saying:  Youth Caregivers Tell Their Stories


1. blessedbebeth - Middlescapes.com - August 6, 2012

If there was an Olympics for Caregiving, you my friend clearly be that gold medalist. Can’t wait to see this reality come to fruition. woot woot.

2. lapetinaa - August 6, 2012

Having a course on the basics of caregiving would be so helpful. People are living much longer lives these days and we are ill-prepared to take care of them when they need us!

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