“They Were Never Defeated, Only Killed” (said of the French Foreign Legion)

I was reading The Book of Choices by Mike Magee, MD and came upon this quote. So just out of curiosity I did a web search for information on the French Foreign Legion. What I discovered were some striking similarities between legionnaires and caregivers.

The French Foreign Legion is an elite force made up of volunteers from all races, creeds, and nationalities with a mission to carry out their duties to the end. Among the reasons for joining is a family crisis. Legionnaires are dedicated to the cause and refuse to be defeated; are strong, courageous, and loyal; and share a strong bond of solidarity. Legionnaires will never abandon their posts and under no circumstances surrender.

Caregivers too, are an elite force of more than 29 million strong and most have joined the ranks because of a family crisis. They come from all walks of life, are strong courageous and loyal, and share solidarity in their struggles – which are many: They struggle to greet each day with optimism and hope; and struggle to cope with the unthinkable and the unknown. They will never abandon their loved ones and never surrender to defeat. They are special people doing special work out of a sense of love, loyalty, and responsibility. And sadly, like Legionnaires some die.

Caregivers give to their loved ones at the expense of their own health and stress is the dreaded enemy. Stress is the greatest risk factor for depression and the initiator of dangerous health events. Spousal caregivers are six times more likely, and adult children two times more likely, than the general public to suffer from depression. Depression has a harmful effect on the immune system putting caregivers at risk for heart disease, cancer, and death. This is never truer than in older spousal caregivers. Their risk of early death is 60% greater than non-caregivers their age. So, the question is: What can caregivers do to lessen their risk of illness and untimely death? The answer is: Plan scheduled time off to have fun and be happy.

It is very easy to give advice, but very difficult to accept. Many caregivers suffer pangs of guilt when they think about getting away or letting go. Thoughts like “How can I enjoy myself when my loved one can’t?” “It is selfish to think of my own needs” and “What would people think?” run through their minds. If getting past the guilt is too difficult, counseling will help. Joining a support group is also beneficial. Sharing experiences with others in a safe environment provides a sense of understanding and belonging that improves self-confidence. Taking time to relax and enjoy life is not selfish – it is self-caring.

Caregiving is a full time job and typically not the only one a caregiver holds. About 14 million caregivers are employed and, according to one study, they can lose more than $600,000 in income and retirement benefits over their “caregiving career”. They can also exhaust all their leave time, get passed over for promotions, and lose their jobs. If full time employees are provided vacation time, sick days, personal days, and set hours of work a week, why don’t caregivers get the same perks? After all, they are their own employers. No one can work without a break –eventually work will break the person.

A New York politician by the name of Roy M. Goodman once said, “Happiness is a way of travel – not a destination” – and so should the means of travel be on the caregiving journey.

Having fun is pertinent to being happy. Things that are fun are pleasurable, exciting, enjoyable, or amusing and are as simple as sharing a laugh with a friend, reading a good book, or browsing through an antique shop.

Respite services such as Adult Day Centers, home care, and short-term housing provide caregivers safe travel on their long journeys. If money is an issue some of these may be free, or at least available at a reduced cost. It only takes one phone call to the local Area Agency on Aging to find out. Choosing to use respite services is not surrendering to defeat, it is fortifying the armory to maintain the post.

To never be defeated in battle is admirable, but to die prematurely is to give up the war.


Mary C. Fridley