Laura George was newly pregnant with her first child when her husband was paralyzed in a hit-and-run accident near their home in Florida. She has since created an online resource for others with spinal cord injuries who are navigating legal and other issues. Laura was recently chosen as one of several semifinalists selected for the National Family Caregiver of the Year Award.
Three years ago, Homewatch CareGivers started the annual National Family Caregiver of the Year Award because they wanted to honor people like Laura. The 2011 winner was recently selected and awarded $10,000 in cash, a scholarship to the Homewatch CareGivers University and a day of respite care.
The 2011 semifinalists also included the following:
Rhonda Aubrey of Houston, Texas has gone from part-time visiting caregiver to her elderly parents to live-in full-time caregiver, even after the death of her own 23-year-old daughter in a car accident and her only brother becoming disabled after an illness. Before 2001 she was a full-time working mother of two children.
Patricia Hurt of Las Vegas, Nevada is the mother of six children, one of whom has been severely disabled from birth 21 years ago. Ms. Hurt homeschools her 8-year-old daughter so that she can provide 24-hour care to Amanda, her disabled daughter.
Andrew Weigel of Goshen, Ohio was the average 20-year-old college student until his mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Then he quit school and moved home to care for his mother and his teenage brother who was still in high school. His mother is a single parent to her sons.
Dana Whitacre of Lakeside Park, Kentucky had her world completely change three years ago when her husband was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). She has become his caregiver while still raising their three children and has since returned to nursing school to be able to provide for her family in the future.
Deb Albright of Hudsonville, Michigan became a single mother and found out the youngest of her three children had Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy all in the same year. She decided to homeschool her son starting in the 2nd grade and even attended college with him (he now has a Bachelor's degree). A friend quotes her as saying, "As a family, we just decided to never give up."
Vickie Parson of Lyndhurst, Virginia was nominated for the award by her husband, who has witnessed the toll his wife's caregiving has taken on her relationships with her children, grandchildren and siblings. Mrs. Parson cares for her mother, who has dementia, and her 54-year-old sister, who has had mental and physical disabilities since a childhood accident. She also cared for her brother and father until their deaths, and in each instance making good on promises to keep them at home -- even her own home -- as long as possible.
Behind each one of these deeply-moving stories is the reality that these caregivers need care for themselves. Many of them have had significant financial hardships directly related to their decision to be devoted family caregivers. Others are dealing with stress, depression and other mental and physical ailments that compound their problems. And each of them has navigated a world of obstacles -- wheelchair access, health care funding, a public school education, and more -- that they did not even know existed prior to their roles as family caregivers.
For the selection committee, it was a huge honor to have these remarkable caregivers share their life stories.
It can be quite challenging to select just one winner from the many applicants around the country who make up the 65 million family caregivers in the United States. All of these individuals are giving so much to care for a loved one -- whether it is an ill spouse, disabled child or elderly parent -- that they are all deserving of our appreciation and thanks.
"What set the winner apart -- and it was very difficult to choose -- was the extent of her caring for two different family members," said Susan Lutz, project manager of Education and Outreach at AARP and one of the 10 National Family Caregiver of the Year judges. "She also managed to hang onto a job and be very positive."
The National Family Caregiver of the Year Award process begins at the local level. Family caregivers are nominated by a third party who is sometimes another family member, a professional caregiver or a friend. Each of the winners at the local level become semifinalists for the national contest.
To read the grand prize winner's story, click here.