Giving Carers a Break

By Alyssa Jung

Heather McHugh won $500,000 and had a ‘genius’ idea.

Giving Carers a Break

When Heather McHugh, now 67, won a $500,000 ‘genius grant’ from the MacArthur Foundation, a philanthropic institution dedicated to supporting creativity, she didn’t buy a Maserati or fly to Paris. Instead, the Seattle-based poet put the money in the bank and continued teaching university courses and writing poetry. “I was just stunned,” says Heather.

It wasn’t until about two years later, in 2011, that she finally decided what to do with it.

That year, Heather’s godson and his wife welcomed their first child, a baby girl who was born severely disabled; doctors didn’t think she’d ever be able to walk, talk or feed herself. “I saw how people’s lives can change overnight. I started thinking about all the people on this Earth who are in the same situation,” says Heather.

She discovered there are millions of caregivers in the US taking care of the chronically ill or disabled day and night. “It’s a heartbreaking contract of love, and who but a poet would be lit up by that notion?” she says. So in 2012, Heather formed Caregifted, a non-profit organisation that offers a seven-day, all-expenses-paid holiday to Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, to people who have been caregivers for at least ten years. “It’s hard physical, psychological and emotional work. It’s clear they deserve and need a respite,” she says.

Tricia Elsner was one of the first caregivers to go on holiday, in 2013. The single mother of 19-year-old triplet boys, two of whom have severe autism, had her hands full. Ian would throw tantrums almost daily; he screamed and jumped up and down so hard that it shook the house and knocked nails off the gutters. Every time this happened, it set off Conner, who would lash out at Ian; when anyone tried to stop him, he would bang his head on the floor or try to hurt someone else. “It was not a fun life. I felt overwhelmed,” says Tricia.

When Tricia, now 51, got a phone call saying Caregifted wanted to send her to Eastport, Maine (caregivers used to be given the option of four locations), she couldn’t believe someone would pay for her to go on a holiday; disbelief gave way to concern about leaving Ian and Conner.

Caregifted doesn’t pay for care for the disabled during the holiday, so Tricia arranged that on her own. But after two days away, the worry was gone. “Since the boys were diagnosed at three years old, I’ve felt like there’s this big rock wedged in my chest. After being in Maine by myself, with nobody to take care of or think about except myself, I realised that rock was gone,” says Tricia.

Tricia went kayaking and exploring, but her favourite parts of the trip were indulging in the simple things. “I got to eat hot food hot and cold food cold. I could go to bed when I wanted to and wake up whenever I chose to,” says Tricia. “I felt free.”

She was afraid the heaviness would return when the week was over, but to her surprise, it hasn’t been back since.

Heather says Tricia’s story resembles those of the other ten caregivers she helps every year. “They arrive at their hotel suite so crushed, and the transformation is amazing. They reflect and relax. They tell me it feels magically like another world and gives them a chance to see their lives from another perspective,” Heather adds. “Everybody needs restorative time. For some, it’s life-extending.”

Tricia and the other guests aren’t the only ones to benefit from Caregifted; Heather has, too.

“I thought I was the queen of love, being a poet,” Heather says. “But I didn’t know a thing about love until I met these people.”

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