In August 2021, when my 62-year-old mother said hello on FaceTime, she was holding the side of her jaw, grimacing. She was in anguish, but kept repeating, “I’m OK, I’m OK.”

At the time, my mom was living in Bellingham, Washington, two years into providing unpaid live-in care for her father-in-law (my step-grandfather, who I reluctantly call “Grandpa,” despite not having much of a relationship with him). He was suffering from debilitating cancer and heart disease. But providing home care to him came at a price to my mom’s health, safety, financial security, and family. The job was all-consuming: She quit painting and gardening, which she loved, and she grew isolated from her own children and grandkids during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My mom’s experience is not unique. She is among the roughly one in five Americans who provides care to an adult or child with special needs. Of the estimated 48 million people caring for adults, about 41.8 million provide unpaid care, just like my mother. While the work of unpaid caregivers is deeply undervalued, paid home care workers struggle too. Roughly 2 million people make up the home care workforce, which is 86% women, 60% people of color, and 14% immigrants. According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, nearly 20% of these workers live in poverty, with an average hourly wage of $12.12 and annual earnings of $17,200.

In 2019, Grandpa had asked for my mother’s help in exchange for room and board. The offer came just when she was on the brink of homelessness. But keeping up with the demands of caring for Grandpa meant she put her own health needs last. She hadn’t seen a dentist in years, and her jaw pain traced back to an abscessed tooth that eventually would have to be pulled, along with three others. It was the first in a series of health issues that would eventually land her in the hospital.

In addition, the home environment began to feel unsafe for my mother. Shady visitors would show up at the house to do odd jobs and steal stuff. Grandpa also hoarded newspapers, and my mother worried about the potential fire hazard the stacks could create.

Read the full article about unpaid care by Julie Poole at YES! Magazine.