Heather McHugh is a successful poet and recipient of a MacArthur Fellows
Award in 2009, but it was the birth of her godson’s daughter with
special needs that inspired her to create
CAREGIFTED. This non-profit gives respite getaways to long-term caregivers in need
of a refreshing vacation. The prize money from the MacArthur award (often
referred to as “MacArthur Genius Grants” of over $500,000
are given to people “who have shown extraordinary originality and
dedication in their creative pursuits.”) was used to start CAREGIFTED.
McHugh shared the latest on CAREGIFTED with us in an email interview.
1. How do you decide which caregivers will receive a vacation?
We have a selection committee (which always contains a minimum of at least
one medical professional and one CAREGIFTED board member).
2. How many people have a received one of these vacations so far and how
many are planned?
We're focusing on documentary film details this year (the film will
be entitled UNDERSUNG and should be released next summer); we're also
attending to some important administrative and outreach matters, as we
did in early 2012; but every year that we've been actively doing getaways
we've hosted about 10 caregivers. We have a new Vancouver Island microloft
destination scheduled for completion in the summer of 2016, and after
that, we expect to be able to double the number of caregiver getaways
we offer annually.
3. Can you talk about how important it is for caregivers to get a break
Oh, one can hardly begin to imagine it. I had thought a week off for people
doing lifelong service like this would be merely a drop in the bucket.
For one thing, I thought there would surely be other nonprofits offering
free weeklong getaway vacations to such full-time long-term unacknowledged
caregivers-- apparently not. For another thing: it seems (or so they tell
me) that TIME actually changes for caregivers on getaway. (To some degree,
we can all imagine that, from our own vacations during stressful times.)
But caregivers seldom ever get a break-- and when they do, they almost
never plan anything just for themselves. They build up a service skill
they fear no one can replicate, and they wear down their own health in
that assumption-- threatening everything, long term.
But the getaways wean them from the over-scheduled pressure and tension
of their daily lives, and give them a chance to reflect on life as a whole,
from a different perspective, and at a different angle, in a different
landscape. And they frequently return home to find that the impression
doesn't pass: That the change confers something of a more permanent
One caregiver reported that (ever since her son was diagnosed with a condition
that would never permit him to survive without 24/7 caregiving) she had
felt as though she bore a huge stone in her chest, depressing her heart.
On the getaway she said she felt that stone lift, giving her breathing
room, and a reprieve from pain; she expected the sense of burden to return
when she got home.
But she was surprised to report that even though some unforeseeable trying
circumstances befell them in the weeks soon after her return, the stone-in-the-chest
feeling has not come back to weigh her down. None of us had expected so
thorough-going a benefit as most of these caregivers report.
One of the greatest burdens for caregivers is the degree to which their
service to the severely disabled has isolated them from the world of ordinary
(and restorative) adult contacts, conversations and commerce. Apparently
being lifted out of the life for which they've assumed responsibility,
even just for a week, lifts them out of despair-- and reminds them that
who they once were, they still are, only greatly deepened and enriched
(where before their getaways they had feared they had reached the point
of being forever diminished by isolation and loss of freedoms). Needless
to say, such a shift-- afforded by release from time (and more-than-full-time
service), and access to dramatically-inspiring offerings of nature and
art-- are priceless in restoring some sense of peace and hope to these
What could be more consistent with the season, than such insights into
the premises of human health and joyfulness?