CaringBridge Lends Support to Caregivers

Creating personal connections online

By Susan Hindman

Caregivers are tasked with the toughest of jobs: balancing the stress of tending to a sick loved one with the emotional drain of answering questions from those concerned. It can be the loneliest time, yet caregivers are in the company of millions. More than 50 million people provide care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged loved one in any given year, according to the National Family Caregivers Association, which organizes National Caregivers Month every November.

Twelve years ago, Sona Mehring created a Web site that would give caregivers a hand. CaringBridge provides free Web sites within its own site for anyone going through a health crisis, where they can leave messages about progress and needs. Since then, more than 150,000 families have created personalized sites, over half a billion people have visited the sites, and more than 20 million messages of encouragement have been left. Every 10 minutes, a new site is created.

The numbers are big, but Mehring still works hard to get the word out. “In the U.S. alone, 4,000 people are being diagnosed with cancer every day,” she said. “Those 4,000 people need to know about CaringBridge.” A variety of ailments are represented, but “more than half the site is about some kind of cancer.” Her inspiration to start CaringBridge was a close friend’s premature and very sick baby. When her own mother was gravely ill with cancer a few years ago, she used the well-established site to keep family and friends informed.

CaringBridge is designed to be simple to set up and navigate. “We have an Aunt Betty factor,” she jokes. “We make sure that this is a system that can be used and easily understood by older people.” The site has plenty of space for journal entries, where updates are given, and you can post pictures. You control who gets access to your site, and those visitors can add comments to the guestbook.

The idea that connections so deep and so personal can be made through technology really surprises the older generation, which tends to distrust computers and the Internet, she said. Her favorite comment is from an older gentleman who used the site and said, “Finally, a good use for a computer!”

Mehring regularly hears from people who tell her about the difference this had made in their lives. “I had one mom call me—her son was quite ill—and she said, ‘You saved my life. You’re a mother’s survival.’” She pauses for a moment; it still chokes her up.

The postings of support and encouragement are invaluable. Caregivers often fall ill while taking caring of others, she said, because they feel isolated and feel they cannot reach out and ask for things. Her advice? Take care of yourself and tell people what you need. “Having been in that role with my mother,” she said, “it’s easy to fall in the trap of being a martyr, of really giving until you can’t give anymore.” So, “If you need a break sitting at the bedside, ask for that. . . . Some people cannot verbalize their requests, but they can write them.”

Published November 25, 2008

Susan Hindman
Silver Planet Feature Writer

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