On Monday, Steven Slater, a JetBlue flight attendant, apparently lost his cool and quit his job on the spot in a way that many stressed out employees only fantasize about. He allegedly cursed out his passengers and fled the plane by deploying the emergency slide, not without first grabbing a beer on his way down.
While the news has spurred a flood of humorous response, online debate and empathetic support including a legal defense fund for Slater, there’s no denying that his actions seem to have been brought on by severe stress. He’s now elevated to near folk-hero status despite the fact that he faces 7 years in prison on charges of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and trespassing.
What many don’t know about Slater is that, on top of his job as a flight attendant which many of us consider one of the most stressful jobs out there, he was also caring for his ailing parents in Thousand Oaks, California. This was reported by the NY Times in the initial coverage on Monday.
According to his former roommate and a neighbor of his parents, Slater was caring for his sick mother while also caring for his father as he was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. According to the neighbor, Ron Franz, “It could be the pressure of his mother’s illness, because that’s not the type of behavior or conduct that Steve exhibits. He is a very conscientious, responsible individual.”
From the perspective of family caregiving, I think this incident highlights a massively underexposed issue of CAREGIVER STRESS. Our nation’s elderly over 65+ is the fastest growing segment of the population replete with chronic and long term illnesses. Due to the oncoming “silver tsunami” along with rising costs of healthcare, the responsibilities of their care are falling on their families. Millions of people like Steven Slater are juggling stressful jobs along with the emotional and physical stress of caring for aging parents.
In my work with eCareDiary.com, I hear from so many individuals who have shared personal stories about contracting illness, losing their jobs, giving up their businesses and depleting their life savings over the enormous demands of caregiving. In my own family, my uncle was recently diagnosed with cancer in the midst caring for my 92 year old grandfather. Another woman wrote me about how she was diagnosed with breast cancer while caring for multiple aging relatives.
According to a recent study by the Met Life Mature Market Institute, “Employees in the U.S. who are caring for an older relative are more likely to report health problems like depression, diabetes, hypertension or heart disease, costing employers an estimated average additional health care cost of 8% per year, or $13.4 billion annually." What’s worse, according to the National Alliance for Family Caregivers, many caregivers don’t even outlive the loved one’s they care for.
Setting aside how stressful it is these days to travel by air, as a caregiver to my grandmother for 7 years and then to my father-in-law all while holding down a demanding full time job, I can definitely empathize with Slater. As a caregiver, you are already stressed either from dealing with complicated relatives or from the sheer worrying about your loved one’s health. As a caregiver, when you think you have no energy left, the situation gets worse and your limit gets pushed.
I am not condoning his actions, but as a caregiver who has been pushed beyond my limits, I can certainly understand how Slater “lost it.” In a way, he has become my “hero” because his actions have placed a spotlight on caregiver stress. I’m amazed and annoyed that none of the reports on this incident have honed in on this aspect of his life as if it were just matter of fact that he was caring for a sick mother.
How many of us have felt like Slater, on the verge of “losing it”? How many of us have just wanted to do our jobs but complicated clients or co-workers make it difficult? How many times have we felt like we’ve reached our limit?
I pose these question to caregivers out there to seize the moment and be heard!