Every November we acknowledge the special services our nation’s 43 million family caregivers contribute to their loved ones and our country.

Family caregivers are our unsung heroes, selflessly assuming the responsibility of overseeing the health and well being of a loved one when they are unable to care for themselves. Family caregivers come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the young couple attending to a child with special needs or a spouse supporting their partner to adolescents caring for their elders. Oftentimes, what we hear about the most however, are adult children caring for their elderly parents. While tasks may differ, all caregivers experience emotional and physical upheaval resulting from their newfound roles.

Over the last 15 years, I have been talking with and researching family caregivers to better understand the factors that enable some caregivers to lead happy, balanced lives. Although there are many different factors at play, I’ve found that the family caregivers who find purpose in their lives beyond their caregiving responsibilities boost their day-to-day happiness.

Marian Hamilton, the founder of The Ken Hamilton Caregivers Center http://nwch.net/about-us/patient-centered/khcc at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, New York, is one such caregiver who channeled her emotional upset into a positive experience, creating a network of support resources to bolster tens of thousands of family caregivers.

Like many in her shoes, Marian became a family caregiver in a split-second one Friday afternoon in 2002. Marian’s husband received word from his doctor that he had a fatal form of lung cancer known as Mesothelioma. Marian had no warning, no instruction manual, just horrific news and a pressing need to sort out how to care for Ken while attending to the needs of their two teenage daughters.

Over the course of the next two years, Marian and Ken tried everything possible to extend Ken’s life. Unfortunately, Ken lost his battle with Mesothelioma in 2004. Although 13 years have passed since Marian’s life abruptly changed, the raw feelings she and her family faced remain as vivid and emotionally charged as they were in 2002.

During our conversation, Marian clearly remembered experiencing isolation, depression, mental and physical fatigue, and a profound sense of loneliness. After hearing Ken’s cancer had worsened in the hospital lobby, she recalls sobbing uncontrollably. But despite the throng of people around her, not one person came up to her to offer a word of consolation. She felt like an island, unreachable, untouchable.

This single moment created a deep impression on Marian and galvanized a need within her to help other caregivers in similar situations. Specifically: Marian wanted to create an oasis for family caregivers within hospitals where their loved ones were being treated…a respite where they could focus on their needs while seeking counseling and professional support without judgment.

In 2004 Marian dedicated herself to bringing this idea to life. She conducted market research with family and professional caregivers to determine the in-hospital support services that would best fit their needs. She identified Northern Westchester Hospital as a possible partner for The Ken Hamilton Caregivers Center, as a leader in patient-centered care Northern Westchester would provide the focus and commitment necessary for the family caregiver program to succeed. She raised over $500,000 to ensure that the introduction of this service was not a financial burden to the hospital. Marian then found a team of dedicated people to initiate the service.

Being rooted in the local community of a partnering hospital is a core tenant of Marian’s vision. The concentration of local support for this effort is where patients, hospital healthcare professionals and support volunteers (most of whom are active or former family caregivers) would all interact with caregivers during their loved one’s hospital stay.

In 2007 the Center officially opened its doors within Northern Westchester Hospital. And, the service has had a tremendous impact on the caregiving community. Over the last eight years, The Ken Hamilton Caregivers Center has engaged with family caregivers over 50,000 times, addressing issues such as plan-of-care meetings, family caregiver support groups, advance directives, local resource referrals, end-of-life instructions and at times just simply lending a compassionate ear to listen to a caregiver’s thoughts and emotions.

Marian and Northern Westchester Hospital have become torchbearers for caregiver support and their example has invited inquiries from hospitals across the country. As of 2015, The Ken Hamilton Caregivers Center has consulted and provided an operational footprint and support for 11 additional hospital caregiver facilities each replicating the Center’s approach and services within their respective local communities. In September 2014, Marian’s efforts were further recognized with a “Caregiver of the Year” award from the Caregiver Action Network.

As a family caregiver, Marian has walked in the shoes of fellow caregivers and was generous enough to share three key lessons that she learned:

1. Be kind to yourself. Recognize the good you are doing for a loved one and feel proud that you rose to the occasion.
2. Do something for yourself everyday; call it a small emotional vacation and banish feelings of guilt.
3. Take up offers of help sooner rather than later. And if you need help, don’t be shy about asking! Most people want to help, they just don’t know how.

Marian Hamilton is living proof that one person can make a positive difference for many. By helping herself find a greater purpose, Marian, The Ken Hamilton Caregivers Center and Northern Westchester Hospital have created an oasis for family caregivers, helping thousands of family caregivers every day.

Help yourself. Help others.