Caring for the Caretakers

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 was awarded jointly to Ph.D.’s Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.


Telomeres have been likened to the protective aglets or tips at the ends of shoelaces that prevent them from unravelling.  Their function was elucidated by studying Tetrahymena. Literally “pond scum”, Dr. Blackburn nevertheless describes the single-celled organism as almost adorable when observed under a microscope.


Look at Tetrahymena long enough, Dr. Blackburn suggests, and  it bears some resemblance to Bip Bippadotta, the Muppet best-known for the infectious song “Mahna Mahna” …


In her new book, The Telomere Effect, Elizabeth teams up with stress researcher Elissa Epel, Ph.D., to offer some valuable insights on the effects of counterproductive stress on the length of telomeres.  It is as if the fraying of one’s nerves can cumulatively cause the telomeres to shorten, thereby exposing cells to damage almost in the way a shoelace threads bare by the aglet falling off its tip.


Drs. Blackburn and Epel discuss how devastating shortened telomeres or the lack of telomerase can be on caretakers who are stressed to the fraying point. It’s as if one is literally sacrificing part of one’s lifespan for another individual.  For a parent under the weight of responsibility for a special needs child, every year of caretaking can shorten the caretakers’ life by as much as six years.  Yet research is also pointing toward interventions that offer hope for repair and renewal at the cellular level.

I believe this question of “Who Is Caring For The Caretakers?” is a crucial one.  One of the observations in The Telomere Effect is how vital support groups can be in helping mitigate counterproductive stress.  In that regard, Vision Therapy Parents Unite remains a very strong community that deals with many of the issues caretakers in our practices struggle with.

  • Do I have to come in weekly?
  • Can I be in therapy room with my child?
  • Can the same therapist work with my child each time?
  • How can I afford to do this, yet how can I afford not to?

It also raises the issue of the empathy on both sides of the equation.  We know that for children to benefit from vision therapy, consistency and continuity of care is the key to success.  Yet many of the children and their caretakers are spread thin, their shoelaces fraying at the edges, trying to prioritize their appointments and therapeutic regimens. Ultimately the mutual respect between the caretakers for the professional approach and guidance within our practices, and the sensitivity of our staff to the needs of children and their caretakers, forms the essence of a bond that fortifies the aglets of our soles.


2 thoughts on “Caring for the Caretakers

  1. Thanks for posting this important message. We know that reducing stress in the visual system reduces the stress level of the entire body and brain. The plausible relationship between telomere length, memory and vision therapy is promising.

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