I know so many people who are caregivers. Or who have recently been through an extended period of caregiving. Some were caring for an aging parent or parent-in-law. Some were caring for a beloved spouse. Some were caring for an ailing child. Some were employed as a caregiver. Whatever the case, I salute them all.
Caregiving is not easy. Especially for those who do it day in and day out, without cease. It can be physically demanding, as there is often a lot of lifting and transferring involved. But mostly it is emotionally and often spiritually draining. Many care to the point of collapse.
Many people are pushed into the role when someone they love is declining in health and rolling toward that ultimate gateway. Caring for someone who is dying is hard. Even for those of us who believe in an afterlife, to face the loss of someone beloved is gut-wrenchingly difficult.
I have cared for and about many hospice patients in my role as a hospice chaplain and bereavement counselor. I’ve cared for my own parents for several years, including my dear father who passed last February. And I’ve cared for several clients on a private basis. Of the six clients I’ve cared for in the last two and a quarter years, all have died. I can tell you from experience, it takes its toll.
But right now I’m especially thinking of those I love who are caring for or have cared for their spouses. I truly cannot imagine that pain.
My dear Aunt Louise has been caring for her husband for quite a few years now. His mental capabilities were floundering and so she had to remain with him all the time to make sure, for instance, that he didn’t turn on the water at the sink and leave it running until it flooded the bathroom. Or that he didn’t disassemble some needed piece of equipment and leave it lying on the counter in pieces. In addition, she was the one who had to listen to endless repetitions of stories told over and over and over again. The stress of caring for him became so pronounced that she had a stroke from which her speech has still not completely recovered.
My elder friend Carol cared for her soulmate for several years as his Parkinson’s steadily progressed. This tall, vital, virile man to with whom she had been wildly in love had become curled up in his bed, able to do very little with his body, but with a mind that was still quite sharp and a spirit full of gentleness and wisdom to the very end. Carol willingly gave up all her time to assist him with his daily needs. Paid caregivers, including me, would come in for a few hours each day to help with bathing, etc., but Carol was the one who remained always nearby, always attentive, always loving with an endless love. It has been over a year since his death and she still wears black, still actively grieves.
My friend Vince cared for his beloved wife for many years as first her body and then her mind began to falter. He willingly and lovingly cooked all her meals – even making bread and healthy cookies from scratch on a weekly basis. He did all the laundry, kept the fire going in the winter, bought the groceries, transferred her on and off the toilet, made sure she got her meds and sufficient fluids. He was devoted. And he did it all way beyond the endurance of most of us. Until he hit the wall. Like many of us, he did it till he no longer could.
Many of us hit the wall before our loved one passes. We try so hard, we love so much, and then suddenly we crash and burn.
I, too, hit a wall. I had been living with my parents so that I could assist them both – my mother who had had a heart attack and small stroke plus long-term diabetes plus edema and urinary tract infections, and my father who had early Alzheimer’s. I willingly and lovingly did it for sixteen months, though I was in a state of complete exhaustion most of the time. Then one day I took Mom out shopping at her request. After about half an hour, she became too weak to stand—right there in the middle of a large department store and far away from any chair, far away from the exit, far away from the car. I was trying to get her to stop because I could see what was coming. She wanted to keep going not just because she loved to shop, but because she wanted to buy something for me. Ironically it was this wanting to do something nice, that ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The next day I broke down. My sister-in-law, who helped a great deal, had stopped in. When she went to hug me, I held on tight and found myself dissolving into tears. Between sobs I said, “I just can’t do it anymore.” And from that moment on she stepped in to try to get some paid caregivers on board.
Another friend was caring for her beloved mother who had Alzheimer’s. She did it for years. She cared beautifully and lovingly. And she, too, hit a wall. She, too, after years of selfless service got to a breaking point. She wrote a letter to her family, left it on the table, then just left. (She did come back after a couple days.)
It is not unusual for some of us to get to a point where we just can’t do it anymore. But I also know people who were able to hang in there until the very day their loved one died. I will always have the utmost admiration for those who were able to be so present for so long. Each one of these people, and all the millions I don’t know, have surely earned a place in heaven.
How can we support these people? According to MetLife, “the number of people taking care of an aging parent has soared in the past 15 years. MetLife estimates that nearly 10 million adult children over age 50 now care for an aging parent…. In 2008, 17 percent of men and 28 percent of women provided such care, which is defined as helping with dressing, feeding, bathing, and other personal care needs. This level of help goes well beyond grocery shopping, driving parents to appointments, and helping them with financial matters. And it’s more stressful as well.” (http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/the-best-life/2011/07/18/10-tips-for-caring-for-aging-parents)
The kindest thing we can do when someone is in this situation is offer a little help. Be specific. Don’t just say, “If there’s anything I can do….” Offer to sit with the parent (or whomever) for a couple hours a week so the caregiver can have a break. Or offer to pick up some items at the grocery store or bring over a cooked meal. All of this really does help. Especially any bit of respite which can be offered. Especially if the respite can be offered on a regular basis.
Most caregivers feel like they’re all alone. They don’t know how to ask for help and so they just slog along, day by day, due the best they can in spite of unending fatigue and stress.
Yesterday I ran into a friend who had been caring for an extraordinary 97-year-old woman. This woman had been a dynamo—fighting for women’s rights, tirelessly championing various causes. She even drove a car up to the age of 96. (Though I don’t recommend that!) But then, finally, she become ill and quite weak.
My friend confided to me that one day he had been wiping her back side. (Sadly, he said, she just couldn’t do it anymore.) Then he had an epiphany. He said he realized what an honor it was. It was the equivalent of kissing the feet of a guru.
I love that. If only we could all learn to treat one another with such respect.
Our elders are worthy of that respect. And so are those who care for them. Bless them all.