You hear a lot these days about how people don’t care about each other any more. How in the good old days…blah blah blah. Such comments make me wonder how it was that they used to have County Poor Farms in those good old days, if people looked after each other so well.
Today, it may surprise you to know, two-thirds of all Americans are looking after someone. That someone may be an older family member, a friend, a neighbor. It may also be a grandchild, an aunt, a teenager who is not your child.
It may even be that angry old man – a stranger – who demanded a ride home from the Post Office from you. That one you took on because, when you got him home, you saw by the state of his house that he was beyond his own help. So you took him on anyway, even though he hasn’t once said thank-you for anything you’ve done, because you saw the shame and terror in his eyes.
These things are happening all the time right now in our society. There’s an awful lot of looking-after going on in this country today. And that’s a good thing for two reasons. One is that we have the biggest generation of elders ever just riding on over the hill. Two is that we have less health resources than ever available to look after these folks and care costs more than ever.
Caregiving is therefore a very necessary part of daily life. Thank goodness so many people rise to the occasion. Everywhere I go to give workshops and seminars on caregiving, I’m impressed with the kindness, sincerity and determination of people to do the task well. I’m humbled by the courage and forgiveness people bring to it.
Caregiving is especially challenging because we dropped some important traditional rites of passage in the 20th century that we now need in the 21st.
We died in hospitals instead of at home. We gave birth in hospitals instead of at home. We lived longer by avoiding those early childhood plagues that killed a quarter of young children. Then we separated into age tribes, so we don’t always know those in a different age group at all.
That means there’s a lot of practical stuff we didn’t learn naturally. Now people learn it the long hard way. Being a caregiver to a family member can be harder than serving in Iraq. It can strip your heart naked and you won’t always like what you see about yourself.
As one man said in a support group, “It takes us five years to learn how to look after someone. Then they die and the job finishes. If only we could start off knowing more.”
So here are my suggestions for the three Golden Rules of start-up caregiving.
1. The caregiver decides how much outside help is needed. Those receiving care don’t get to say they don’t want anyone else to help when the help burden falls on the other person.
2. The caregiver makes a self-care plan from the very beginning because, let’s face it, do you want to be looked after by an angry over-stressed caregiver who didn’t get enough sleep? No, neither do I.
3. The caregiver makes a solemn and silent vow to be honest about the issues of forgiveness, letting go and being here in the present moment. Any caregiver will tell you, the most demanding issues are those that involve our own inner feelings and reactions. So, that is where we start equipping ourselves for the real task of caregiving.
The major work that caregivers do is the work within, on themselves. Without that, both parties will be praying for death to save them from each other.
Looking after another person touches every part of who we are – all our good and all our bad. That’s why it’s hard. We have to face some things about ourselves we didn’t want to see
However, for those who take that jump, caregiving is also a gift which gives far more than it takes. Sitting with the dying, for example, is immeasurably difficult but also a time of great radiance. Walk slowly even once to the gates of death with another human being and you will never be the same again.
But if you never do it, you never get to find that out. Meanwhile please don’t try to be that noble caregiver doing everything alone. No-one will like you better for it, not even you — and certainly not the one you’re looking after.
Sleep. Eat. Love. Forgive. Those are the central arts of caregiving. Oh yes, plus, never be too proud to ask an expert how to do something properly because all the sleeping, eating, loving and forgiving in the world doesn’t make your undies comfortable if a caregiver got them on you just a little bit wrong.
Most caregiving we do alone. Especially family caregiving. Because of that it’s easy to forget how many of us there are. We are millions. A huge army carrying out the task of humans caring for each other. We’re everywhere. In small towns. In hilly cabins. In cities. In every place that Americans live. That’s where you find us caregivers.
Never forget that. Find the others. Go to support groups. Speak out. Attend meetings. Get what you need. And look for the rest of us.
Article By: Frena Gray-Davidson
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