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Practical Caregiving

Going for the Gusto in Life

By Jean Donahue

My father was a very wise man. He was far from perfect, but I learned so much from him. One of the lessons I learned was something I didnít even realize for many years. It helped me through many trials Ė especially taking care of my parents their last years.

When Dad was about 80, he began to wonder if he should continue to go south in the winter and north in the summer. He didnít say anything to me, but I noticed that he seemed to be carrying a heavy weight. I knew that many of the friends he had known for years had died, and I attributed his manner to that loss. What I didnít know was that he was thinking about the end of his life.

That year he did go south for the winter. He watched as the friends he had enjoyed lived their life. He watched as some died in their winter homes. He did a lot of thinking. When he came home in the spring he was a changed man. He was happy and wanted to do things while he was here. He took me and my kids to things he had stopped attending. He wanted to show them all the fun things he enjoyed. He had that lust for life that he was missing for a year or two. In fact, it wasnít for a couple years that he told me about that experience.

Dad said that he realized he was getting older and he wondered if he should continue doing the things he wanted to do. He didnít know if he should continue to travel. He said he watched the people in the retirement area he stayed in and saw them enjoying life. He saw them making plans for the future.

Then there were the other people who had decided their life was coming to an end, even though they were healthy, and they were very depressed. They were afraid to do anything. They were afraid to leave a certain doctor or medical clinic. They were afraid to go golfing. They had basically given up on living. Once they sat down and quit living, it wasnít long before they actually died. The people that planned for the future seemed to live much longer and enjoy life more.

Dad decided that he couldnít decide anything simply because of his age. He decided he was going to do things he enjoyed and plan for the future. When something did happen, he would have to change those plans, but he was going to do everything he could to live a long and happy life. He decided he wasnít going to sit down and wait to die. Dad lived until he was 94, and Mom lived until she was 90 Ė and they didnít need my full-time help until four years before they died.

When the time came for me to take care of my parents, I thought about what Dad had said. I decided I didnít want either one of them to just sit down and wait to die. I wanted them to enjoy the rest of their life as much as possible. What I didnít know was how I was going to do that. I didnít know how hard it would be for them Ė or me.

The first two years we traveled, so it was fairly easy for all of us to be excited about life. Mom had Alzheimerís disease and had progressed to the point of being a little child. She could have been content staying home. Dad was a different story. He wanted to continue doing the things he had always enjoyed. Almost everyone told him (and me) that he should stay home and stop traveling. At least, that he should not go so far away from home. But he didnít want to, and his words kept coming back to my mind. He didnít want to just sit down and wait to die. I knew that if it were me, I wouldnít want to either.

As a caregiver, there were other times when I remembered what Dad said. The last two years we were at home because Dad couldnít travel any longer. It would have been so easy to not take them to senior dinners. It would have been so easy to let them stay in the house all the time. It would have been so easy to not do everything I could to help them get over the illnesses, such as pneumonia. It would have been so easy to turn on the television and not do anything to improve their life Ė or mine. I couldnít do that, though. All of us needed to get out and enjoy life as much as possible. They may have been old, but they were still alive. They needed to enjoy life as much as possible Ė and I needed for them enjoy life as much as possible. I felt like a mother taking care of her small children again. I needed to nourish them and improve their lives as much as possible.

Then there were the times I applied those words to myself. I knew why I was taking care of my parents and I knew the outcome. It was so frustrating and depressing to sit there and wait for them to die. I loved them so much and I hated watching them suffer. Thatís when I remembered Dadís words. Thatís when I decided to find something to do that I could enjoy. It was absolutely necessary for my mental health.

The one thing I hope you get out of this story is that you need to take care of yourself as well as your loved one. Donít just sit down and wait for your loved one to die because it will hurt you more than you know. If you do, you will sit down and lose interest in living Ė and you need to lead a life doing something you enjoy. You know as well as I do that your loved one would not want your life to end when their life ends. Remember when they were not sick? Thatís the attitude you should remember. They would prefer to be living an interesting life, and they would prefer that you live an interesting life.

Donít think that they are dying because they are sick. They may get well. Donít worry too much about when they will die. Take one day at a time. Enjoy your time with them that day, and do something you enjoy that day. Plan something in the future for them and yourself. You may be surprised that many of those plans are fulfilled.