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Practical Caregiving

Thanks for a Too-Often Thankless Job

By Jean Donahue

Whether it is early morning, afternoon, night, or even the middle of the night, I want you all to sit down and relax for just a few minutes while you read this column. You deserve a break, and I've got something important to say.

Itís a "dark and stormy night" that doesnít seem to end. Caregiving, I mean. Don't you agree? Is that how you sometimes feel? Letís take a break and look at things from a different viewpoint -- a better viewpoint, one that recognizes your critical importance to your loved one.

The first 2 1/2 years I took care of Mom and Dad, we traveled. I pulled a 32-foot travel trailer with a Suburban. I thoroughly enjoyed those years. People told me I was either stupid or crazy to travel with my parents in their conditions, but I didnít feel I was either. Mom and Dad could get around (with my help), and we all enjoyed traveling. They had always traveled when they had vacation time, and it felt normal for them to be on the road. It also gave them something to look forward to.

Once, in Arizona, we went to a senior citizenís dinner, as they called it. I was too young to qualify as a senior, but I was taking my parents (Mom in a wheelchair) and they welcomed me as if I belonged there. An American Indian was telling everyone about his culture and beliefs. He was a medicine man. He kept talking about how it was a gift to be able to take care of our sick and elderly, each time looking at me.

I didnít understand what he was trying to tell me until later. He was telling me that not everyone has the inner stamina and fortitude to take care of our loved ones. I later realized that more people probably don't have the ability than do. I had it -- and you obviously have it. I now believe that some of us are born with that ability, but then there are many others of us who learned to cope out of necessity. And let's remember the reluctant carers who may not want the knack, but have it.

After traveling with Mom and Dad, the end approached. We couldnít travel any longer because their health made it impossible. Those were the years I felt like it was a "dark and stormy night" that got worse and worse. But, in spite of it all, I kept telling myself how lucky I was to be able to help my parents when they needed me most. I didnít always feel that way, but reminding myself of the "gift" of caring helped. Like most of you, I didnít want to be in that situation, but I was. I wouldnít -- no, couldnít -- have done anything else. If you really stop to think about it, you probably wouldnít want it any other way either, despite the hassles. The only thing you would want to change is that your loved one would be healthy and whole again.

While I was taking care of Mom and Dad, people kept telling me I was an angel. I didnít feel like one. But, now I understand what they meant: I was making it possible for my parents to live as good a life as possible, given their circumstances. That's what many famous people have done (think of  Mother Teresa, for example). They helped others instead of doing what they might have wanted to do.  Not everyone could -- or would -- do that.

I love a saying I found on the web. There are different versions, but they all have the same message. Think about the meaning you give it. I think you will understand it and appreciate it:

The world may think you are only one person,
But to one person, you may be their world.
Author Unknown

Think about how you make it possible for your loved one to live as good a life as possible. You are the one standing up and caring for your loved one. Your loved one may be your spouse, significant other, parent, relative or friend, but you are the one who has stepped up to the plate to see they get the best care possible. Perhaps your brothers and/or sisters didnít. You are the one who is going the extra mile. Pat yourself on the back occasionally instead of looking at the dark side of being a family caregiver. You, the family caregiver, are an inspiration. You face trials and frustrations, which are sometimes huge, but you are still doing something wonderful for someone other than yourself. You are not selfish; you are taking care of your loved one. Just think: where would they be without you?

I'll bet you don't often hear people tell you they appreciate what you are doing, but they do. I, for one, appreciate what you are doing, and there surely are many others who --silently -- feel the same way, starting with your aging loved one.

Whether your loved one is in their own home, in your home, or in a care facility, you have the primary responsibility for making sure they get the best care possible under the circumstances. I am so proud of all of you! Thank you for taking such good care of them! You are making a difference in a loved one's life.