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The Challenge of Caregiving

I recently read an essay on caregiving written by my old friend Chuck, 72, who has been taking care of his wife for the last three years. Following her withdrawal from long-term analgesic treatment of severe back pain, his wife abruptly deteriorated into what sounds like a major depression and has been largely disabled and housebound since. In the meantime his 102-year-old mother in law suffered a severe stroke, requiring placement and complex management, and Chuck has taken responsibility for her as well. Not surprising, these events ended Chuck's former, and still satisfying, career, enlisting him instead in a new one as fulltime caregiver.

A practical, left-brained, educational consultant, Chuck brought all his problem-solving skills to his new caretaking responsibilities. Given his exceptional intellectual skills, I asked him to write about what he has learned these past three years, partly for his own benefit, and partly for mine. He enumerated the key factors that have so far made "this difficult and frustrating time at least tolerable, if not rewarding: seek help; adopt a 'caring attitude;' be flexible, lose expectations; resolve finances; tend to your own mental, emotional and physical well-being; and prepare for the end. He made the important distinction between curing and caring and emphasized the tremendous importance of forgiveness, unconditional love, self-care, exercise and coffees with really good friends. Chuck refused to sugarcoat his experience as growth-producing, spiritual or even meaningful, concluding "Caregiving seems more to me as simply what you do when you (really) care for someone."

I think Chuck has well described the most important survival tools needed in this incredibly daunting task of caretaking. It would be easy to call Chuck courageous or selfless, but I’m sure he would deny both, and assert that as we age, difficult and painful situations like this often land in our laps and we have to choice but to respond. But I would add that a deeply personal search for meaning, personal growth and divine love might constitute additional resources on this path, for our suffering can itself become profoundly transformational. I am sure it has already been transformational for Chuck, though I suspect he minimizes his own growth - perhaps he is resisting the descent into anger, grief, and tears that would further break open his heart and light the path ahead; perhaps he is burning away some old emotional issues still blocking his way - we all have them! This path of letting go, of being defeated, of releasing attachments, identity, and control, involves just these kinds of experiences. What if they were the path?

My advice to Chuck? Let the experience speak. What is it trying to say to you? Listen with your heart. Emote again and again. Value your feeling side. Pray. Meditate. And ask yourself how this challenge might be perfectly tailored to your own spiritual awakening, all the while realizing that answers do not make the situation go away, but may bring the meaning that makes it worth the price. And remember, these kinds of experiences are part of the homeward journey we take in our final years: we are getting ready to go and loving goodbyes may signal the labor pains of a new birth.

You can find Chuck's original essay at: cmcintyr@sierra.net
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