I have a friend who always says “take care” when she closes a letter - and I love that. It feels nice like a warm sweater or a bowl of soup when you are sick. Taking care of someone is a very noble task – even if it has been underappreciated for centuries.
For some of us, it is an easy task and for others, caring for a parent may not be so easy. There may be childhood issues unresolved or even current relationship difficulties. Distance and our other obligations can make caring for a parent a difficult option. For those who end up caring for an elderly parent or any aging relative, it can become a monumental task.
Caregivers as Heroes
When a person is in need, it is nothing short of heroic to come and help that person. We glorify others who help people – like firemen, police, boat rescue teams and so on. These heroes even get highlighted on cool TV shows where the hero is depicted as wonderful, amazing, and noble - and we all want to be that person.
But, where are the hero stories for caregivers? Let’s figure this out. Maybe it is just that women have traditionally cared for others so “caregiving” is just not quite as interesting to the culture that still undervalues most female traits. Maybe it is the fact that there are no explosions or other visually dramatic scenes to depict. Maybe people don’t realize that caregivers often put themselves and their health at risk doing the work they do just like other heroes. Or maybe much of the action takes place in private - and over time. So, we just don’t have a public dialog about it.
Well, regardless of what others may think or not think about caregiving being a job for heroes, I think we need to look at it that way and we need to start talking about it that way. And we need to, as a society, increase the value we place on this important job. This is now more likely to happen as the baby boomers are getting older. But, how do we value something? We value something by offering tools and help to those in caregiving roles. And, we value something by talking about it more.
How Can We Value Caring for Our Parents More?
Back to “taking care” - I think one way to value this work is to talk about the joys that come from the challenge of caregiving. And when we value something, we highlight what is good about it. The thing we keep hearing from caregivers is how much they emotionally and spiritually grow in this experience in three main areas and I want to highlight those here:
Personal Ways We Grow from Taking Care of Others
So in thinking about heroes, I think of a hero as someone who fights evil. What do caregivers fight? - Impatience, sadness, inertia, and fears. In these ways, caregivers have enormous opportunities to grow as people – and as heroes.
When your own needs are barely being met and you are tired and there is one more thing to do and your parent is complaining or is upset about something that seems trivial, it is easy to snap. Physical exhaustion is a main reason for losing patience in anyone and in any circumstance. When caregivers talk about their job, they talk about how much more patient they have become because of their experience.
Unfortunately, losing patience can also happen. Sadly, in the extreme, it can sometimes result in elderly abuse. Some things to keep in mind for strengthening patience are:
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating enough and eating nourishing healthy foods
- Drinking enough water
- Taking breaks
- Having laughs and having fun
- Finding connections outside the caregiving situation
Love in our youth and romantic love are fun and based mostly on positive feelings. The love that comes over a person committed to helping someone in need is different. This type of love is one that loves just for the sake of loving with no expectation of a return and loves even more the unpleasant person because unpleasant people need love even more. This takes a very big person to be able to love in this way and is why I consider it heroic. It is not to be confused with “co-dependency” which is where a person is selfless and sacrificial in a relationship in the hope of gaining self-acceptance or to meet some unhealthy need of approval of others. This love that I am speaking of is more about doing something simply because it needs to be done and simply because there is a recognition that a person needs it. In order to do this well, it is absolutely vital that a person also have good sense to love him- or her -self in the same manner! If not, it may be something else besides a mature love. So, “taking care of self” is not just a nice catch phrase or something sentimental we say to caregivers – it is a necessary condition to being big enough to love well.
As we care for someone, understanding and empathy are muscles that get very strong. We come to really understand another person when we get this close. Again, there is caution here – understanding someone doesn’t mean guessing or projecting your own thoughts and feelings onto someone. It is not judging their current behavior from our past relationship with a person. It is not assuming they feel the way we do. A higher level of understanding comes from experiencing the situation from an aging parent's perspective.
Taking Care of Parents and Taking Care of Ourselves
We gain so much in our relationship with someone we are caring for. Sometimes, role reversal can be hard and often, the task of taking care of an aging adult is not easy. But, we grow and we learn and we become stronger for it. The hope is that the love, understanding and patience cultivated and increased by taking care of parents spills over to increasing the care we give to ourselves.