The Caregiver’s Test

1365 Relax and Succeed - The Caregiver's Test 2

As many of you know, for close to 10 years now I have been increasingly shifted into a full time role as the sole caregiver to my elderly parents, who are both old enough to have both served in WWII.

Much to the disappointment of those in need, the vast majority of people will never even consider taking on care-giving. Then again, rarely did our parents offer to care for their parents either.

Even in large families the duties almost always fall to either the spouse, a single sibling or one child. That singularity means the social, financial and emotional prices are all paid by the patients and those solo caregivers.

What is unknown to many is that even in the system here in Canada, which is one of the better ones around the world, there are still nowhere near enough long term care beds for the number of people who need them. There are also many seniors who have zero interest in living in them for very good reason.

(Sit with enough seniors long enough and they start confiding senior secrets about the weird challenges that go with institutional living. But I’ll leave that for another post.)

Unless a person is able to pay a large amount to get into what is essentially a ‘medical condo,’ in many cases the wait lists for public facilities can last many years. If the people did not previously know to plan ahead and get on a list prior to them needing the placement, the parent may only be given space weeks before death is imminent.

This inevitably means that someone in the community will have to step up or the person can end up homeless –as we can all see if we look at the ages of some of the people on the street.

For those lucky enough to avoid that, they survive thanks to caregivers providing 24 billion dollars worth of unpaid care every year. Caregivers pay this price by lowering the amount they work and earn in order to create the ever-increasing amount of care time.

Those financial costs are very real, and many of the fears around care-giving are valid. But many are also myths. For example, in cases of dementia, the public tends to overestimate how bad the process is for the patient and underestimate how challenging it is for the caregiver, because the patient’s decline is eventually obvious, whereas the prices paid by the caregivers go almost completely unseen.

In dementia, a lot of the time people that have the disease can function quite well and enjoy life for even a couple decades if it’s progressing slowly, and as long as they have someone around to protect them from mental mistakes or physical danger. It’s only the final stage that is the part most of the public imagines as ‘being dementia.’ This is very good news if you’re worried about memory loss.

Dad with parrot at Fulton Eldercare
My father is my hero. He goes to a seniors group for 10 hours each week. He still loves to play games, and he still loves music, and dancing, and he especially loves it when the playschool down the hall visits, or when there are animals brought down from the zoo for the day. Since parrots repeat things too, they are often the perfect conversationalist for people with dementia.

Meanwhile, the caregiver’s prices are difficult to describe. As one might guess, this role is largely taken on by women. And by being in countless waiting rooms with female caregivers, I know one of their biggest care-giving challenges relates to love.

If we think of the ages of the seniors, it means the caregivers are often nearing the end of what is considered the most romantic parts of their lives. Generally, it’s only after they start care-giving do they usually realize that if they are married, it will in most cases strain their marriage –even to the breaking point. That is like two huge weights on them at the same time. Who should be the priority in that case, the parent or spouse? It’s like a form of ‘Sophie’s Choice.‘

If the caregiver is single, the care can virtually end their romantic life at a time when they feel like time is already running out. As nice as dating can be when we’re older, dating at 30 or 40 is not like dating at 50 or 60, and there is no recovering that ‘romantic youthfulness’ for most people, and they mourn that deeply.

I felt these quiet but painful prices were best expressed by a woman who confided in me that the reason she was suddenly brought to tears in a waiting room was due to a comment from a dear friend, earlier that day.

The friend came by for a rare visit that afternoon at the home shared by the caregiver and parent. “She hated the ‘smell of old people.’ After half a cup of tea she told me to call her to make plans and we could go out for tea instead. I felt like a judge giving me a life sentence.”

If that doesn’t seem that bad, add this: the caregiver knows there is zero chance of that happening because in many cases it simply isn’t an option to find someone to take responsibility for someone with a medically complex case on for a few hours so the caregiver can go out for tea. And her mother’s bowel control did not allow her to take her out in public, so in essence the friend was saying that she wouldn’t see her at all.

“I was living inside that smell every day of my life for the last four years. If my best friend wouldn’t stay I knew right then that my romantic life was over.”

It is unlikely that the departing friend saw her words as the death knell for her friend’s sense of femininity, but when a conversation like that is one of the caregiver’s few interactions with the outside world, and it’s coming from a close friend, it sounds like a door slamming on life itself.

1365 Relax and Succeed - It is not a test of our ability

The question is, why do caregivers pay these enormous prices? The answer is the same for any question involving any price paid by any human for any thing. We believe the value we get back exceeds what we are paying. Both capitalism and love exist on this reward-based framework. If we don’t think something’s worth it, we won’t invest ourselves in it.

That being the case, it is difficult to describe the feeling one gets from intimate moments in care-giving. It can be a lot of prodding and arguing and cajoling, but can also be a lot of laughing and trust and understanding. And there are few better feelings as when your parent expresses, in a rare weak moment, that they are not afraid of dying –but of losing their sense of security in the world– and that you are the rock they are clinging to.

When you realize that they’re telling you they wouldn’t feel safe without you –and these are cute, frail, weak little old people– it breaks your heart open and you just want to do everything to help them feel safe the same way we would with babies, who are equally helpless.

Care-giving is the hardest thing I have ever done and I would very strongly urge anyone considering it to do as I did. Prior to doing it, sit down and frankly listen to people who have done it. Do not take their warnings lightly. Listen to podcasts and radio shows about it. Watch documentaries and read books and blogs from people who have done it, and in doing so you can learn more about both the rewards and the prices that go with care-giving.

If it feels right for you, do it. If it feels too big –too hard or too big a sacrifice– then you are not the person to provide the care and it is fine to accept that. This is not for the faint of heart. This is entirely about the most generous and unconditional form of love.

The role is taxing in emotional ways that one simply has no hope of even imagining without being there for hours on end, every day, year after year, watching the patterns change, enduring some abuse, and cleaning and cleaning and cleaning and cleaning.

The grace in it all is contained in the fact that, in the end, it is the contrast created by paying all of those social, emotional and financial prices, that make the tender moments so incredibly powerful. They can get you through literally years of struggle.

Having a parent be frightened, and then come to us for the comfort they once hopefully were able to give to us –has given my life more profound meaning than any other thing I have ever done.

peace. s

Modern Dating

1346 Relax and Succeed - Modern dating

Who can blame people for being confused by modern dating? It’s been complicated by changes in both technology and in how human beings react to one another, and on top of all of that we have #metoo. Regardless of what gender we are or who we want to share our lives with, it’s a minefield of uncertainty out there.

Women have to figure out how to balance newly discovered strengths with their sensual femininity, men have to figure out how #metoo and 50 Shades of Grey can be popular at the same time. And before we complain about having to navigate that, just imagine how much more complex dating is for transsexuals, bisexuals, or the polyamorous.

I’ve recently written about the timing of a breakup, the notion of being successfully single, and today it’s dating, but these are all really the same subject: how do we balance our desire to share our lives with our desire to fulfill our personal destinies? How much sacrifice enriches us and how much is too much?

Those in relationships need some basis to make stay-or-go decisions on, otherwise the fear of being alone can force us into unhealthy situations we wouldn’t otherwise entertain. But leaving also means being single.

If we move in that direction, are there really ways to enjoy singledom and not feel like something is missing? And if we do want a new relationship, how do we tell who is right for us after a series of choices that lead to disappointment?

How do we work around the fact that apps have turned dating into a process akin to picking Chinese food? Because it’s easy to just keep ordering different dishes (qualities) in different combinations in the hopes that we can find a consistent order that meets all of our needs.

At the same time, our needs change day by day, so what defines a good match? Some things that we don’t like are good for us, yet whenever we run into relationship challenges it can feel easier to re-order than to learn to cook.

1346 Relax and Succeed - We can bring love into focus

In the end we cannot order a good relationship in. Good food or a good relationship will always be dependent on what we put into them. What works for one will not for another, and yet we do all share a set of underlying principles that people rarely even notice, let alone consider –hence the coming course.

There is no universal key to a good relationship either with another person or with ourselves, but there are ways to view ourselves and our partners that can be extremely helpful when it comes to helping us determine whether or not a relationship adaptation is valid or a deal breaker.

What people need are tools of the mind. We all need ways to think about ourselves and our situations that help us all recognize when we’re asking for too much, when we’re accepting too little, and what factors define what will make our lives rewarding.

These things can be done, but they require us to step back from our relationships and our pursuit of them. We must take time to philosophically consider what our perspective truly is. What are our priorities and why do we have them? In what ways would we benefit by making sacrifices to adapt our lives to that of another person?

People needn’t feel hopeless. There are answers to all of those questions, but we don’t get them just by wanting them. We must be prepared to sit down to take the time to truly sort them out.

Once we have reached our conclusions, we then have the wisdom necessary for navigating the decisions around dating, relationships, marriage and divorce, and they all become less tangled and more comprehensible. And whether we are together or alone, living with that kind of clarity is a truly beautiful thing.

peace. s

Remembrance Day

1252 Relax and Succeed - Remembrance DayIn Canada November 11th is Armistice Day; more commonly known as Remembrance Day. It’s focus is on the exact time the treaties following WWI took effect, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Both of my parents served in WWII, so this has always been an occasion that I was taught by example to respect, for I had family on Dunkirk Beach, and family in POW camps and family killed on the line.

I was never taught that Remembrance Day was a sad day. Somber maybe, but not sad. The point from them was always to take the lesson; war is hell for all involved. As my father described it, “It’s just farmers from one country shooting at farmers from another country and they’re all good men and all they’ll want to do is to get back to their farm.” No hatred, no greed, no desire to conquer, and no sense of revenge. In fact my Dad moved to Canada right after the war and when he started his own company he hired some Germans, which points to one of my favourite things about my Dad.

I tend to write about Remembrance Day most years precisely because it would be a more serious and focused day in our home than any birthday, Christmas or Thanksgiving. It’s my parents sacred day, and it has become mine as well. Despite being so important, and despite my having written about it before, I find this year there is an adjustment in how I feel about it.

1252 Relax and Succeed - I wear a little poppyRather than being maudlin about it, I’ve always been taught to be grateful there is no war, and to be grateful to the people who gave their lives in the effort to maintain our freedom. Additionally I was taught that enjoying my life was the price I should look toward repaying if I wanted to honour that sacrifice. If they were going to give up their life to create the opportunity for me then it would be fitting that I would create something worthwhile. I was never made to feel guilty, but somehow they instilled in me that it was fitting to honour the dead with more life.

I still feel that this year, but there’s a new layer too. I love that about life. When you’re present and quiet-minded so many connections between things occur to you. This year it’s that Remembrance Day is not only a day of profound gratitude for me, it’s also a time of deep meditation. On suffering.

When I want to really comprehend the opportunity I’ve been given I get into the nitty gritty of the moment to moment life of those guys in the trenches. Eighteen years old (if they weren’t like my Dad and lied to get in at seventeen, or even sixteen some of them). Rain. Winter. Cold. Wind, trenches filled with water, dead people and rats. And all of your gear for the next few weeks. Oh yeah, and a bunch of people are intentionally shooting and lobbing shells at you, so you’re also terrified. You also have little to no idea why you’re there.

1252 Relax and Succeed - Courage It doesn't mean you aren't scaredIf you get deep into the moments of something like that, you start to have things dawn on you, like; a good friend could die and you would have literally not have even a single moment to fully grasp it at the time. Grieving would come later, as a blur of uncertainty about what really happened because it happened so fast. Or you could lose your squad, lay in injured while shells hit the sand all around you and you’d have no choice except to lay there in agony waiting for a medic to wander by. Even simple things like; what if you have to pee super bad during a battle? And then on your break you go back to the trench and the cold and the wool and the rats and corpses and you eat some three month old sardines from a tin. These were tough people.

Today is when I suddenly realised that that is when and how I set my year for gratitude up, because I always build new experiences every year. Soldiers in different places, doing different things, experiencing different things. Yet during the following year, when I want to generate patience or compassion or connection–or especially gratitude and appreciation–I suddenly realised I always call back to that year’s memory and I compare what’s happening to me to that.

It is remarkable how fast I go from upset to feeling truly silly. It’s funny; being humiliated by the comparison brings out the best in me. We’re all like that. Humans are better than they give themselves credit for either singularly or as a group. We do like it when the group likes us, but we like it even more when they respect us because they think we’re a good example in some way. So when we see things we respect, it inspires us.

Quote For Remembrance Day Remembrance Day Quotes Amp Sayings Remembrance Day Picture QuotesMy parents have been a great example, teaching me to honour the sacrifices made while not emotionally taking over the event for myself; they taught me to value life and liberty, and that’s lead me to take my citizenship and connection to others very seriously; and they taught me to be grateful for the life that was literally protected for me by total strangers. I’ll be wiser this year seeing my meditation on the 11th in this new way. I’ll see it as a touchstone; a talisman; or a spell. When I face adversity, I will use that meditation to generate the appreciation that will drive away any thoughts I have of excessive personal suffering.

Find your own examples of these prices. Maybe second generation immigrants can consider what their parents sacrificed to give their children greater freedom. If your parents have served during wartime, or suffered disease or loss, it is a worthwhile thing to consider that deeply.

Maybe you’ve recovered from a drug addiction and can think back to your own past. Look at your children and remember that places like children’s hospitals are filled with children and parents who were never so lucky. Feel the pain of that and know that some people carry that pain daily, and that it is love that carries them through. It will make you more empathetic toward everyone, because if you do the meditation thoroughly, you’ll realise that most of these identities are invisible when you walk past these people on the street.

Consider creating a yearly meditation. It can be a different subject every year, it can be like mine and stay the same with just the details changing, but find some touchstone of true suffering. Something you believe you can truly relate to. Then use that for the rest of the year. When you’re in a long line at the store, just think back to the kinds of things people have survived before you and you’ll soon find you’ll be feeling better, because there’s really nothing better you can do with a bad experience from the past.

Respectfully, s

Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.