I’ve been thinking about the role of caregivers, as I’ve been reading Orlando Sentinel reporter Beth Kassab’s honest and thoughtful account of her journey caring for her husband subsequent to his brain cancer diagnosis.
Likewise, several of my friends have found themselves in the position of caregiving for loved ones. As Baby Boomers hover around the 70 year mark, this role will quite likely become even more prevalent.
A sampling of stories from the caregiving front include:
- Suzanne 59, who has been traveling four hours each way to South Florida caring for aging parents who resist the help of outsiders and are unwilling to move into assisted care facilities. Even at home she is in constant communication, all the while trying to maintain her law practice;
- The ravages of esophageal cancer has left Jody’s husband disabled and unable to practice law. At 60, she divides her time between her demanding job as a wealth management banker and worrying about her husband’s weight loss and health;
- Cathy, 70, is 911 on her adult daughter’s cell phone and has spent up to six of the past 14 months jumping on airplanes to help care for grandchildren. Cathy’s consulting work and board responsibilities have to take a back seat, as does her relationship with friends and other family members.
- Kay’s 72 year old husband received a death sentence in the form of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and died within weeks — leaving her and their children reeling.
- Nora, 64, is a successful lawyer and mediator in a firm she has shared for years with her husband. Her husband developed a serious liver condition forcing his departure from their firm. She also devotes every weekend during winter months to the extensive health care needs of her aging parents.
Last February I found myself in the role of caregiver (albeit in a much less demanding role than the ones cited above). My charges were on opposite ends of the age spectrum.
The first stint was in Chicago caring for grandchildren. At 64, I’m years removed from the ever present needs of little ones — noses to be wiped, naps, snacks, scheduled meal times, potty training, sticker rewards for poops in the potty. The twenty degree Chicago weather and wind limited our outings. It was just too much trouble putting on and taking off mittens, parkas, hats, and boots.
On the heels of this caregiving gig, my husband underwent sinus surgery, the recovery for which was around four weeks. Florence Nightingale I promise you I’m not, but I managed to change bandages and ice packs and perform my household jobs and his as well.
Even just changing dirty diapers and bloody bandages, I was struck by the intimacy intrinsic in this level of caring.
Human beings are full of contradictions. From elementary school onward we spend an inordinate amount of time focused on how we appear to the world. We carefully construct a narrative about ourselves, usually masking our vulnerabilities. Our motivation in part stems from the fact we are trying to get people to like us, be attracted to us, and to form connections. “How can anyone like me if they are allowed to see me without make up, with bed hair, or in a foul mood?” So we hide.
True intimacy and connection (which deep down we crave) evolves through vulnerability. We are most vulnerable when we are new to the world and on the precipice of exiting the world. For the caregiver of the young and the older, we are truly needed. Boundaries between people are erased.
Generally, these roles are not invited but thrust upon us. The stories cited above reflect the difficulties involved in caregiving — the time away from our own lives and choices, the exhaustion, the expense — all natural responses to the situation. But juxtaposed to the hard stuff is the good stuff — the love, tenderness, and intimacy.
We often dread the prospect of becoming a caregiver. But these experiences offer an opportunity to deepen our connection with our loved ones and recognize in ourselves our capacity for love and kindness.
It had been a long time since a little boy needed me so much (and for that matter, even a big boy!) Just like the Grinch whose heart grew three times, I think my own heart grew a little, too, following my time as a caregiver.
Liz Kitchens is a writer and blogger. Her blog, Be Brave. Lose the Beige, reaches out to Lady Boomers, women of the Baby Boomer generation. Liz also blogs for Growing Bolder and Vibrant Nation, two sites devoted to aging issues. Liz conducts workshops on the health benefits of creativity and is an ambassador for the Creative Caregiving Initiative sponsored by the NCCA, The National Center for Creative Aging. Liz founded the Jeremiah Project, an after school and summer creative arts program designed to foster self esteem and encourage creative thinking among at risk middle school aged students.