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Caregiving In Times Of Uncertainty

By  Eric Gnezda 

 

There’s a woman in New England who directs a staff of caregivers. She’s very committed to her work, but as she tells it, it got to the point where she dreaded going to social functions because of the inevitable question, “What do you do for a living?” Every time she answered, it seemed, someone would respond with something like, “Gee, that must be depressing…”

Although she never said it aloud, the only thing she found depressing about her work was that others assumed it was depressing. Actually, she has learned more about the richness of life working as a caregiver than she has anywhere else at any time – and the things her patients teach her transcend mere words, as some of them can no longer speak.

So she finally changed the way she responded to the dreaded inquiry. She now goes more to the heart of the matter: “I take care of people who need me and who need you, too, but perhaps nowhere near as much as we need them.”
Now with authentic interest, they often follow up with “Wow, where do you work?” Only then does she tell them that she’s a caregiver at a nursing home.

Although she reports that the word “depressing” no longer comes up in such conversations, she’s not convinced that many people fully grasp what she means by it all.  But among caregivers there is often a deeper level of understanding, as many caregivers know first hand that the gifts that can come from loved ones and patients are frequently beyond measure.

A man in his mid-30s who was battling cancer confided during his fight that he was most thankful for three things: His wife, his son – and cancer. How could anyone, particularly a young man with a wife and infant son, be grateful for such a terrible disease?  Eventually, I came to understand that he was actually thankful for what cancer gave him – permission to be the person he had always wanted to be. With his back against the wall, and his time limited, he was free from others’ expectations and from the need to live according to our culture’s definition of “manhood.”

Prior to his diagnosis, he hid the seeds of his individuality, sensitivity and generosity beneath layers of quips and feigned indifference. During his battle, however, he became compelled to reveal his compassion towards others and to exercise his empathy for those in pain. In fact, people who had the good fortune to know him toward the end of his life still comment on how he consistently focused on what he could do for others, even as he faced the grueling doubts of his own fate.

While his transformation was remarkable, it is not unique among those who have battled – or who are battling – serious illness.  Three days after I was born, my father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so I grew up caregiving. Based upon those experiences and from working with others since, it is clear that the ones we care for often have a wealth of wisdom to share about fundamental priorities and the essence of living.  And while their “lessons” have always been available to us, it seems that now, in the midst of our culture having been forever changed by emerging kinds of anxiety and terror, the guidance that patients and loved ones can offer in terms of how to deal with fear and uncertainty has become immediately relevant to us all, not only as caregivers but as citizens at large.

Caregiving teaches us that, however serious a crisis may be, it can be an invitation to grow in our understanding of and our appreciation for our lives, our loves and our values, all of which take on greater meaning in today’s world.

“Redefinition, renaissance and rebirth are the essence of life,” wrote a cancer patient in her journal. “Status quo is not possible. Not even desirable. No one has a safety zone to hide in. Somehow, before all of this, I believed that I did.” Although written about her struggle with a serious disease, these words could have come from any American in the last many months. “In this battle,” she concluded, “we all learn to take each day and cherish it.”

Wise words – for caregivers, and for everyone, these days.

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