Caregivers shoulder many burdens but social isolation can be one of the worst. It sneaks up on us quietly while we’re looking after someone who is ill. But too much time without a social support network can damage our health as much as physical illness. We need many things, but friends are indispensable.
The people we care for also need to stay connected to others, despite the difficulty involved in arranging that. At different times, I’ve put energy into sending messages to my mother’s former neighbors, pals, and family members. I’ve often been amazed at the loyalty Mom’s friends have shown.
We can never know all sides of our loved ones. The roles they play when they’re away from us nurture parts of their personality that we may never see. My mom’s been sick for such a long time, I sometimes forget how dynamic she was in her prime. I’m reminded of that side of her when her friends come to visit. They reminisce about things she did, and the way she did them. They can still share those memories though she no longer recalls any of it.
A few weeks ago, a group of Mom’s old work colleagues hopped on trains in three different towns to reunite for an afternoon visit with my mother. Mom’s vitality is like the pale flame that burns from a very meager wick. It seems as if her spirit could be blown out by any sudden wind. But something in her friends’ voices was familiar and exciting to her. She looked them over with nearly blind eyes and said, “You came home!”
I don’t usually cry when I’m with my mother because I’ve witness change come to her in a very gradual way. I’m used to all of it. But when she gets a visit from someone who hasn’t seen her for a while, it always makes me weep. I expect them to be shocked by her decline or her inability to share much with them.
More often than not, I’m the one who’s shocked. I guess I’m surprised at how easy it is for them to keep loving her and appreciate who she was back in the old days. This is a great testament to my Mom — a person I didn’t always know. Parents go to great lengths to hide their true selves from their children. They can’t stay in charge if we are too able to see the fragile person behind the curtain.
Although I hate what the disease has stolen from her, every now and then I am grateful for things it reveals. That visit from her buddies was one of those special moments.