It’s been over two years since dementia made it unsafe for Mom to live alone. After we moved her into my house, I avoided going to hers. The sight of her carefully arranged things filled me with grief. But now our family needs to rent her property to help pay for her care. Cleaning out the rooms is tough. Notes on her desk, her shoes in a row — every inch of the place bears sad reminders of the woman she once was.
The ties between us never frayed as her disease progressed. I’ve witnessed her loss of skills and — from close range — I’ve watched the transformation of her personality. With such focus on her growing frailty, I had forgotten what she was like just six or seven years ago when she still mailed birthday cards like clockwork.
Walking through her old bedroom, I cried while reading short reminders she’d written to herself. My mom was such a diligent person. She cared about small details in a way that amazes me. I’m random, energetic and impulsive. Things always get done, but I rarely plan and execute projects with her kind of precision. This was one of those personality differences that made us get annoyed with each other.
As I looked around her little office the other night, I couldn’t feel anything but admiration for the way she managed her life. She was so careful and attentive. The walls were lined with tokens of love from her many friends. Smiling photos, silly cards. It’s the stuff we can’t look away from when we sift through the remains of her life — that’s who she was.
We are so lucky that we still have her. Light shines through those eyes even as we feed her soup and comb her hair. Her love is the one thing we hold onto while the woman she was retreats to memory. Sometimes it hurts to be the steward of her past as well as my own, but it’s part of the caregiver’s job. And I guess that’s now who I am.
Last week’s mention of guilt seemed to echo pain felt by many caregivers. The theme of love may be bring a little more cheer. The job of caregiver requires that we become loving people — even in situations we may resent. Many caregivers are thrust into their role and, at the beginning, do not even like the person they are caring for. But over time our resistance to their suffering may break down because we know it is more humane to help someone in distress than to cling our own comfort.
Regardless of how we arrive at our task, we need to perform acts of compassion for ourselves even while we care for others. Doing the 21 Day Meditation Challenge has been beneficial because it has forced me to examine how careless I am about my own well-being. Several meditations have also helped me to see how taking on too much responsibility can be so habitual that we forget to let others help us.
When I listened to the Day 10 Meditation “Your Giving Heart”, I was struck by how relevant the ideas seemed for caregivers. Some statements drawn from works of Swami Vivekenanda, an Indian monk who helped spread Hindu philosophy in the U.S., hit home:
- “The beauty of love is that in giving it away we are left with more than what we had before” — So basic, but this was not how I felt when my mother first got sick; Caregiving felt like fallout from some catastrophe; Then, over time, caring for her made me become a more loving person
- “Another person’s gratitude is sweet nectar for our psyche” — My mother’s gratitude for the care I provided made me see that I had stumbled into an opportunity to become a better person
- “Love yourself enough to maintain a balance between giving and receiving” — Once immersed in the role of caregiver, I often forgot to stop myself from giving too much even when my inner resources were depleted
- “As we remind ourselves of the good feelings created by giving, it’s also important to allow others to give to us so they can be comforted as well” — This is a lesson to be remembered by all caregivers. You have to let others help you! — even those selfish siblings who haven’t come to your rescue yet. Give them something easy to do: hand them a broom or dust mop. Or try to set aside some money for companion support, even if it’s just an hour a week. Let people from your faith community step in and give you an afternoon break.
Just taking 15 daily minutes to do the Meditation Challenge can seem like an act of selfishness. But now that I’ve made it to day 13, I sense how it makes me more emotionally present when I’m with my mom. Meditation doesn’t give you a perfect life. But it’s nice to look back at the course of a day, and see that it’s been marked with the fingerprint of love.