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I’m a caregiver for an elderly woman and she’s feisty as hell.
In the background, there are birds and my grandmother’s muttering. Everything is pissing her off. I’m reminded moment after moment by her trailing off groans that nobody is there for her and nothing has truly worked out in life.
This is not always the case though. Sometimes, she gasps with awe when she notices a fresh bloom in her overgrown flower patch by the steps. Sometimes, she throws her hands up in the air with laughter recounting memories that make her feel alive. Sometimes, the littlest things bring her abundant joy, and sometimes, she looks at all of us with shiny eyes of pride. In those moments she really is in love with everything.
Today is not one of those days. And I can feel my nerves are stinging with claustrophobia and a need for personal space. There is literally nothing I can do. I need to help this woman take lids off of containers. I need to pour glasses of water and help her find her cane when she leaves it in another room. There is nothing I can do in this moment. And yet this moment is so, so, hot and prickly. I just want to scratch it.
She keeps wandering in, insisting that I must be cold, insisting that I must be hungry, insisting realities about our family members that may not be true at all. Just insisting. Fidgeting. Muttering. Groaning. Trying to move objects that her broken hand cannot lift. It truly is bothering me exceedingly much.
So, how do I meet this? What can I do to find grace for both of us?
Here are six ways that help me through such moments, may it be of benefit:
1. Recognize that there is suffering and it is not just mine.
Remind myself that this is her life, too. Anchor myself into the multidimensional truth of this moment. Remind myself that a life without touching all sides is one of avoidance. I cannot grow when there is avoidance. I cannot grow or be of any use if I become too involved in my own pain that I forget about another’s (hello empathy fatigue!). Should we become too absorbed in the feeling of my our pain, we need to step back from the act of giving care to another and focus on giving care to ourselves.
2. Anchor into my truth and that which brings strength.
Remind myself of my personal pact: I have committed my life to holding onto my playful and heartfelt outlook while meeting all that is suffering. This is a deal I struck with my soul. This is true for me. This is my unshakable foundation holding up a house of cracks and splinters of light. If my heart were a home, flowers would stuff themselves out from the foundation and the old wooden beams would rise up, and in the warmth of the sun, you could smell the old life of a forest. So find what is true for you. What is your moral foundation? What are the arches of your heart made of? Come home to that. Over and over.
3. Remember this is temporary.
Remember that this is fleeting and one day I will grasp for these memories. One day I will try so hard to add colour to them and bring them back to life. So just for now, let it wash through me. If tears come, if we become angry, if we start to ripple out with laughter, let it all paint this moment fully so that we can remember that much more.
4. Embody compassionate understanding.
Embodying compassion for human life allows us to see with greater understanding and insight. Understanding does not mean I do not feel reactive. To understand why someone has done something, behaves how they do, says what they say, this understanding does not create roses and sunshine. Understanding simply provides a depth that is true to the nature of life. Understanding creates a melody between moments in the history of a life.
Compassion is the harmony. The imprint of feelings that a piece of music has on you is entirely due to how you meet what arises from the symphony. When I apply understanding and compassion to myself, it helps me identify the roots of my reactivity. Oh, what’s this? I am afraid of losing this person? And I am even somehow upset at them for not being well, for scaring me by the reality that they won’t always be around? When I apply compassionate understanding, I can see more clearly. And from there, I can…
5. Get present.
Get present with my senses. Come back into my own territory. I’m living out of bags right now, in between homes. I do not feel like I have much space at all. So I need to establish a home in myself. I connect to the smell of humid air, the sturdy feeling of my crossed ankles, the cool temperature of my wet hair on my shoulders, the sounds of birds mixed with grandma’s muttering, mixed with cars, mixed with squirrel chatter, mixed with the keyboard, mixed with cellphone going off as my mom texts me, “It would be good for you to get out today.”
6. Ask for support and release control.
Ask for help, hugs, flowers, and moments. Ask for direction. The best thing to do for someone who is helping to look after someone else is to pick them up and take them somewhere nice, to make a plan for them, to lift them up and squeeze them, to carry them off without asking “what do you want to do?” What do I want to do? I don’t care! I could lay in a patch of grass for six hours and it would be a rockin’ time. Whatever we do just give me quiet space. Don’t ask me to talk about what’s wrong unless I need to. Let me notice the grains of sand on my feet and let me point out how some trees have such a rich green to their leaves. Let it be simple and sweet.
Oh, P.S.: Please don’t just kidnap someone and take them somewhere nice. If someone is giving care to another they likely have some frequent obligations. So be respectful with timing. The main point is to try to take the lead and help them release control within their control.
And if you are the one giving care, do your best to ask others to help you make plans, to help you initiate, to help support you by having a simple and sweet time.
It’s midday now and I had left my grandmother’s home a few hours ago to do some errands. Since then, I have stopped by a few local businesses. I tried to be a normal person about everything. But instead, I ended up talking about her nonstop. I had the same discussion with each person I spoke to, leaning on their counters, sighing in their door frames. It becomes clear, pretty fast, that I’m not the first person to go through this obviously, and that my grandmother is not the only elderly person out there who grasps for help while spitting resent for requiring it.
This is actually, incredibly common. I already knew that. When you’re in the vortex of your own worry however, it can be incredibly difficult to see anyone else’s suffering besides your own. Hopefully, each and every one of us gets to trudge alongside an elder who gets brought to their knees, who fights to stay up, who holds on with everything they have to the little thread of vitality that’s still inside of them, who ruthlessly defends their independence with the spirit of a wolverine.
Because it is humanizing.
The other day my grandma barked at me for asking if she had taken her afternoon medication. Later that evening I leapt from my bed to the sound of a thump and found her on the floor. I slid down beside her and we wept together.
Then I asked her, “grandma, you know the story of the lion and the mouse?”
“I forget. Tell it to me.”
So I told her my rendition of the classic tale of the Lion and the Mouse. There are many versions from Aesop’s Fables. I’m not sure if the version I know was from a cartoon or passed onto me orally. Either way, in the version I know best, the lion has a thorn in its paw. And he roars and roars and roars. A little mouse comes bounding along and senses fear from the lion. The lion angrily boasts he could eat the mouse but he’s in too much pain to bother. The mouse needs to overcome her timid nature and offer the help that she so clearly can; the thorn is just the perfect size for her tiny paws to extract. The lion considers this ridiculous. But slowly, as the mouse approaches, the lion’s gaze softens to a curious vulnerability. And the mouse, sure enough, gets the thorn out.
And then they are friends.
Grandma gave a soft laugh and said, “I am the lion, huh?”
and I said, “what do you think?”
and she said, “well. What else can you do.”
The elderly who roar at their caregivers do need help. And the caregivers need to face the roar. It’s not personal. And at the same time, it is. Very.
To give care while another becomes increasingly more dependent for the first time since they were a child is incredibly difficult. It’s treacherous. It’s deep. It’s human and simple. And it is one of the most noble, trying, and selfless acts a person can offer.
Even if for a short time. Even if it’s just a thorn.