November is by far my favorite month of the year and I’m not ashamed to admit that’s because it also just so happens to be my birthday month. I mean come on, when I was born my parents were told I’d be dead within 24 hours, so you damn well better believe that I’m going to be celebrating (and giving thanks!) each and every year when November rolls around. So many people lament about getting older and all that comes with aging… but not me! I couldn’t be more excited! This time next year I will be celebrating three decades of trips around the sun :)
If you don’t already know – I’m a big believer in the greater plan of the universe. I feel very strongly about the importance of the energy you surround yourself with and that everything is interconnected. As a result, I wasn’t surprised in the least when I learned that November is also caregivers month. I’m obsessed with the show This Is Us (and if you aren’t, what is wrong with you!?) and one of the characters, Toby, said something so profound in the episode that aired on 11/22/17. I don’t want to go into too much detail as I don’t want to spoil it for viewers who might not be caught up – but he says, ““I will be your whole support system until the cows come home, but what I will not do is let you tell me I was not a part of this. I’m trying to be strong here because that’s the gig but yeah, it happened to me, too. And it hurt.” My husband Mike and I found ourselves vehemently nodding in agreement – staring at each other in almost disbelief at just how accurately he hit the nail on the head. Those who so selflessly serve as those whole support systems for their loved ones are the most incredible people and their thoughts, feelings and experiences deserve to be voiced too.
In this piece I really wanted to showcase others perspectives as opposed to just mine. The flip side of the coin. The stories of those who provide love and care to us. Who nourish us and allow us to be who we are. To feel what we feel. I decided to briefly interview four of the most impressive caregivers I know (excluding my husband, as ours is a story for another time): my grandmother, my mom, my dad and Stacy. I could easily write pages and pages about each one of these people individually, but I wanted the opportunity to show a variety of responses in a succinct way. Although they are all certainly the most incredible caregivers to me, I encouraged everyone to answer these questions by applying them to situations outside of their relationship with me and my heart condition.
My dad and Stacy have cared for countless friends, colleagues, children, family members and each other throughout a variety of situations ranging from loss and illness to just genuinely being helpful and supportive people. Just this past summer, they hosted three children from the Sozo Orphanage in Uganda for a week in their home. My mother has had her own battle with cancer twice and then served as a devoted caregiver to her boyfriend, Dave, throughout his grueling battle with esophageal cancer. Not only was she there for him emotionally, but she physically took care of him as well. She changed his bandages, administered tube feeds, gave medication – the list goes on and on. Unfortunately Dave lost his battle two years ago, but I know he fought as long and hard as he could because of my mom. And then there is my grandmother, I swear caring for others is in her DNA. Not only has she cared for our family through everything imaginable, but she goes above and beyond for her friends, neighbors, members of her church and countless others. She found love again a few years ago with a man named Jim who is his own kind of extraordinary. I asked her about her relationship with him as well but I’m going to end my piece with that as it is so heartwarming. But okay – enough of my writing! The rest of this post will showcase the responses I got to my questions in each of my responder’s own words. Remember, “to make a difference in someone’s life you don’t have to be brilliant, rich, beautiful or perfect. You just have to care” (Mandy Hale). Choose to love. Choose to listen. Choose to empathize. Choose to care.
What are the first three words that come to mind when you hear the term caregiver? Compassionate. Fulfilling. Dedicated. Loving. Overwhelming. Support. Responsibility. Nurturing. Patient. Competent.
What is the most rewarding part of being a caregiver to someone? What is the most difficult part? Most rewarding: Feeling like you are making a difference and helping someone at a time when they need it. Knowing that if it weren’t for you, they might not have anyone to truly care for them. Most difficult: Helpless feeling that comes with watching someone suffer and not being able to rectify the situation. Seeing the pain and sorrow. Knowing in some cases the person won’t get well. Dealing with the burnout.
When YOU are the one in need of receiving care from others – what is the one thing you most need? I need someone to listen to and validate my concerns. I want a touching hug or someone to hold my hand and say they care. Comfort. Sometimes companionship and sometimes no companionship but rather time by myself.
What is the one thing you most need but never want to ask for? Understanding. Asking for help for things I think I should be able to do myself like running errands or making food.
What advice would you give to someone who finds themselves in a caretaker role? Don't judge. Be understanding and cognizant of the fact that everyone deals with things differently, and often different than you do and there is no right or wrong way. Be empathetic; be patient; be loving; be kind and supportive. Listen; don't sugarcoat the situation or say you know exactly what they are going through when in reality you probably don't. Focus on the positives and help the person you are caring for try to do the same. Just do your best for them and know that is all anybody can ask of you; don't take things personally if they lash out on you.
My advice to caregivers is not to be all consumed, allow yourself a break and a chance to get away for an hour or two.
My best advice is to take care of yourself first! Much like they say on an airplane, put your oxygen mask on first before you helping others. Get enough rest, don't be a martyr, and still engage in your life while taking care of someone else.
My advice is different if it is a caregiver with no ties to the person or a caregiver of a loved one. If it is a caregiver of a loved one, my advice would be make sure they take care of themselves as well as the person they are offering care to. In addition, listen to the needs of the person you are caring for since what you might want is not necessarily the same thing they might want. And empathy. If it is a professional caregiver, then emotional distance so they can continue in this role without getting burned out. If a professional caregiver, my other advice would be to love what they are doing as it is such an important role for the person in their care.
I cannot thank my interviewees enough for taking the time to formulate responses to my questions and share their stories. Remember, caring for someone doesn't just entail those with dramatic medical or personal situations - every last one of us needs love, care and support. Something as simple as smiling at someone you pass on the street, stopping to help a person who may be struggling with their groceries or picking up the phone to check in on a friend goes a very long way. And remember, take care of YOURSELF. After all, you can't pour from an empty cup.
Although I kept everyone's specific responses anonymous, I did want to end with some final thoughts from my grandmother on her relationship with Jim, a man who lost his leg to a flesh eating bacterial disease, and who has become an integral part of our family. Much like Dave, I'm not sure I've ever met as strong, caring or compassionate of a man.
"As I have said, I am a nurturer and it would never enter my mind to not be there for Jim. He has been through so much with the divorce and being estranged from his children, to losing the love of his life Norma to leukemia, and then losing his leg. He is such a good person that I want to be there for him every step of the way. He told me of his many illness struggles when we first met and I said I wouldn't let that change anything. Even though we aren't married we are a devoted couple and I take that part of the marriage vows (in sickness and in health) seriously. If anything happens to him I will be devastated but I'm also smart enough to know that at our age anything could happen at any time. My role now as his companion is to be there for him when life gets overwhelming! To encourage and listen to him when he is down and offer suggestions that I think might be helpful. Also, I try to be upbeat. He knows my devotion and love are real. To me loving or caring about a person makes caretaking easy but I would step in and try to help anyone who needed help".
Step in. Help others. After all, we all need somebody to lean on.