I want to speak with those of you who are caring for elderly loved ones, perhaps finding it more difficult than you imagined. Not to give you advice—you probably get enough of that already—or to provide you with more information—you may be overwhelmed with that, too. Instead, let me share with you my own experiences with frail elderly folks—including my mother—as one way of telling you that those of us who have come through this part of life understand and appreciate what you’re experiencing right now.
Over the past couple of decades, I’ve had the opportunity to care for a number of frail elders. I’ve been present when they were in good health and spirits, and also when they were gradually losing their capacities to enjoy life. In a couple of cases, I’ve been present when they breathed their last. The profundities of these experiences have mixed well with the ordinary beauties of day-to-day living. In each of these cases, I was part of a group—including professional caregivers—who surrounded these older saints during the waning days of their lives.
In almost every case, guilt stalked me—self-reproach of my own making. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, that I missed important signals, that many of their needs were going unmet, that I had little or no right to come into their lives so intimately. There were times when I felt like I was alone—the only one who truly understood the magnitude of these moments, the suffering or diminishment of spirit they encountered. And in every case—dealing with end-of-life matters—I was brought face-to-face with what I may encounter in my own life.
My spouse Chris was always a strong source of wisdom in this ministry of presence. Intuitively, she understood how to transcend the mentality of “difficult work” and move towards a mindset of bringing quality experiences to these good folks. With her encouragement (and presence), I learned about the value of outdoor jaunts—a wheelchair walk in the facility’s garden, short road trips, walks-with-walkers in a scenic place. I learned how to start conversations that ranged from current events to storied pasts. I learned to leave understandable anxieties at the door. I applied creativity to our encounters—often surprising the older ones—sharing special treats, bringing along a pet, spending quality time in settings other than the care facility or being silly together.
As time went on, I found that formality was not necessary. My gift of gab was fueled by curiosity. I lowered the decibels in my talking voice, asked good questions, probed at emotions and witnessed to the faith in God that we shared. I learned how to deflect guff or grumpiness with good humor or respectful pushback.
These times were always slow and leisurely—no need to rush around or project urgency when it’s not necessary. Our interactions were stimulating for both the elderly person and me. Intellectual and emotional honesty were hallmarks of our times together.
As part of a group of caregivers surrounding these frail elderly, I felt assured and competent. I learned to trust and appreciate the personal qualities of these professionals, making their support and affirmation part of my ministry.
I remember each of these relationships with a mixture of sorrow and joy. Sorrow that these beloved people were coming to the end of good-and-useful lives. Joy that they were experiencing this time in life with faith and good courage, forsaking the temptations to feel sorry for themselves or to revert to their lesser selves.
I’m intensely aware of the blessings that have come to me because of those days of caregiving for loved ones. These experiences have added layers of satisfaction to my life, and have prepared me for the eventuality that I will be the recipient of caregiving.
When that happens, I will remember the good people I cared for, and hope to be a worthy beneficiary of others’ ministries.
I wish you well, and hope that your caregiving satisfies your spirit.
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