If only we could guide our loved ones to act and feel in ways that would make caregiving easier for everyone. Of course that’s impossible. But we can help ourselves. The problems we experience with our personal lives and emotions are within our power to resolve. And when a caregiver helps him/herself, the person cared for also benefits.
We’ve talked in earlier blogs about isolation and loneliness. We’ve talked about frustration and exhaustion and the conflicts between duties at home and duties as a caregiver. For me, embarrassment was another challenge.
Embarrassment led me to do things that were definitely not in Mom’s best interest.
When I was a young mother, I was embarrassed any time one of my sons misbehaved in public. I felt the hot color rise to my face and I was certain everyone around thought my boys weren’t being raised properly. Years later, I felt the same embarrassment as a caregiver. When Mom refused to answer a neighbor’s hello, or went somewhere wearing spotted clothes, or shuffled her way around the counter to hug a cashier, I was humiliated. Surely people were thinking I was the caregiver—didn’t I care how Mom acted or dressed?
I did care. I blushed when Mom pointed to an array of artificial flowers and suggested to another customer he should smell them. I tried to hurry her along as we walked from lobby to examining room at the doctor’s office, hoping the others waiting in the long line of chairs wouldn’t notice her mismatched clothes and dirty hair. In restaurants I was so afraid she’d lose her grip on a cup or a glass, I practically held it myself.
How could I solve this problem with Mom, I asked myself. How could I get her to dress right and act right and be more careful?
I worked hard–and made a lot of mistakes.
- I timed our errands carefully, trying to choose a good time on a good day. But those times were utterly unpredictable, not only as to when they would occur but also as to how long they would last.
- I put some of Mom’s favorite clothes aside, the ones she liked that still looked presentable. I saved them for her to wear on errand days. But telling her what to wear on any day was seldom successful. So I withheld her favorites from her when she wanted to wear them and tried to make her wear them when I wanted her to.
- Mom usually enjoyed going out to eat, but her hands were unsteady. Fearing she’d spill something, I made the meal an ordeal for both of us, as I cautioned her with every bite and reached across her to steady her tumbler of water or tea.
What was I thinking??
The problem is that I wasn’t thinking. I was only feeling.
One day as a waitress was serving us breakfast, I held Mom’s hands back so she wouldn’t reach for the plate herself. The waitress looked at me and said, “You don’t have to hold her. She’s all right.” Then she focused on Mom and smiled. “We can work together here, can’t we?” she said. Mom’s face lit up like sunrise.
That incident prompted me to look harder at myself. I had told myself I was protecting Mom’s dignity, protecting her from embarrassment. But looking back on the happenings of that morning, I saw clearly that the waitress was right. And I was wrong. I had felt I was taking care of Mom. But I wasn’t doing a very good job of it.
As I accepted that I was wrong, I knew I had to change something. I thought about it. A lot. What I discovered as I dug into my feelings—journaling about them and sharing them with those close to me—is that the motivation for my actions was not concern for Mom’s dignity, but for mine.
I was protecting myself from embarrassment. Adding stress to our days by trying to predict Mom’s moods. Denying her the pleasure of wearing her favorite clothes by hiding them until I decided the time was right. Stealing her fun in eating out by treating her like a rowdy child.
Once I identified what I was really feeling, I realized I was the only one who could fix my mistakes. Take Mom out of the equation. So I thought some more.
- I began to see that how Mom acted in public was important only insofar as it affected her safety.
- Experience led me to understand that what she looked like was much less important than what she ate, how well she slept, how regularly she took her medications.
- And instead of worrying about her spilling a glass of tea, I solved the problem by simply asking that her drinks be served in a small paper cup, lighter, easier for her, and safer.
The stress level went down, for me at least. And because Mom seemed more relaxed as we prepared to go out, errand days became a little easier. But more important to me than either of those benefits was the realization that my feelings of satisfaction associated with helping Mom live fully and happily were far more pleasant than the embarrassment and frustration provoked by my false pride and embarrassment.
Of course it’s impossible to tell ourselves what to feel. But we can and must control the actions we take as a result of our feelings. Whether the emotion is guilt, fear, embarrassment, anger or any other of the feelings most caregivers experience, we can think about it, name it, and then either help ourselves or ask for the help we need.
When we take care of ourselves, everyone is better off.
I instruct you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. (Proverbs 4:11 NIV).
Father, please open our eyes to see clearly our loved one’s needs, and also our own. Guide us to the truth, and help us use it for the good of those we care for, to bring them, and ourselves, more abundant life.