Some of us may be born with caregiving DNA or have it wired into our temperament. Caregiving is certainly shaped by experiences as well, and many of us learn from those close to us. My father, of blessed memory, was the epitome of manly care-giving. He fixed our cars, built things in our homes, knew every answer to any mechanical or technical question. We hired no gardeners, repairmen or tutors. I grew up with the impression that he could, quite literally, take care of anything and everything. It is somewhat ironic that his vascular dementia turned him from caregiver to one in need of significant care. As he lost function, I gained insight into and experience with the realities of caregiving.
I met extraordinary caregivers, who amazed me with their ability to display compassionate humanity, even in situations where they could have just gone through the motions. There was our invasive cardiologist, who met Dad’s stubborn reluctance to have life-saving surgery who promised to sing Dad’s favorite arias while the anesthesiologist put him under. There were the ICU nurses who, with Dad tethered to a ventilator and barely responsive, spoke to him and said, “He is such a lovely man.” When I asked how they knew anything about the man who lay hooked to tubes, they commented on his grace and the sparkle in his eye. There was the hospice care team, who knew the end was coming and engaged Mom and me in a wondrous day of reminiscing at Dad’s bedside, playing him tunes from his beloved Pavorotti and Tony Bennet and Bette Midler.
Dad was not my only caregiving teacher. My mother, also an educator, gave me and my siblings endless lessons in caregiving. It did not begin with my father’s illness. We remember Mom’s endless worrying about us with obsessive empathy. Our family joke has always been: “Your mother’s cold, put on a hat.” Even having lived through her loving mothering, I was astonished by her unending ability to morph into whatever type of caregiver my father needed in the last years of his life. Things my siblings and I thought she would never do, she did. Things so physically and emotionally difficult no one should have to do them once, let alone daily, she did. Necessity may be the mother of invention, and my mother, of necessity, re-invented herself as her spouse lost more and more function. She rarely missed a day visiting Dad whenever he was in a hospital or facility, and the nursing staff would pull me aside to say, “we don’t see love and caring like this.”
I would like to think that my siblings and I have inherited the caregiving gene (heaven knows, we sure got the worrying ones) and have been shaped by our parents. When Mom and Dad moved to the land of our forefathers . . . Florida . . . they were totally healthy and independent, and we young folks up north happily packed them off for what we believed were their golden years. Little did we know that, just as we were being promoted into the sandwich generation, my father’s health would decline. My sister, brother, and I, three very different people, became an efficient, long-distance caregiving enterprise. We rotated visits; we triaged the medical, financial and emotional needs of our parents and each other. We were not perfect, and we sometimes got it wrong, but we never stopped trying and we never stopped caring, and we never gave up on doing it as a family. I knew there were many families torn apart by caregiving, and we saw it as a wonderful accomplishment that we were able to do this together.
There is no doubt that caregiving took its toll, on all of us. I loved caring for my children when they were small. I greeted the task with exhausted elation, thrilled to be a parent and to support their growth and watch them change. Caregiving for those who are ill or aging is a different story. The loving motivation may be identical, but the reason that care is needed makes all the difference. Caring for young children is normative and filled with the excitement of new skills mastered and the promise of more growth in the future. Caring for parents or others as they age or become infirm reverses our roles, an uncomfortable situation in and of itself. The harder reality to accept is that this caretaking serves as a reminder of what has been lost and a harbinger of greater loss to come.
Caregiving can be hard, taxing, emotionally and physically. So it is a bit odd that I feel incredibly blessed to have been able to provide even a small measure of it. It changed me. It both broke and filled my heart. That is the puzzle and the power of caregiving. It is at once natural to our being and so alien that it causes us to stretch emotional muscles long atrophied. It robs us of our strength and, oddly, invigorates us. It turns relationships on their heads and at the same time cements bonds in remarkable ways. In caregiving, we are both free and tethered, lonely and together, focused on change and focused on preserving the past.
We lost my father this past summer. In his last months, after a visit with Dad, my brother shared that although unresponsive and totally dependent on others at the time, “Dad is still teaching me.” That’s what caregiving does. It is a powerful teacher. Its lessons are broad and lasting, about humanity, about human spirit and human frailty, about the people in our family we thought we knew. The most life-altering lessons caregiving offers, however, are those that teach us about ourselves.