Saturday, June 28, 2008

Give Yourself to Love

"Give yourself to love
If love is what you're after.
Open up your hearts to
The tears and laughter.
Give yourself to love,
Give yourself to love."
--Kate Wolf

My clients have been teaching me some important life lessons. While I consider my job to be about helping people learn to set limits and boundaries so they can take care of themselves better, I've recently had a spate of caregivers tell me the importance of risking it all for a cause you believe in. When the universe sends me the same message over and over I sit up and take notice, so when three caregivers in a row told me about how important it was for them to have made family caregiving the center of their lives despite the toll it took I decided it was time to write about that.

I sometimes have clients who are literally killing themselves to keep loved ones at home. I beg and plead with them to get some rest, to take time off, to let more people help and they refuse. One person explained it to me like this: "I made a commitment to my husband to see him through this time in his life and, by God, I'm going to be there!" Another recounted the story of how her concerned children actually slipped her a sleeping pill without her knowledge to make her get some rest while they watched her husband. Something happened when she was asleep that she wasn't able to be there for and she has resented the interference ever since. She wanted to be there. It didn't matter that other people were there to take care of things for her -- this is what she wanted to do with this time of her life, period!

Many clients have told me how precious they consider the time they spent with their ailing loved ones to be. It's hard, almost unbelievably challenging, and yet something they would not have missed for the world. The studies that worry me about family caregiving show that elderly caregivers over the age of 65 taking care of someone with dementia have a 60% higher mortality rate than elderly people who are not caregiving. However, the latest studies show that family caregivers in general (all ages, all kinds of illnesses) score higher on tests of physical and emotional well-being after their caregiving days are over than those people who have not done family caregiving. The emotional satisfaction and self-esteem that come from having seen a loved one through a difficult time of crisis and transition appear to far outweigh the negatives (if you survive).

What this information has meant for me as a caregiving consultant is that I am far more reluctant to tell a client that she "can't" do what she is trying to do. I still want my clients to take breaks, get other people involved and make taking care of themselves their highest priority because I want them to survive their caregiving experience and actually succeed at doing the best job as caregivers that they possibly can. But I also have to respect that sometimes love demands a person to make sacrifices that seem over the top to those of us who are not in similar situations. Caregivers put in superhuman efforts to keep their loved ones at home, parents stay up round the clock with sick children, lovers leave promising careers, family and friends to be with their beloveds. I, myself, still grieve the loss of having left my native New England to be with my husband, now ex-husband, in Santa Cruz. I grieve my losses but I don't regret the decision because when loving someone means so much you do what needs to be done and, no matter how it ends up, the loving was not in vain.

The previous blog was an excerpt from The Spiritual Journey of Family Caregiving.

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