There was not way I could pick out a ten essential passages from Chapter Five of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older, Wandering in the Wilderness … caring for our fragile dear ones – – needed a baker’s dozen.
In this commentary on my Chapter Five pickings, Rabbi Friedman’s words are in italics, mine are regular type:
The caregiving role will likely be profoundly challenging; it will also begin our preparation for our own aging, as it will place us in intimate relationship with aging. – – In a nutshell, this describes why I wish everyone had the opportunity to have connection with, especially help care for, loved ones as they age upward.
I was blessed to have olders in my life from babyhood to present day. Elderly friends like “Grandma” Rose, Viola Ridgeway, Cornelia Stroh, Benita Odhner & a host of others were part of my world & life, thanks to living in a community where all generations mixed & mingled.
We still have traces of that lifestyle, although it has gotten less & less over the past forty years. Olders elders ancients now sell their homes & move into retirement residences; if I was in college today, I’d never have the opportunity to clean house on Saturday morning for Miss Phoebe Bostock (born 1887) or Friday afternoons for Solange Howard (born 1882).
Today, it’s rare when youngers have the sort of regular connection that I enjoyed through weekly community suppers, where young folk & grey-haired grandparents passed the platters of Dave Roscoe’s roast beef & bowls of peas & mashed potatoes. I grew up in a town where elders were respected, grandparents & older relatives honored, and old age wasn’t considered a fate worse than death.
As for caregiving placing us “in intimate relationship with aging” – – absolutely. From watching Mrs. Howard, in her 90s, care for her beloved Wilfred, to helping “Aunt” Benita, bed-ridden with severe osteoporosis, to having Mom with us from our first year of marriage to the last moment of her life, seeing how each of them rose to their occasion with courage, strength &, above all, a great sense of humor, each – and so many others – gave me role models & mentors should I trip my “old”-o-meter into my 80s & upward.
We will learn from the examples of those we care for, positive and negative, about how to cope with dependency, frailty, and dying. We will confront our own fears and very possibly discover strengths we didn’t know we had. – – Death is easy, dying is hard. Some people do it with grace, others make life hell for their caregivers & loved ones. All provide the lessons to which Rabbi Friedman refers. The more challenging the person, the deeper, greater the lesson can be. My first experience with death was my brother’s, when he was eleven & I was seven; I was forever marked, in a good way, by my parents’ response to the tragedy, particularly by Dad’s, who – unlike my mother – was able to show his grief. My father greeted his diagnosis of terminal cancer with deep sadness to be parted from his family, from his O Best Beloved, but was resolute in his trust that all would be well. Mother showed similar grace during her last seven weeks, with an added sense of excitement – – she was absolutely sure she would be, after 28 long years, reunited with her Own True Love. A reminder that I am not well versed in the sort of heart-grinding situations that so often occur – – both my parents were gone within eight weeks of their diagnosis. But I have heard from friends who cared long & in some case for extremely difficult loved ones who felt that, after time, they came to see a blessing in their experience.
As in the wilderness through which the Jewish people wandered for forty years after the Exodus from Egypt, there are few landmarks in the terrain of caregiving, and there is no map. – – All too true, especially for the majority of caregivers, ones providing care to a loved one, who stumble into caregiving. There’s shelf upon shelf of books at Barnes & Noble on what to expect throughout pregnancy & delivery, on effective parenting. Where are the books on childing, on how to prepare a fragile loved one – of any age – for possible dependency, on how to support them as they approach death? It’s not just that “there are few landmarks in the terrain of caregiving, and there is no map.” There aren’t many books on aging & dying, and they certainly don’t attract a wide readership. There are some wondrous books on death & dying that should be – but aren’t – read by people of all ages, from young adults to elders.
There is vulnerability and sometimes deprivation. We may be stretched beyond our limits – of physical strength, of emotional equilibrium, of finances. – – We went through our savings during Mom’s final hospital stays, which included weeks of hotel stays, meals & rental cars during her stay at INOVA/Alexandria. But the toll can be just as brutal on physical strength & emotions.
When we care for a parent or partner who is chronically ill or disabled, it is hard to know when enough is enough. We can never do for our parents what they did for us. … Often there is no easy way to be or to give “enough.” Of course, we may sometimes – or often – feel guilty. We feel guilty when we need to leave a parent’s side to go to a meeting, when we can’t stand the idea of going back to the nursing home to visit an in-law, when we resent the demands placed on us, and when nothing we can do will make it better for our dear one. – – This reality is why I wish every caregiver would get someone separate from the situation, someone who is not a personal friend, to confide throughout the care. Because it is so easy to feel that even giving everything is not enough. When we care for a baby, we know the end is a independence. With loved ones, it is death. Enough is never enough because the outcome is what it is. It is essential that caregivers have someone with whom they can fall apart. By the say, the same is true of the care receiver.
Caregiving can be relentless. With all of the compelling demands we as caregivers face, it is easy to forget about our own needs.
The caregiver … must attend to his or her own well-being. No one else can do this. If I do not nourish myself, I will be unable to care for anyone else. (We need to) put ourselves on the “to do” list – for the sake of those we care for and for our own sake. – – These two hit home, thanks to personal experience. My mother had a nervous breakdown following the double whammy of two family medical crises that she tried to handle on her own. And my beloved Aunt Mollie died after wearing herself out caring for her sister, Aunt Margie, who lived on for several more years.
We are required to attend to ourselves, but ultimately, we are meant to be there for others. We are fulfilling our human potential when we offer compassion and support to the people around us. – – The reason I was there for my mother throughout her final years & especially her final weeks was because that is what we are supposed to do – be there when we are need, offering compassion & support. What else is life about?
As caregivers, we need, in each moment, to discern what is most important right now. … Perhaps the most essential thing is not any instrumental task, … but being there, if we are able, with the person in our care. … We’re called to tolerate frustration and exhaustion and show up with as much tenderness as we can muster. – – I don’t know why this makes me think about Mom & the blueberry muffins, but it does. I think it was late Thursday night that Mom asked to have a blueberry muffin. Naturally, I did not want to deny my dying mother any request she might have, but I was pretty tuckered out by that point & sure that the local supermarket wouldn’t have blueberry muffins at 11:00 p.m. I asked if it was okay if I got one for her in the morning. Mom smiled & agreed. The next morning, I was at the market by 7:00 & by 7:30 a.m. my mother was happy as all get out to be having a few bites of a blueberry muffin.
Many people are greatly tried to move past their frustrations with aged loved ones, whether they are fit & demanding or frail & in need of endless support. When we dig down to pull up all the tenderness we can muster, it does something to us, leaves us tenderized in a special way.
Edith Wharton wrote a story that I loved as a high school freshman – “Afterward.” The storyline was that you’d only know something happened after it had, when it was past. That’s my feeling what the gifts of caregiving – – they might not be present at the time, but when the care is given with a loving heart & caring spirit, they will be experienced… afterward.
Prayer enables us to bring the language of holiness and blessings to our spiritual distress. … Even if all we can muster is a simple word or phrase, such as “help me,” that, too, can bring connection. … Prayer (& other) sacred moments … (help us feel) connected to past and future. – – Even the non-religious find themselves asking for God’s help in times of trial. There is a reason – it helps.
Caregiving is often invisible – the people we work with or live near have no way of knowing that we race at lunchtime to do the nursing home to pick up Mom’s laundry or that we spent our vacation with a brother undergoing chemo. We may have no one with whom to share the stress, grief, and confusion we feel. … We can find grounding, inspiration, and support when we are in a barren place by being in relationships, in community.
Many of us have great difficulty expressing vulnerability, asking for or receiving. If God is to be found in community, then allowing others to help us be a path to holiness. – – It is in times of caregiving that we need our community of friends more than ever, yet it’s also the time we tend to shut down & to shut them out. Especially today, as more & more people have online communities, while fewer & fewer belong to faith communities or organizations that nurture a sense of community. My various communities were what got me through a serious illness of John’s, Mom’s various hospitalizations, her death. Do the difficult to do – reach out for help. And, when you can, give it to those thrust into caregiving – I cannot express the sense of comfort received from a friend dropping off a quart of soup & a great loaf of bread.
Again, I urge you all – – get, read, devour this remarkable book, Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older!