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Caregiving: What’s in It for Me?—Redux

I’ve been poking around the blog this week pulling out a few posts to use as a basis for a submission to a local writing contest.  In the process I came across a post that I wrote about a year after Dad’s death.  I like it so much that I think it’s worth re-posting.  So here it is

Exploring the Gifts of Caregiving

Caregiving can be hard.  Really, really hard.  As Bill has said, it can feel a lot like rolling a boulder up a steep hill only to have it plunge back down to the bottom over and over again.  I have also heard caregivers describe the job as an endless roller coaster ride or a long slog through a muddy marsh in the rain.

Part of what makes caregiving so challenging is that many of us start out knowing very little about the crucial medical, legal and social service domains that impact the elderly.   When Bill and I were caregivers for my dad, Frank, we needed to master all sorts of new topics we truly did not want to know so much about–living wills and advance directives for example. The obligations and responsibilities of a POA.  Long term care options, the relative value of various Medicare Part D prescription drug plans, and the ins and outs of VA health and pension benefits.   To name a few.

Of course once we reach middle age, we are all constantly being advised to inform ourselves about these things.  The experts tell us that this is absolutely in our best interests.  Most of us resist this advice at first–especially since we anticipate that much of what we find out now will have changed by the time we will actually need to know it.

So, where is the gift here?

Aging expert  Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D.,  proposed a program of brain fitness training that includes mental exercise and the mastering of new skills and subject matters.  This program is intended to enhance brain health by increasing the power, clarity and subtlety of the over-50 brain and mind. We know that caring for aging parents demands the vigorous application of brain and mind to new problems in exactly the way that scientists believe promotes brain development in middle age and beyond.  And this is all without the need for Sudoku or expensive programmed brain training classes or computerized systems.

It’s great to think that caregiving might leave us with a sharper mind, but what about the psychological cost and the unhealthy stress that caregivers can’t escape? My own appreciation of the exercise my brain was getting in Dad’s final months was blunted by the emotional consequence of witnessing the physical and intellectual deterioration that left Dad frail and often confused.

Can the sorrow and loss that is an inevitable part of caregiving possibly be of any benefit to us?

One of the gifts for Bill was the growth of compassion and love he experienced as son-in-law caregiver for my dad.

For myself, I am honored to have been given the chance to witness and to share Dad’s struggle with growing limitation and with the knowledge that death was creeping ever closer.  Many of the feelings I experienced in the course of Dad’s long slow decline were unpleasant in the extreme, but I think having the opportunity to make friends with these feelings now enables me to look ahead to my old age and death with a new openness and curiosity.  I have come to believe that our struggle with fear of old age and death opens a doorway into a new inner world—an advanced level of consciousness that Lars Tornstam calls gerotranscendence,  Allan Chinen labels emancipated innocence and Carl Jung  identifies as the wholeness that results from reaching the pinnacle of adult development.

We’d love to hear about the gifts you have received from caregiving.  Click the link below to add a comment to this post.


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