Being a caregiver can be a wonderful experience, or something to be feared. The nature and quality of your experience will be determined by a myriad of factors, some of them beyond your control.
Some of this depends on what's going on with the person you are caring for. What kind of deficiencies are they (and you) dealing with? Cognitive or physical problems will lean in upon you in differing weights, depending on how mild or severe they are.
What is your support system like? Do you have friends or family that offer sympathy, encouragement and practical help like a day off, a meal they've brought over? Will they do some chores or run errands for you?
Do you have medical help from doctors, helping organizations or personal support workers? Is a program like Meals on Wheels an option?
And — perhaps the most important factor of all — what has your relationship with this person been in the past, and what is it like now in the present? And do each of you have the flexibility to roll with whatever changes have been thrust upon you both?
Let me paint two very different pictures, involving one couple, Kent and Elizabeth*, and their two dads.
Kent shouldered a difficult burden when his father was in need of a caregiver. He'd been diagnosed with lung cancer and was showing rapidly increasing signs of dementia. Partly due to his dad's recent cancer diagnosis and also due to the dementia, abrupt and drastic mood swings were popping up more and more often, without warning.
His dad didn't want to move out of his home, so Kent drove the 10 miles or so between his house and his father's every day — sometimes several times a day. At first this wasn't too challenging but as one month led to another Kent was feeling frayed and trapped.
Fortunately there was medical and domestic assistance from personal support workers, which meant a break a few times a week for Kent.
Eventually, with the help of a local agency offering information, assistance and support for patients and their caregivers, he was able to accept that his dad needed to move to a senior's home a five-minute drive from Kent's own house.
Their relationship had always been troubled. The unloving father now did not hold the upper hand as he found himself needing his previously unappreciated son.
Would the son forgive the past? Would he be able to be compassionate and offer up the seemingly endless sacrifice for this person who had shown so little regard for him in the past?
Yes, he could. And yes, he did.
By the end, the father was the vulnerable child. His son was the protector and nurturer. He said, "I love you." His father said, "Me too."
That was perhaps as close as he'd ever gotten to saying he loved his son. Perhaps it was close enough.
From start to finish, Kent's role as caregiver only lasted for about six months, but it has taken him years to recuperate from it all.
By contrast, there is the present situation shared by Kent's wife Elizabeth and her dad.
She'd had Kent's experience to caution her, to help her decide ahead of time what she did and didn't want, what she would and wouldn't do or accept. She had learned that there are limits to what a person should have to endure, and she was prepared to defend herself if need be.
But as it turned out, Elizabeth has been more fortunate than Kent had been. Her dad's limitations are not so severe. He doesn't have terminal cancer, for one thing, and he doesn't have dementia.
He'd been very ill, and was suffering from exhaustion, needing 24-hour care in a senior's home. But though he was easily worn out, his mind was still his own. And though he was no longer able to take care of himself, he was not seriously ill.
He had macular degeneration, and leaky heart valves, and he had a bad knee. His memory was very poor and his energy wouldn't have filled a teaspoon, but once he'd been moved and was receiving care, he began to regain strength and ability.
Elizabeth's relationship with her dad had blown hot and cold at different junctures over the last 50 years. There have been times when she's had to remind herself that this is a new era, and some things from the past should just stay there.
Mostly though, they've been having a pleasantly companionable season. She visits him almost every day, and they reminisce a lot about the past that they share.
"Didn't we have a claw foot tub in the old house?" "How did you used to make your old spare rib recipe?" "Why didn't we wear gloves when we put up the fiberglass insulation when I was twelve?"
They talk about how the family used to watch the local fireworks from their roof, and about what kind of fruit trees they'd had in that yard long ago. They both smile when they talk about making Christmas cookies together, and how all the kids used to march through the house to Wagner records, when Elizabeth was a child.
She talks with him about things he used to do for the family, confirming for him that all the sacrifices mattered then and still matter now. How much fun it was for her when he'd take her to a department store after her orthodontic appointments when she was a teenager. How the neighborhood kids liked going for walks with them all.
Elizabeth has learned some things about her dad that she never knew before.
He missed his college graduation ceremony because Elizabeth's mother had bad morning sickness and he wasn't about to leave her ill and alone. Talking about this, he looked up at Elizabeth with a surprised expression.
"That was you, wasn't it." That baby, who had been such a complication even before she was born, had turned by some amazing alchemy into the woman he looked forward to seeing every day.
She didn't know that he ran down the street to get Gene Autrey's autograph for her brother back in Autrey's hey-day as the singing cowboy. She didn't know how worried he was when she had kidney infections in grade school and later when her baby brother had meningitis.
She hadn't realized how dedicated he was to their family, as he worked his way up from nothing — when he rarely had the nickel it cost to buy a cup of coffee on his way to work — to sending her and all her siblings to college and university.
He had never talked much about such things in the past. But things are different now.
Elizabeth feels that she's been given a second chance, for a relationship she hasn't had with her dad since she was a little girl. And it seem like he has been surprised to find that when he is in need, she's willing to be there, day in and day out.
She doesn't think he expected that. And she hadn't been so sure at the outset that she could or would do it, either.
One day when Elizabeth came in to see him, he opened his arms and said, "Hello ... my friend." She is his friend now. And that might never have happened if he hadn't needed someone to care for him.
* Kent and Elizabeth have chosen not to use their real names to protect the privacy of all the individuals involved.
Visit Jody's website at http://www.ncubator.ca