Caregiving often calls us to lean into love we didn’t know was possible.
– Tia Walker
It is not how much you do, but how much love you put in the doing.
– Mother Teresa
I don’t know where I learned that helping someone was doing for them. Maybe I lacked sufficient “helping” experience so it was just a concept that I translated to another “doing” action. Caregiving for family members during the past year has taught me that doing for someone is not necessarily helpful. I’ve learned that helping means different things at different times and is highly dependent on the needs of the loved one needing care. “Duh.” I can hear you thinking. As a reformed “A” type doer, this realization did not come easily.
When my husband returned home after almost two months of hospital care, first in the ICU and then an acute care facility, he could not be alone. After his cardiac surgery, many therapists came by daily to build his mental and physical strength, but I was his trusted support and helper. I fell into a pattern of automatically anticipating his needs and doing what needed to be done for him. As he began to feel better, his desire to do for himself increased. Sometimes this desire exceeded physical capability. As he gradually regained independence, I struggled “to be” his support instead of “doing” for him. Routine activities became slow motion acts of mindfulness. He was learning to use his body again, as I stood by on alert in case of need.
Doing for someone else can make us feel good. Especially if the person appreciates the help. If a friend is sick and too ill to prepare food, its natural to prepare a nutritious meal to help them feel better. Maybe this is where I equated doing with helping. After several months of learning the dance of doing for my hubby versus offering support as needed, I thought I understood the difference between daily caregiving and helping out a friend or family member in need.
When my sister contacted me to tell me my Mom had fallen and broken her humerus, I signed on to head North to help out for a week. Mom’s doctor had insisted she not be left alone as she was frail and could suffer another fall. My fiercely independent Mom had been living on her own for over a decade in the two story home that we grew up in. Mom is more active and social than most people half her age. Never-the-less, my sisters and I quickly stepped in to make sure she would not be alone as she healed. She’s climbed the steep stairs from the ground floor to her bedroom for nearly 60 years and found us all to be overly concerned about her safety. We located a home health care service who could add support during the times that we had other commitments. My sisters had discussed the care needed with the owner and it was suggested that she have two different caregivers, one for the day and one for night. As we prepared to meet with the owner, I jumped into my project manager mindset and coordinated schedules with my sisters to ensure I understood the coverage needed. While Mom was reluctant to bring in outsiders, we thought we had convinced her that she would do better with more qualified caregivers than her daughters.
Ever so efficient, I outlined a schedule with required dates and times, where help was needed. I came up with an estimate of the cost and proudly presented the proposed schedule to my Mom. As I was explaining the proposed plan, I felt my normally appreciative and vibrant Mom, go stone cold. I glanced up and she was staring at me very deliberately. She said, “So, there will be someone here at night, while I sleep?” “Yes.” I feigned a cheerful reply trying to keep things light. “It won’t be for long. It’s just until the doctor gives the ok for you to move around on your own safely.” As I looked at her sad and distressed face, I felt as though I had ripped her heart from her chest. I felt a deep sense of regret and pain for my insensitivity at not recognizing this intrusion on her privacy. My efficiency at trying to get things done, had taken away her sense of control over her life. I wasn’t the least bit helpful even though I thought I was acting in her best interests.
My heart ached for days. How could I have been more helpful? …more compassionate with her situation? Mom ended up loving her daytime caregiver. Fortunately, as expected, she didn’t need the night time help for long. She’s back to living life to its fullest. The deep hurt that I inadvertently caused has haunted me. How do we learn to just be when we have a loved one who is in need? As Roslyn Carter said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers. Those who are currently caregivers. Those who will be caregivers and those who will need a caregiver.” There is much learning in each of these cases. In my case, my own self-care is essential to maintain the patience so that I know when to “be” or “do” what is needed. Being present with the fears and concerns of our loved one cannot be solved by doing. It takes time and patience. At the end of the day, all we can do is the best we can.