One of the brightest blessings in my life was my mother, Ann. She passed away this year in January, and her 93rd birthday would have been next week, so I am feeling a very complicated mix of emotions. And it occurs to me that so many caregivers face these jumbled roller-coaster emotions pretty much all the time. I think being willing to be emotionally vulnerable is almost a prerequisite to taking on the role of caregiver. You somehow find a way to blend love, duty, a desire to give, to be compassionate, to let your hands and heart do the work needed to bring tender loving care to another. You have to find a balance in the juxtaposition of both opening the heart and shielding it to protect it from being crushed and shattered. It is not an easy task. And yet it is one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have, in my opinion.
The key words about caregiving that come up repeatedly for me are compassion, vulnerability, stamina, and acceptance. You need them all in just about equal measure in order to keep your balance and not lose your own sense of self while caring for another. So, I picture these qualities as the legs on a table of caregiving -- if they are equal, the table top is evenly "balanced", strong and stable and it can bear a great deal of weight (and many blessings, too!). If not, things slip off and hit the floor, and shatter into a million pieces. Things like your sanity, peace of mind, self-esteem, health, and other really important stuff. Compassion and vulnerability are the "softer" emotions you need to draw upon to be loving and effective as a caregiver, while stamina and acceptance are strong qualities that you need to use in order to keep your own health and well-being intact. They all work together to create a good support for both you and your loved one.
So, how do you get your caregiving table in balance? I really wish there was a "one-size-fits-all" answer to this question, but, though there is a lot of advice out there, I think this is something each individual caregiver has to come to terms with in his or her own situation, with regard to the personalities and needs, relationships and responsibilities involved. From my own experience, I would encourage you to keep your heart open, even knowing the risks. Find ways to keep the softer qualities of compassion and vulnerability alive and prevent yourself from hardening as a defense mechanism. (Gratitude and remembering all the good in life, past and present help!) With some practice, this is similar to juggling and it becomes almost automatic. Sometimes it is simply keeping your attention on the balance aspect that is necessary to make it work. Other times, it is reaching out for help (there's vulnerability, again!) Keeping your own spirit strong and nurtured is crucial, and this website is full of ideas and information to help you do that through relieving stress, finding peace and comfort, balancing your own needs and care with that of your loved one.
So, to all the caregivers and to those they love: Wishes for a bountiful, beautiful, balanced table of blessings at Thanksgiving and the same for the caregiving table all year round!