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The Wisdom of Caregivers

An Essay by Connie Goldman

There are only four kinds of people in this world, says former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who once served as a family caregiver: "Those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers. That pretty much covers all of us."

There's wisdom in knowing how others have handled the challenges that often face family caregivers. Hearing about the learning and healing that many have experienced in such circumstances can help current caregivers cope with their situations.

Most people know that being a caregiver can be stressful and isolating. There is often the sacrifice of time and energy, the pushing aside of personal priorities and commitments, the guilt of not being able to do more to heal the person in need. Caregivers often are stressed and worried, faced with the need to juggle work, children, a spouse, running a household of their own and potentially the home of the person in their care.

One of the most important rules to being a good caregiver is to make time for your personal needs. While that's easier said than done in many situations, little else is more critical. When you feel like you just can't get away, remember the saying, "Take care of yourself so you can take care of others."

So find someone — a friend, relative, or professional — who can come in a few hours a week to let you run an errand, get some exercise or sleep, spend time in the garden, or have lunch with a friend. It's important to stop feeling guilty and let go of the notion that no one can care for your spouse, parent, sibling, or friend better than you.

While caregiving can be enormously challenging, tending to a loved one also can come with many rewards. Some of these positive returns might not become apparent until after the caregiving period is over, yet we can learn from the experience of others. Many caregivers observe that the time they spent helping another person was a time of new understanding and deep personal growth.

They learned compassion, patience, the value of small conversations, and the process of slowing down. Caregiver Wendy Lustbader, who moved her mother-in-law into her home, described the time she spent caring for her as a personal wake up call. When she took her mother-in-law on walks, they had to move very slowly. But that pace allowed her mother-in-law to observe every flower, garden arrangement, and statuette, and find delight in all she saw. Lustbader says she still carries the gift of slowing down and really seeing the world with her today.

Taking care of a loved one also can be a time to heal troubled relationships and deal with unresolved anger or misunderstandings from the past. Many caregivers say the time they spent tending to a loved one drew them together and allowed them to connect, even if it was simply by holding hands or rubbing the patient's back.

Serving as a family caregiver can be a time of learning — whether you are 40 or 80. Healing comes from looking beyond the stress and grief of the situation and knowing that others have found insights and learning through even the most difficult of times.

Connie Goldman is an award-winning independent radio producer, author, and public speaker formerly on staff at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. She has written four books, including The Gifts of Caregiving: Stories of Hardship, Hope and Healing. Goldman's latest book is Late Life Love: Romance and New Relationships in Later Years (Fairview Press, 2006). July 2007.

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