By Sheryl Leary
Sometimes we can look to our past to learn how to find the
balance we seek in our present lives. Our memories should be
treasured and also viewed as shaping and touching our lives today.
Mimi was my great-grandmother. She lived with my
family until I was in the third grade. Mimi would get me off the bus
from kindergarten and prepare my lunch for me. She would sit with me
in the big corner chair and watch the Walton's and Lawrence Welk. We
shared things that were special for just the two us. I have never
asked my siblings if they had special times with Mimi. I guess I
donít want to let go of the illusion that I was the most special.
Mimi and I shared a love for butterscotch. Every
November for her birthday I would give her a big bag of the hard
candy. I have no idea what my siblings may have given her. It didnít
matter what others gave her; the candy was of course the best gift
she ever received. Mimi and I shared the same birthstone and I still
have the citrine ring she gave me that had been hers as a child.
That was perhaps the most precious of her tangible gifts.
The intangible gifts are what brought me to my
present life in elder care. Spending hours playing cards (crazy
eights was Mimi's specialty) made me feel special, and helped me
appreciate the bonds that exist in multi-generational families.
Holding and patting her soft hands (soft due to a religious-like
regimen with Vaseline), made me realize that elders need that touch,
and companionship. Seeing the smile on Mimi's face as I popped out
of her closet to ďsurpriseĒ her for the fiftieth time that day
helped me to learn that elders still experience the joy of family
life. Of course, I can see these gifts upon reflection as an adult.
I may not have had the maturity at age eight to understand these
gifts, but I do recall declaring that I was going to work in a
nursing home when I grew up. Somehow, those gifts had made their
impression in my brain before I knew and understood them.
Mimi did eventually go into a nursing home and
shortly thereafter I became a much more self-centered teenager. I
think now of how many times I drove my car to the mall, marveling at
my new found independence. Never once did I stop by the nursing home
on my own to see Mimi, which was just a few miles from that mall.
Upon reflection, that too is a lesson that I have learned. It is so
easy to get caught up in our own lives and ignore the larger world
Thinking of others on a daily basis is rewarding
in a way that only those who live it can understand. Caregivers know
this well. Providing for another personís needs lifts your spirit
and elevates your life. However, it can also swallow you whole. How
do you find the balance? Is it the lesson from the child who could
never have enough time with Mimi? Or is the lesson from the teenager
who never had enough time for Mimi? Is this the lesson we are still
learning into adulthood? How do we balance our needs with the needs
of those around us? Some of these questions are too hard to answer
in a sentence or even a paragraph. Maybe it is okay that we donít
know the answer as long as we are searching. Finding the balance is
truly an art form.
For caregivers to find this balance, they need
to recognize when they are feeling stress. Experiencing stress
symptoms is a bodyís way of informing us that we are not in balance.
Some of the signs of stress are: tearfulness, having a short temper,
exhaustion, weight gain or weight loss, inability to recover from
illness, continually feeling guilty. Identifying that you are
experiencing a stress response is the first step in finding the
Once you know you are experiencing stress, you
have to look at the source. Sometimes you can change it; sometimes
you cannot. For caregivers, often the only thing you can control is
your response, your attitude. When in this situation, take a look at
your stressors. Maybe you cannot keep your motherís Alzheimerís
disease from progressing further. But what can you change? You can
alter the environment to make it more comfortable and suitable for a
person with this brain disease. You can make a daily effort to
experience laughter, even if you have to buy a joke book and read it
to yourself. You can make an effort to get respite help either
formally through an agency or informally through family and friends.
You can find out the options for on-line support, email and
telephone support as well as local caregiver support group
meetings. You can look at a picture of your mother from when you
were growing up to remind yourself of the loving looks, the caring
touch you may not be receiving now. You can contact your area agency
on aging to learn what your local family caregiver support program
Deciding what you can do will help caregivers
find their balance. Managing lifeís circumstances is always hard.
When you add otherís needs into the mix, it becomes a daily
challenge. Look to lessons learned from your past and those that
have touched your life. Be proactive, recognize your own symptoms,
and remind yourself that you have needs as well. When all else
fails, have a butterscotch candy and play crazy eights; that always
works for me.