As featured in North Hawaii News May 7, 2018
The greatest lessons in life often come from our mistakes. Through this perspective my grandma was ultimately my greatest teacher. Her dementia and bitterness destroyed our caregiving relationship. By the time of her passing, I was so hurt that I had already mourned the loss of the amazing woman I had known and loved. Through this past decade, my healing and understanding have fueled the desire for the lessons I’ve gleamed from my late grandma in order to help other family caregivers improve their situations.
I had a wide spectrum of caregiving experience before stepping into the family caregiver role and thought I was the ideal caregiver because of it. I had educational, as well as professional, experience in the field. My grandma had been my inspiration to enter into the gerontology field in the first place, yet it was a very different experience when everything I had learned needed to be utilized in a personal dynamic.
One of the first things that slipped into my subconscious mind was the dangerous word I often hear caregivers use to beat themselves up with: should. I felt that I should be able to not only meet her needs, but also should be able to swiftly anticipate and resolve those needs before they arose. Shoulding myself during and after my caregiving experience influenced my inner dialogue in a detrimental way. I was my own harshest critic because of it.
Now, with years of perspective and healing, I can clearly understand that loving someone does not mean you should be anyone other than their vulnerable and imperfect child, grandchild, sibling or spouse. In fact, the closer you are to the person you are caring for, the more blurred your vision can become. All the tips for caregiving you learn can fly out the window when you find yourself feeling responsible for ruining someone else’s happiness because you think you should have done better.
This is why professional caregivers can be such an important piece of the caregiving picture. It is best to roll with it if someone with dementia is incorrect in their recollection of something. If they think they are still living on Maui, then you pretend you’re on Maui. With that in mind, imagine your mother gave you the family holiday platter, saying she didn’t need it any more, yet the following day she insists you stole the platter. As a family member, this becomes personal very quickly.
A professional will likely assess the individual’s mood and mental status and carefully respond with an apology of misunderstanding the nature of the conversation around the platter. Letting go and moving on is the gift given to someone who does not have a history with the individual needing assistance. They are also a fresh face and personality that may be a breath of fresh air to the person you care for. Just as a substitute teacher was a special treat as a child, a substitute caregiver can bring ease and comfort to the person you are helping.
The cocktail of emotions that I experienced with grandma is very common for family members who mean well, yet beat themselves up for not being good enough. Do not buy into the notion that you are responsible for that person’s happiness. Consider their needs in two categories: comfort needs and true needs. Ultimately, their true needs are the most critical. Should you be so lucky as to reach a number of their comfort needs as well, consider that a bonus. Simply stepping in and helping is an incredible gesture.