This essay was originally published in The Huffington Post. Re-posted with Jacobs’ permission.
The six-and-a-half years that I’ve been caring for my aging mother would seem like a blur of appointments, pills, and thrown-together meals if not for periodic times to reflect. The new year is one such vantage-point. How am I doing? I ask myself. How are we doing? I ask her. What gumption, luck, and juggling are needed to manage the emotional, medical, and financial challenges in the months ahead?
The year is best approached by all family caregivers with hope, the anticipation of positive gratification, and firm resolve. That takes specific resolutions and goals. Here are some of mine for 2017:
I will strive to see the forest for the trees: There is so much to do as a caregiver each day that it is easy to get caught up in the tasks at hand and lose sight of the greater mission. But caregiving is not about checking off chores on an endless to-do list; it’s about making personal sacrifices on behalf of someone you love. When I’m preoccupied with getting through to my mother’s doctors or directing her aides or filling out forms, then I feel mostly frustrated. In the coming year, I hope to keep focused on the positive reason I’m doing what I do—to help my mom live as well as she can.
I will aim for joy, not bitterness: Over the years, I’ve been irked at times by critical family members and aggravated by professionals who don’t listen well and give impractical advice. But I keep reminding myself it’s the small moments that are sustaining. If I can get my mother interested in looking at old photos and sharing family history with me, then that’s a victory. When she smiles, I smile and the day has some sweetness.
I will learn to better compartmentalize: This seems to me the key to emotional wellness—to be present where we are at any given moment. I don’t want to be awake thinking about what happened at my mother’s doctor’s appointment or worrying about work when I’m with her or ruminating about Mom when I’m with my wife and kids. I have to develop thicker walls between the different parts of my life. I have to learn to fully inhabit each room when I’m there.
I will connect with those who are responsive: A truism of family caregiving is that some of the people who we expect to help us don’t, while others who we don’t expect to step up do. Rather than being disappointed with those who failed us, it is better to focus on those who supported us. I should strengthen my connections with those relatives, neighbors, work colleagues, and fellow caregivers who have cared, commiserated, and pitched in.
I will make my requests for help more specific and concrete: Another truism is that “Not all help is helpful.” Lots of well-meaning people tell caregivers, “Let me know if I can ever be of help.” But those undefined offers of assistance generally amount to nothing. People are much more likely to give help if the ask is as tangible—and do-able—as possible. In 2017, I plan to reach out to others with very specific requests for discrete tasks within given time-frames.
I will practice self-kindness: I have great expertise at finding fault with my own caregiving. It’s being kind to myself—appreciating that I’m doing the best that I can, however imperfect it often is—that is the bigger challenge. Beating myself up degrades my morale but rarely leads to improvements in my performance. I want to see myself positively for who I am—a son who tries.
I will be open to transformation: My mother is gradually becoming more limited in her abilities to think and express herself clearly. She is now mostly wheelchair-bound. These changes mean change for me, too, and not just in taking on more tasks. To really be with her, I have to be more patient and compassionate. When she is afraid, I have to reassure. This is growth that can only make me a better and more caring person.
More challenges are coming in the next year. I can’t say I’m ready for all of them. But I’m willing to adapt, muddle forward, and learn.