It happened again. Someone approached me at the long-term care facility where my mother once lived (she died just over a year ago) and where I now volunteer, to talk.
Just when I think I will stop blogging about caring for parents with Alzheimer’s, something happens to pull me in.
This family member looked anxious. She doesn’t visit every day, but she does visit often. And she is thoughtful when she visits. The room of her loved one has all the elements of considered care and placement of mementos – photos, art, books, comfortable chair, lovely seasonal wreath on the door, flowers and plants. Cards and tokens are pinned to the bulletin board. The room is bright and airy; the curtains are pulled back to expose a huge picture window.
One of the most challenging and difficult times is how we adjust to our new reality – our loved one has now entered a care facility. Most of us recognize that this monumental step signifies a final stage; we recognize that it is highly unlikely that our loved one will return home. Unfortunately, our loved one often does not recognize this; they live in perpetual wanting to go home.
This finality unnerves us – it represents many losses for both us and our loved ones. Loss of independence, loss of health, loss of mobility, loss of our home (and all that our home represents) and more.
So as family members, we struggle with the losses and the grief and sorrow that is attached to those losses. And we are tired. We are bone-weary. Many family members carry the load (the responsibilities and the sorrows) alone.
We are filled with incessant thoughts and emotions: a 24-hour, non-stop tour of what ifs? The ever-running reel fills our bodies, minds, and spirits with toxic energy. Self-care took a detour ages ago.
Our attention and our energy has lived in the past or in the future; but seldom, in the present.
Reality lives in the Present. But, sadly, we have chosen to live in the past or future in our heads because we do not accept the present.
So in awareness of my present, I sat down with my new friend. (We are all joined together on this journey.)
Most people just want to talk. We want to be heard. Who else will listen when we are suffering? The rest of the family is suffering, too, right? And most of us want to protect our loved ones from our worry and stress…so we do not share our thoughts. So we hold it in.
And so she talked. And I listened.
And when she had finished, I passed on a little of the lessons that I have learned from my journey – a journey that is rarely unique.
I remind her that “your mother’s journey is not your journey. Even though you share some of it with her, you are not your mother; this is not your life. You are not here to heal her. That’s not your job.”
“Your only job is to love her. And that is evident in your actions and your words. Give yourself permission (and it is a choice) to love life and find joy and contentment, even today, right now, while you visit and care for her.”
Earlier, when I parked my car outside the care facility, I could hear a cardinal in the distance. Its song was distinctive. I stopped and searched the pines that grow along the fence of the grounds of the facility. I spotted him (deep red) at the top of the branches. I stood and listened to his song for a few minutes. I was present.
Later, when the woman approached me, I knew instinctively that she was seeking me out to talk. I have learned to pay attention to present moments when I visit and volunteer; I have learned to listen to my instincts when I encounter residents, staff members, and family.
Listening and paying attention to my instincts is an ability that each and every one of us possesses – but we need to pause to allow our instincts to arise. It’s an ability that we must nurture.
Awareness, first. Awareness is key. Awareness of the fact that we are tired, that we are grieving, and that we have unrealistic expectations: If I do more, visit more, talk more, I can change her (heal her) and she will be happy.
Next, acceptance. A simple concept. Too simple? We have been trained all our life to conceptualize, label, edit, analyze, reject, deny, dismiss…but too accept the present moment? The present moment is reality. Eckhart Tolle suggests that to not accept the present moment means not to accept our reality – and he calls that madness.
How can acceptance lead me to peace? How can acceptance alleviate my problems?
When we accept the reality of the present moment, we let go of expectations; we let go of worry and stress about the past and the future. We let go when we accept and recognize our emotions – oh, I am filled with worry about my mother; oh, I am filled with worry that my life is over; oh, I recognize that I am angry about this situation; oh, I am filled with guilt.
In other words, by accepting our emotions, we accept the present moment. Acceptance or recognition of our emotions allows us to feel compassion for ourselves, rather than fighting our emotions (which makes us feel worse). So acceptance doesn’t alleviate the problems that we face in this moment, but it allows us to step back and just allow the emotions – space. Space. Take a breath. Allow ourselves to release the pent-up energy of these toxic emotions that are consuming our bodies.
Again, Eckhart Tolle urges us to recognize each moment as if it were our true purpose in life.
That practice can transform your energy. Instead of worrying about the past or the future (what ifs), we can pay attention to our present moment. We would enter our loved one’s room as if she was our true purpose in life. You will accept whatever happens as you enter. Is she upset? Then calmly bring your attention (and peaceful energy) to her needs. Calmly and lovingly. Listen. Pay attention to her face and determine if she is in pain? Is she tired? Is she anxious? Sit down and assess the room. Is it too dark? Are the lights glaring? Is the television on? (Turn it off.) All of the time, staying alert and present, but calm and peaceful. Allow her to recognize that your energy is one of compassion, kindness and love.
In stillness, listen to your own instincts. You might already know what is wrong (you know her better than the staff). Answers will arise within you.
You might suggest a walk outdoors; a shared cup of tea; a story; a visit to another resident’s room or a visit to the activity room.
Or you might just want to lean in and whisper, “I am here for you.”
When the visit is over, hug your loved one and whisper some loving, kind words of comfort. Assure her that you will visit again soon (you don’t need to state a date) and that she matters to you. And allow her to know how much this visit meant to you.
Ignore any words of complaint or of dissatisfaction (or worse). Detach yourself from her negative energy. Recognize that her complaints are valid; but that you cannot heal them or change her thoughts.
You are doing the best that you can. Your presence (staying present to the moment) is your best. And that is enough.
At the moment, while I am writing this post, I glance up and see that it is snowing outside. My back yard is a winter wonderland. After early spring-like weather, and plants that have emerged from the dark earth, the air is filled with large, white snowflakes. I stop to breathe in the view. It won’t last – the temperatures are too high and the ground is too warm. I love this in-between season: winter doesn’t want to leave but spring is impatient; she is pushing and shoving winter out.
I rarely complain about weather – wasted energy, in my opinion, to complain about the reality of weather. Besides, nature never ceases to astound me. Full of beauty and wonder; harmony and balance. And transience. For me, Nature is ephemeral and that is her greatest lesson (a gift).
What I really want to say, but won’t, to the family member who is tired and grieving is this:
“You think that the more you visit her, she will appreciate your efforts and tell you that she is happy now. You think that if you do enough for her that she will stop and tell you that she forgives you and that she doesn’t blame you because she now lives in the care facility.”
What if I told you that in all the years that I have spent, either care giving or visiting a loved one in a long-term care facility or in a hospital, or hearing other family members tell me their stories, or volunteering, I have never once heard of a resident or a patient telling their loved one that they are happy where they are – that they like the care facility or that they are glad that they live here. Never.
So what if I offered this: why waste time and energy (and your health) trying to beat the odds? Let go of your expectations. And if you cannot do that, then at least recognize the pattern of your actions. And maybe, in time, you will laugh at yourself (with compassion) that it is not worth the suffering.
Your loved one is on a different journey than you…he or she is suffering from many health issues, including a decline of the body and the mind.
You are healthy and not in decline. So allow your health and wellness be the energy that you bring to the visit.
Everything is transient. Each moment doesn’t last. The winter snow melts and spring emerges.
When we practice living in the moment (in the Now), we begin to appreciate all the facets of the moment – the beauty and wonder of the surroundings, the uniqueness of each person’s face when we meet and encounter people, the love, the gratitude and the compassion that wells up within us when we sit with our loved ones. But we have to allow awareness or recognition of the moment to arise, first. Or we will miss it all.
“Whatever you accept completely will take you to peace, including the acceptance that you cannot accept, that you are in resistance.”…Eckhart Tolle