Tag Archives: love

Thanks to caring for my parents, I choose to see life wearing rose-coloured glasses

Chronicles of a Chronically stressed out Caregiver. Meditations and Mindfulness Changed My Life. Mindfulness, Meditation and Me.

Let’s be honest. When you are sitting with a notepad in your lap, and the only thing on the paper are titles for the eBook (instead of actual writing), you know that you are in avoidance mode.

Damn, again? At my chronically gifted age one would assume that old trait of mine (avoidance) would have been ‘fixed’ years ago, but sadly, the only thing I do better today is actually notice when I am in avoidance. Thank you, mindfulness and meditation.

While writing another eBook, I find myself enjoying longer than normal walks, hours of playing in the dirt (gardening), and sitting on my freshly painted cobalt blue Adirondack that now matches the cobalt blue bird bath, while sketching my amazing garden. (I am entitled to call my garden ‘amazing’ because this little piece of heaven gives me peace and equanimity. And peace and equanimity is amazing.)

My dilemma is what do I give up so that I can write more?

I have plenty of time to do the things I like to do, but I keep adding to my list of “things to do that give me joy, or wisdom, or fill my curiosity” – I keep trying to cram more into my days.

I am so grateful for this time – no matter the season, or the day of the week, or the time of the day – life is good.

I choose to view life with rose-coloured glasses because I can. It’s that simple.

I learned that how we perceive life and how we co-create our lives is our choice, and that lesson I learned when I closed my children’s retail shop so that I could care and support my parents: my father had a dementia (most likely Alzheimer’s) and my mother was showing signs of a dementia-related disease, also. My life spiralled from an exciting one of fun-loving staff and customers, buying trips to the clothing marts, new encounters and learning possibilities every day, to one of stress, resentment, guilt and burn-out.

Instead of embracing each day filled with hope and gratitude, I dreaded each day as I faced endless chores and responsibilities, grief, and sadness.

Chronic stress nearly felled me, but I came through the challenge eventually as a different woman. I went into the experience with blinders on, and I came out wearing rose-coloured glasses.

I say rose-coloured glasses because my experience of caring for our parents changed my life; the experience changed me.

When my father died, both my sister and I felt that his disease, his dying and his death transformed us and gave us many gifts: wisdom, forgiveness, love, compassion, honesty, and Grace.

Wisdom to realize that self-care is integral to a purpose-filled and joy-filled life – we cannot care for another when we do not care for ourselves.

Forgiveness in the many times our parents would tell us stories of their childhood (those are the stories that are often intact when someone has Alzheimer’s) that shone a spotlight on challenging traits (things that they did that pissed us off) or events that happened (that pissed us off).

My mother would throw these (illuminating) stories out to us – the stories were like candy that she lobbed at us. We would excitedly jump up and gather them to our hearts. Those stories gave us meaning and understanding to her life, to our father’s life, and to ours.

Love and compassion grew as we spent so many hours with our parents, as we truly began to understand their lives, the hardships, their sacrifices, and the reasons why all of it was important – family! Our parents do what they do – for us. That knowledge lit something in us, and warmed our hearts.

Honesty grew. In the last days of disease, dying and death, we are our most vulnerable and authentic. Truth matters.

And Grace. There are many times in life that we know that we are surrounded by Grace, but I am always humbled and awed when Grace supports us at the bedside of our loved one who is dying. It is Grace that holds us up and whispers, “lean in” because when our bodies and minds move forward (instead of away), we learn and we expand. We grow.

These lessons have left me with a passion to help and support those who care for loved ones who have a dementia-related disease, to volunteer with residents in a long-term care home, and to advocate for change.

Like the families who have loved ones with dementia, I, too, fought my circumstances so I recognize that none of them accept their reality (they are still fighting with truth), and in my humble opinion, it is this conflict that causes the stress. We are not meant to fight; we are meant to lean in.

So today (Father’s Day) I am writing this blog as a tribute to my father (and my mother) who allowed me the privilege of caring for them – it changed my life.

I get to choose how I define my life (even if I don’t get to choose the crap that happens); I get to choose to live in gratitude, honouring the simple moments – the scent of lilies in the air, the sparrows and starlings squabbling within the hidden recesses of the viburnum, and the sun’s reflections – bands of white dancing to and fro – on the ceiling of the living room.

When we choose to define our lives from the lessons that we learn, we empower ourselves; we begin to trust ourselves, and we begin to recognize that all the answers to life are within us.

All the answers to life are within us. Thank you, Dad (and Mom) for that gem.

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I’m aglow with hope

Christmas lights

Candles and tea lights, and strings of twinkling white bulbs are aglow in every nook and cranny of our dining room and living room – I want the rooms to sparkle and glow throughout the season. I look forward to that magical hour when the sun sets and darkness falls: it is the bewitching time to turn all the Christmas lights on, and light the candles. (Okay, I’ve switched to battery-run candles and tea lights this year – I nearly set the house on fire last year, but that’s another story.)

There is nothing that fills my heart more than flickering light during the twilight hours of the day. Nothing.

I walk into my living room and dining room and I am transformed into a little girl staring at the Christmas tree lights with wonder and awe; I am a young mother looking at the Christmas tree that my two little boys have decorated with handmade ornaments that won’t break and popcorn garlands that took many evening hours to create; I am an adult child who is staring at the Christmas tree wondering if this will be the last holiday that my mother will be able to come home.  I am a grieving daughter who finds solace and strength in the steadfast holiday traditions – the Christmas tree lights soothe my sorrow and remind me of beauty, joy, wonder and love.

Flickering lights, glowing lights, twinkling lights…represent hope.

My intention is that all of you find hope and love in the glow of the season.

 

 

In remembering my mother, I honour her

Climbing, rambling, shrub roses in shades of old-fashioned pinks; ornamental rose hips; fleshy thorns that prick; Zinnias in a riot of oranges, yellows, pinks and reds; A disarray of messy hollyhocks, sweet Williams, peonies and daisies;

Endless cups of tea – lots of milk (not cream) and two spoons of sugar (oh, what the heck, throw in another teaspoon of sugar) – sickly sweet, all the better: “it’s healing, don’t you know”;

Daily sister chats until her sister died;

The aroma of Sunday roast beef dinner and Yorkshire pudding; Hamburgers on Saturday evening, fried in a pan (not grilled), sprinkled in paprika – loved by grandchildren so much that the recipe was discussed at her funeral;

Bed linens so immaculate and taut to satisfy any drill sergeant’s precision;

Hockey arenas at dawn, early hours to scream at the referees. Grand kids skating, ignoring their grandmother’s hollers and shrieks;

Dancing, always dancing. Even a wheelchair couldn’t hold her still;

Hugs that belied her tiny body – hugs that transformed you.

My mother’s legacy. The ephemera of a life once-lived: Moments not meant to last, but do.

These are the images, the scents, the memories that assault me each of the days since she died two years ago this week.

It’s what remains. Not things, not possessions. Just fleeting remains.

When I am in my own garden, I remember the many hours we spent in her garden: a simple garden, no plan, no design. A riot of colour.

Every time my stove top kettle boils and sings, I think of her – she is running (because I swear she lacked the slow speed dial) into the kitchen insisting that we don’t talk or finish the story until she returns. She never wanted to miss out on a word.

She was a cook in the army during World War II and her kitchen skills (and bed-making skills) were a testimony to the time she served.  My grill-loving husband used to shake his head and wonder how hamburgers, fried in a pan on the stove (no less), could be mouth-watering tasty. Her family dinners were legendary, now continued in my home.

But it’s those times when I am hugged, really hugged – you know what I mean? when someone hugs you so long and so deep, you swear that you are loved, fully loved – that I feel her presence so strongly. Because it is her deep love for her family that remains. That endures still.

Her love was a fierce and protective love. And it transcended family. Kindness and compassion transcend family: the underdog, the less fortunate, the lonely, the isolated, the shut-in and the shut-out.

Compassion and kindness remain. It remains in my sister, our children, and in me.

That, too, is her legacy. Her remains.

The Tao’s principles include cyclical growth and principles of harmony and balance: birth and death; all or none. The balance in life does not exist – unless there is birth, there is no death.

Joy and laughter; sadness and sorrow. I am learning that the two states are not exclusive of each other. They are interconnected …my last year’s post https://thegiftsthatweshare.wordpress.com/2015/12/19/migratory-geese-and-lessons/

I see my mother in everything. My mind says she is gone. She no longer exists. But my heart and spirit (and my body) still see her, smell her, and hear her. Last winter, in a dream, I felt her. She was in the form of a young woman, and I sensed the comfort before she came to me and embraced me in one of her Gwen bear hugs that surrounded you in love. When I awoke, I laughed out loud. Classic Dream 101, I thought. (But here’s the weird thing: my sister dreamt of our mother that very same night and she, too, was enveloped in a Gwen hug.)

On my way home today I watched a flock of swallows form a mumuration-like dance– the swallows swirled above me in endless circles – undulating in the late afternoon sky. I parked the car; mesmerized, I thought of mysteries, sweet mysteries.

I still do not understand the meaning of life or death. I only understand this: my mother’s life mattered: in small ways, in small moments. And that her remains endure.

I no longer grieve her absence as I once did. I rarely cry when I think of her. But I often smile, and laugh out loud. Her presence gives me great joy.

In the hours of the day, I feel her presence and I instinctively know that her life mattered, and when we are gone, our lives will endure, too – in small ways, in small moments.

I see the continuity of life in all. I am beginning to understand…Oneness. (Not with my mind, but with my heart.)

And in these moments throughout my day I pause – to fully accept the Now. I honour those moments.

One cannot be both unhappy and fully present in the Now. Eckhart Tolle

I have learned that to honour my mother I must continue her legacy, simple as it is: Love my family. Serve others. Be kind. Express my love (deep and lasting hugs). And dance with joy and gratitude. Honour her by acknowledging that I’m still here.

The peace and love in my heart will ripple through my circle of influence. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of this in Peace is Every Step:

Working for peace in the future is to work for peace in the present moment.

Dementia, dying and death are great teachers. As I remember and honour my mother’s death, I am grateful for that. All gifts.

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“Oh, grandma. Look at all the other grandmas!”

I’m really getting tired of how people react to a long-term care facility. And I’m really getting tired of how people treat someone who has a dementia as if that person no longer mattered.

Family members and visitors (and once in a blue moon, a staff member) will often lean in and whisper to me, “Just shoot me if I ever have to live here. Just shoot me.”

And even though I understand where they are coming from – fear – it still hurts me when I hear the comment. How can we accept our present moment, when we are living in such deep fear?

What do we fear? We fear getting old, aging, illness and disease, losing our memory, losing our physical capabilities, losing control, and dying. Our deepest fear is that no one will take care of us when we cannot take care of ourselves, and that we will spend our last days in a long-term care facility – alone.

But I also believe that we fear that we will no longer matter.

When we constantly judge long-term care facilities, and when we dread the weekly or bi-weekly, or daily visits to them, do we not deny our loved one who lives in the care home dignity and respect?

Are we not (in a not so subtle way) expressing distaste for the space and, therefore,  disrespect for our loved one? Isn’t there an undertone of dread and dismay? “I’m so glad I don’t live here (thank God!) but hey, mom, hope you settle in here nicely!” I can’t help thinking of that line, See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya!

When I wrote an eBook about my experience of caring for parents with Alzheimer’s, I included a story of my friend who visited her mother in a long-term care home and took her granddaughters to visit. Her one granddaughter grabbed my friend’s leg and hid behind her. She began to shake; she was terrified.

Her other granddaughter stopped dead in her tracks, looked around the spacious, open activity room filled with residents, and clapped her hands. With a big, silly grin on her little face, she exclaimed, “Oh, grandma. Look at all the other grandmas!”

From that moment on, her granddaughter was always excited to visit her great-grandmother.

And I am willing to bet that my friend’s mother (and all of the other residents) looked forward to her visits, too.

When we visit our loved ones with dementia, do we visit with an open mind? Or do we visit with dread? I believe that our loved ones sense our state of expectation (or energy) when we visit. What if they can feel the dread?

When I volunteer at the long-term care home where my mother used to live, I see a lot of unhappy residents. But I am also witness to many beautiful moments of love, laughter, joy, kindness and compassion. These small moments are exquisite.

I see wives, husbands, daughters, sons and grandchildren who visit daily or bi-weekly. I wish I had a dollar for every cup of tea or coffee or cookie that accompanies most visits. Many cups of tea are shared with residents and their loved ones. And here’s the beautiful thing: Many of these same visitors bring extras for other residents. (And staff.)

When I visit some residents and enter their personal rooms, flowers often welcome me – some are elaborate bouquets and others are simple posies. Greeting cards, postcards, posters and photos are pinned to bulletin boards or line the window sills. Handmade quilts or knitted afghans line the bottom of the beds, or are draped over comfortable, cushy bedside chairs.

In a quick glance around the room I can usually spot the family who cares about their loved one’s well-being. Books are piled high; bird feeders that overflow with seed hang outside the windows; walls display framed photos of family life, horses, dogs, ships, farms, landscapes and cityscapes from their home countries, angels, prayers, and life affirmations: Family, Love, Laughter top the list.

I’ve witnessed personal support workers who sneak extra cups of tea (and cookies) to the resident who has a sweet tooth; I’ve witnessed staff lovingly hug residents and rock them as if they were new-born babes. And I’ve leaned against the wall with tears in my eyes while a personal support worker has sung to a distraught or confused resident. (You Are My Sunshine is definitely top of the charts here.)

I have witnessed the residents who have no dementia support those who do. Residents look out for one another, and care for one another. Hugs and pats on the arm are doled out freely and frequently. (My mother who wandered the hallways in her wheelchair would often be returned to her room by another resident, Here, Gwen, you live here. And her dining companions would often greet me to report my mother’s latest skipped meal. You should know, my dear; your mother is not eating properly.)

When you witness the small acts of kindness and compassion, you begin to understand the deeper meaning (or at least the lessons within) of aging, disease, dying and death; you begin to understand that we are all connected – that we are all One. You begin to understand that love makes all the difference.

We are not meant to live forever in our physical body. We are all going to age, and one day, to die.

When we accept this unchangeable fact of life, we can begin to let go of some of our fear.

Instead of announcing that I would rather die than end up here in a long-term care home, why not begin to make life easier for those who do live here. Why not visit more often, not less; visit with love, not fear; visit with anticipation, not dread. If you are disturbed by the management and care of your loved one, visit often so that you can become an advocate. Become better informed: visit the care facilities website, the Ministry of Health’s website, and learn what the basic standards are. Speak up if you have an issue. Learn the names of the staff and begin to advocate for your parent. Attend the care meetings. Become a visible presence in the home. That will make a difference.

But recognize your emotions and discern whether you are fearful of the place because I dislike all facilities, like these; or do you have legitimate complaints about care.

Acceptance is a choice.

We can all open our eyes and choose to see the love, the laughter, and the joy that is still present – within the home, and within our loved one. They still matter.

When we choose to experience the joy in the present moment, disease, aging, and death do not disappear. But we will transform ourselves. Because in spite of the suffering, we choose to experience the wonder and awe in the most simplest of moments. We choose to see the beauty in everything – even in suffering. We choose to see the strength, the resilience, the exquisite vulnerability.

Suffering reminds us of some universal truths: We are not perfect. Nor is our body. We are human. Humans suffer. Life is not just. Life is not always balanced. To be whole, we must accept the good and the bad. Love can make a difference. In the last moments of life, love is the only thing that matters.

Over time I have learned that within us is an invincibility – that no matter how life unfolds, we endure. I’m still here. You’re still here.

That self-knowledge matures us as we recognize that challenges in life will not defeat us. Those same challenges (or crises) may fell us to the ground, but we will get up – sooner or later.

That’s one of the lessons that I have learned on my journey. When I visit the care home (or a hospital), I am reminded that when I first entered these halls so many years ago, I was heart-broken. When we had to make the decision to enter my father into a long-term care home where he lived for a short time before his death, I wept for hours. I was felled.

Now I visit with love and joy. I got up. I am still here.

I have absorbed the wisdom and strength that is offered to me each time I visit. I am not hear to cure anyone or fix anything. My presence is enough. (That’s another lesson that I have learned.)

I am here to just visit. My presence alone validates and honours the residents. My presence alone shares their pain and suffering. My presence alone says You are worthy. I care for you.

Laughter, love, joy and compassion tether us to our spirit. Or, perhaps laughter, love, joy and compassion is our spirit.

I challenge everyone who visits someone in a care home (or a hospital) to let go of their basic fears. Remember the little girl who clapped and exclaimed, “Oh, grandma, look at all the other grandmas!”

 

 

Caregiving and Mindfulness: Gifts

overnight, autumn crocus appears

overnight, autumn crocus appeared

There are a lot of articles, blogs, books, videos and websites that focus on those who care for people who have Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases.

And that’s because the role of caregiver is not an easy one. Whether one cares for a person full-time or part-time, the stress is unbelievable.

One of the reasons there is so much content on the Web and support for the caregiver is because many caregivers become ill or undergo life-threatening illnesses themselves, perpetuated by the stress.

From my own personal journey (and watching others care for their parents) I have learned that a great deal of the stress is caused by our non-acceptance of the disease and non-acceptance of our new reality.

For me, mindfulness and acceptance led me to a new awareness of the disease, to a more fulfilling relationship with my parents, and to a new way of dealing with loss and sorrow, as well as aging and death.

Mindfulness led me to loving kindness and compassion for both my parents who had Alzheimer’s, and for myself. I had spent a lot of time beating myself up in the past, and self-compassion completely transformed me.

Mindfulness is really just another word for awareness or paying attention. And most people who do not practice mindfulness or meditation are completely unaware of their underlying emotions and thoughts. Thoughts and emotions are connected – we cannot have negative thoughts without a negative emotion following.

When we live in a hurry-up culture and a culture that emphasizes the ego, most of us are in the dark about how other people feel; most of us don’t pay attention to our own bodies or emotions, let alone another person’s.

The challenge of caring for someone who has a dementia-related disease leaves very little time for the caregiver to dwell on his own emotional state. And that’s a problem.

Because it is in mindfulness or sitting in silence (or meditation) where insights to our real state of mind occur.

Most caregivers spend their day supporting their loved one and managing their symptoms: toileting, bathing, dressing, feeding, laundry, doctor appointments, and management of medicines/prescriptions. Sometimes the person is in a wheelchair or uses a walker or cane so heavy lifting or supporting the individual is necessary throughout the day and night, a physical toil.

Many nights the bed linens will need to be stripped and laundered. And most times, pajamas, too.

If the parent or loved one has ‘sundowning’ (which is fairly common – day and night turned around) then the caregiver will be awakened throughout the night and on “high alert” to listen for the night wanderings. Unfortunately, the person with a dementia-related disease is often agitated at this time and symptoms become more difficult to manage. Ultimately this translates into less sleep for everyone in the household – especially for the person with the disease and for the primary caregiver.

As I wrote in my free-eBook, meals, laundry and housekeeping will need to be attended to throughout the day – meals, snacks, drinks, toileting, personal care; repeat.

The individual will need to have regular medical check-ups, blood work, hospital appointments, and prescription pick-up. Banking and financial matters will be the primary caregiver’s responsibility, along with your loved one’s home maintenance and responsibilities, not to mention your own home’s maintenance and care.

And sadly, most of these tasks will need to be done with cajoling and subtle manipulation so that the individual will oblige. Many persons with Alzheimer’s will be upset with the caregiver, stubborn, angry or resistant and demanding at times as their world is changing too quickly for them to understand and their loss of control is terrifying to them. Many stubborn acts of resistance are due to their fear – that is the only way for them to express their loss of control. Both the person with Alzheimer’s and the caregiver will be emotionally and physically weary.

Caregiving fatigue will often follow and it has many symptoms: fatigue, sleep deprivation, anxiety, stress and depression. And the experts remind us that stress leads to illness (which makes us more stressed).

When our stress levels become so high, we become disinterested in life and we begin to lose hope that this difficult journey will ever end. Did I just write that we begin to lose hope that this difficult journey will ever end? What kind of horrible caregiver am I to think such a thought? Now, I am more stressed.

What if I told you that it is normal to feel some resentment, anger and guilt while caregiving? What if I told you that while doing research over the years, that I have discovered that it is perfectly normal (when stressed to the max and so bone-weary) to have such emotions?

We cannot take care of ourselves and hope to heal if we cannot feel compassion for ourselves and that process begins with recognition and awareness of our thoughts and emotions.

And that is where mindfulness is the key to healing ourselves.

Our anger or resentment or caregiver fatigue is a red flag to remind us that we are off-balance – we need to pay attention to an issue that hasn’t yet been accepted or resolved. (Perhaps you have not accepted that your loved one has this disease, and so you are still fighting it. Or, perhaps you resent the time that it takes to care for someone because it means less time to care for your spouse and children. Or, perhaps you are caring for your spouse, and deep down you are terrified of being left alone.)

If we sit just for a few minutes throughout the day, in silence and in stillness, and ask ourselves a few questions:

Why do I feel this resentment?

Why am I so angry?

Why do I feel guilty?

Why am I trying so hard to be the perfect, supportive caregiver?

Allow yourself to just sit with whatever arises.

With honesty and truthfulness, allow yourself to look at your situation, at your relationship with your loved one, at the disease, and the sorrow and the sadness.

Allow your feelings and your thoughts to come up. We cannot heal if we do not recognize and then accept these emotions that we have been spending so much time trying to hide. We think if we push the emotions down or away (or ignore them) that we will be able to carry on. But the truth is that these emotions (without addressing them) will become toxic and harmful. The truth is these emotions never go away or disappear – they just fester.

Recognition and acceptance of our underlying emotions can (in time) lead to compassion for ourselves, and this self-compassion will lead to forgiving ourselves. When we begin to forgive ourselves with compassion, we will open our hearts to forgiving others. Our compassion will expand towards others, and kindness and love will enter.

It’s a heavy burden to feel guilt and resentment when caring for a loved one. Imagine how freeing it is to allow ourselves recognition, acceptance, and forgiveness of our emotions.

Imagine how healing it is when we accept that we are mourning for our loved one – even though he/she hasn’t died! (Yes, it is normal to grieve before your loved one dies – anticipatory grief.)

It’s okay and normal to mourn the many losses that surround the prognosis of Alzheimer’s disease: our loved one is no longer the person that he was; perhaps our loved one does not remember us; our loved one cannot support himself; our loved one has lost many of his abilities; our relationship has changed – we are the primary carer now (the roles have reversed); we are fearful of the future and what it may bring; our life has been drastically altered; our own health and well-being has suffered; perhaps our family sees less of us because we devote a full day to caregiving; we want our old life back, before Alzheimer’s entered our life. And we are full of sorrow when we see how our loved one suffers. We are heart-broken.

Once we face our fears (and name them aloud), we are able to let go of them, almost as if these thoughts that float around in our subconscious create havoc wherever they land, and once acknowledged – that is we pay attention to them – they begin to shrivel up and slowly dissipate. (Have you ever had ideas and thoughts jumbling around (portmanteau word: a jumble that tumbles) making no sense, and then began to write? Just the process of writing your stream of consciousness helps. As if we pluck these ideas from the interior muddle, and plop them down onto paper and poof! They no longer randomly float in our head. The muddle clears.)

I often think of Pema Chodron, Tibetan Buddhist, who advises us that when we run from the monster in our nightmare, we are terrified…but when we stop and turn around and finally stare the monster down…we find peace. The monster shrinks in size, and when he shrinks, we become more aware of his vulnerability. We begin to feel seeds of compassion for the monster.

When we dwell in our heads with thoughts and fears about… what if?… we are not present. When we wish the difficult journey was over or that it had never happened, we are rejecting the present moment. We are rejecting our reality; we are rejecting life as it unfolds.

Caregiving is a challenge, and there is no denying that fact. But when we cannot accept the prognosis or our reality, the challenge will even be more difficult. Most importantly, our time with our loved one will be fraught with stress and sadness.

Mindfulness or being present or paying attention to the present moment will lead us to a compassion-filled journey. It will allow us to be authentic. We will mourn, yes. We will cry, yes. But those moments will be real. We will not try to deny our sadness. Instead, we will lean into them and just feel them. Allow them space. And it is in that space, that Grace enters. And as Thich Nhat Hanh often reminds us to tell ourselves, “My darling, I am here for you.”

When we allow compassion, love and Grace to enter, our awareness will begin to notice the joy and the love within the sorrowful moment.

While I mourned by my mother’s bedside while she was dying, I watched the sun rise each morning. The magnificent palette of the skies will stay in my memory bank forever, as will the loving and kind gestures of the staff. Those moments are joy and love-filled, side by side with sorrow and tears.

Mindfulness allows for an easier journey because it will be filled with little sacred moments – of laughter, peace and fulfillment, reconciliation and forgiveness. Sorrow and tears, too.

Gifts; all gifts.

 

 

 

Acceptance and the reality of a long-term care facility

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kale and in the Now

IMG_20151128_081451305While washing and drying two large kale plants that were as big as mini-umbrellas, I found myself hurrying through the task. This is going to take forever. What was I thinking when I asked my husband to pick up a couple of kale plants at the local market this morning?

That’s when it hit me. In my haste to finish this job I was not in the moment. I was wishing for this to be over so that I could go for my morning walk.

I have been practicing staying in the Now or mindfulness for some time now…and I also encourage my friends to practice, and I blog about acceptance…well, to the extreme! (My husband’s eyes hurt from all the rolling! Ha!)

But it was in this moment that I realized that in my rushing to finish my task, I was clearly not accepting my Now. I was not accepting the kale!

So I became still and allowed my mind to let go of the thoughts and I began to pay attention to what my body and my emotions were doing. I was tense; my back ached from standing in front of the kitchen sink; my neck and shoulders were tight; and I could feel that my forehead and brow were creased. I’m tense over kale? Really?

I was feeling… what was I feeling? Anxious?  Not really. But I could tell that I did not feel relaxed and content. I was hurrying and that always makes me feel stressed.

So I began to accept that I did not really want to be in the kitchen and that I had a deep wish to just throw out the kale and run for my coat and shoes. I just accepted that I did not accept my task.

That thought made me laugh. My poor kale. All those farmers who grow our produce and sell it at the local market – how fortunate are we here in Canada? The kale deserves better.

I could feel all my tension leave my body and I began to pay attention to the task at hand. I began to focus on the green, curly leaves of the kale; the thick stalks; its’ health benefits; the vitamins that it adds to our morning smoothies; the clear water in the stainless steel bowl; how easily the water flows from the tap; how little my husband paid for the kale ($2.00 a bunch) in spite of the amount of work that the farmer invested to grow this produce.

And I began to feel gratitude for kale, and for my health, and for my life.

As I placed the bags filled with kale into the freezer, I was grateful that I remembered to be in the Now. And that I had accepted the kale.

I have learned over the past few years that when I pay attention to the moment, I am more balanced and content. Mindfulness opens me up and allows me to see love and beauty in all that surrounds me; mindfulness opens me up and in my self-awareness, I see the love and beauty within me.

When we become still and recognize the changes in our body – changes that have arisen in our body because of emotions – we can begin to accept ourselves, no matter what we are feeling. But this practice always begins with the intent or the awareness.

When we need mindfulness the most, that is, when we are hurting or suffering, we usually cut off our feelings. Instead, we allow our thoughts of suffering and pain to take over. If we could just become still or pause just for a few moments, we would allow ourselves to consciously become aware of what is happening within our bodies. Many call this the sacred pause.

This practice enables us to firstly, become aware of our bodies and our emotions; secondly, to accept these emotions. When we accept our emotions – all of them – we allow a space within to feel compassion.

Boredom, anger, sadness, or fear are not “yours,” not personal. They are conditions of the human mind. They come and go. Nothing that comes and goes is you… Eckhart Tolle

Of course, this takes practice. But the more I practice mindfulness (and paying attention to my emotions and how my body is reacting to those emotions), the more I am releasing old thoughts. And I am finding that I am slowly learning how to let go of judgment of myself (and others).

Eckhart Tolle in The New Earth  writes that we can live mindfully when we treat each moment as if this moment …was our purpose in life.

I love that thought. Think about it. When we stop and embrace each moment as if the person we were with was our true purpose in life; well, just think how much our attention on them grows. We have the capacity in that moment to really connect with that person – to ensure we treat her with kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity. We would deeply listen to her words and give her our full attention. We would look her in the eyes and allow understanding to enter into our moment. And compassion would follow. I have learned that compassion always enters the encounter when I listen deeply.

If we treated each moment as if it was our true purpose in life, we would give our full attention (and energy) to our career, our volunteer work, our families, our friends, our health; well, to everything, each day. Our daily walks, talking to our children, having a coffee with friends, walking into the bosses’ office…each moment could be transformed from the mundane to the profound.

At the very least, our co-workers or family members might raise an eyebrow and wonder aloud, “What the heck is she on? Whatever it is…I want some of it, too!”

Mother Teresa said it more eloquently than I…

God does not ask that we do great things. But that we can do small things with great love.

I confess that I have been trying this suggestion of Tolle’s for some time now, and I am convinced that it increases my mindfulness and awareness. And, yes, it increases my connections and relationships, too. But the practice also has dramatically decreased…my desire to hurry through this moment so that I can be in another moment that is better. And that’s a huge awareness for me, my friends! So you might say that I have slowed down.

Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last…Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics from Feelin’ Groovy

So, when I find myself wishing that I wasn’t washing kale, that instead, I was outside walking, I pause.

I remind myself (as Tolle suggested) that in this very moment washing the kale is my purpose in life. And that gives me great insight. And joy.

Another gift.