The Briar Patch— Care for the caregivers
- Published: April 8, 2021
Two sisters once went berry picking. That summer, the blackberries were plump and ripe, the sun super-hot, and the women were just getting reacquainted after being apart save for Christmas and the occasional summer holiday over the years. They were very different in age, temperament and philosophy — those who knew their family sometimes questioned how they could possibly be part of the same family.
When they reached the blackberry bushes, the brambles were pretty intense and sharp, there were bees hanging out on the branches doing bee things, and the women didn’t have gloves. Assessing the situation, one sister decided she was definitely not going to stick her hand in the bushes. The other sister, seeing the same situation, wasn’t intimidated by the brambles or the bees and told the other sister she didn’t mind either of them. She confidently stuck her hand right in there, pulled the branches with firmness, ignored the bees and thorns, and began to pick the berries.
“Don’t hurt the bees!” the younger sister cried out in alarm, doing absolutely nothing to help.
The older sister ignored her and began picking the berries. But she was too heavy-handed, and squished them when pulling them off their stems. The other sister realized that they’d only come away with berry juice if this process continued. Silently, she stepped next to her older sister. As the branches, full of brambles, bees and berries, were pulled away from the bush by one sister, berries were gently picked by the other. The bees, sweet and giving, the mystical creatures lovingly protected by the Yoruba orisha (spirit) Oshun, settled into a happy hum of approval.
This event became a metaphor for the caregiving process my sister and I took together in caring for our mother who had begun her own journey of mental decline from the ravages of dementia. In that simple moment, we found a way for our differences to work together in strength, and later on behalf of our mother. When my sister bathed mom when she could no longer do it herself, she may have been a little red from the scrubbing, but she was squeaky clean. However, I always cut her toenails.
The berry picking event became our memory touch point with reality when things got really tough for us. Caregiving is an imperfect gift. Loving and unselfish at face value, but it is tough love in action. There is nothing romantic about the process at all.
Some have complicated and strained relationships with loved ones who are sick, or relatives whom they have to work with to navigate the caregiving process. Scheduling multiple doctors’ appointments, ever-changing meds, hours on the phone with insurance companies. Changing adult diapers and gently nudging loved ones to eat. In-home care is expensive, yet the workers coming in to care for loved ones are grossly underpaid, which adds another layer of guilt. Figuring out how to stay employed, taking care of children if you have them, even eating, can be taxing and draining. Saying goodbye. And doing all of this in the middle of a pandemic — well, what can be said about that?
Ultimately, people don’t want to be a burden on their loved ones, and there is an emotional hide-and-seek of sorts for caregivers who don’t want their loved ones to believe they are a burden. They aren’t, but it’s complicated and stress is internalized in the name of a brave face. And everyone involved is exhausted and scared. Self-care is a pleasant and quaint notion at best for the most part, and the pressure is unrelenting at times.
So, go ahead, jump in that car for a drive and scream at the top of your lungs to alleviate the weight of agony and despair on the psyche. Cry deep, breathtaking sobs, if necessary. Forgive yourself when frustration gets a hold and you’re mean, even unkind, to your loved one. No sleep after chasing someone around the house all night with sundowners or helplessly watching while they moan in agonizing pain is hard on the body, mind and spirit.
There are not many resources of support for caregivers, and sometimes it can feel like being on a deserted island. Our society doesn’t know what to do with chronic or terminal illness in many ways, isolating people like they committed a crime for being sick and completely ignoring the caregivers altogether, keeping both suspended in avoidant memories of better times. Fortunately, our community does better with regard to support. The Yellow Springs Senior Center, Greene County Council on Aging and local hospice organizations can be lifelines for caregivers.
Those doing this hard work by themselves can be full of fear and anxiety of losing not only their loved ones, but their homes to pay for nursing home care if that becomes necessary, or their jobs because the strain of caring for someone requires them to be present for multiple emergency room runs. It really does suck on the most basic level; there’s no getting around it. Not comforting perhaps, but real. Yet caregiving is an extended lesson in patience that lives well beyond the moment — and in many ways is the ultimate life lesson in companionship combined with perseverance. It is a life altering, empowering experience that strengthens a person for their own what’s next. To be called to give care is truly the honor of a lifetime.