In September 2012, I had shoulder surgery and found myself quite helpless for three weeks while I lived day and night with my left arm harnessed in a sling. I needed help with the simplest of activities, such as writing, cutting my meat, having a sponge bath while my incisions healed, washing my hair, and getting dressed. Until the fall of 2009, I had spent seven years caring for my elderly mother, Doris, but now it was my turn to be a care receiver. I experienced, first hand, what it must feel like to be an elderly person in need of care.
This uncomfortable and sleep-deprived interval in my life was a humbling and frustrating experience. I felt my emotions getting the better of me as I slipped into a miserable and irrational funk. I started to have negative thoughts about family, friends, neighbours and acquaintances who either forgot I had surgery, made no offer to call or help, failed to see what help I needed when they were with me, or they passed me by on the street without noticing my arm in a sling. There were also times when I was too proud to ask for help.
My foul mood was lifted, mercifully, by a friend who called to ask how my surgery had gone. To my delight, another friend popped by to deliver four freshly baked blueberry muffins. The next day, I added some fresh raspberries to the muffins so my husband and I had a very special dessert for our wedding anniversary. To us, these fresh baked goods tasted as delicious as a dessert flown in from the finest of restaurants. These two acts of kindness validated my worthiness of attention and foiled my belief that nobody cared.
This experience has taught me some important lessons about caregivers and care receivers. Caregivers need to develop empathy for an elder’s situation, and patience, when they seem unreasonably demanding or in an uncharacteristically bad mood. They should remind themselves that their loved one’s illnesses, and lessening control over their lives, quite understandably, may dampen their disposition. As well, as a society, we are too often self-absorbed in our own lives and don’t stop to think about how family, friends or neighbours are struggling due to an illness or surgery. If we could give them just a few minutes of our time we could lift their spirits by creating a positive diversion from suffering, by building their self-esteem, and by making them more comfortable. There is a real joy that comes with helping people in need that is well worth every moment invested.
By Shirley Roberts, Author of Doris Inc.: A Business Approach to Caring for Your Elderly Parents