Read an Excerpt
Leaning Into Sharp Points
Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers
By Stan Goldberg
New World LibraryCopyright © 2012 Stan Goldberg, PhD
All rights reserved.
"How do I do this?" he whispered to me. His wife was resting comfortably in the bedroom, and through the open door I heard the rhythmic pulse of an oxygen regulator. One week before, he had enrolled her in the home-based hospice service I volunteered with as a bedside assistant. It was my first visit to their home, and we sat in the living room, where every flat surface was covered with pictures of them embracing each other, their children, and their grandchildren. "We've been married for forty years, but God help me, I don't know what I should be doing," he said.
It's a question asked by millions of people every day when they find themselves, or anticipate finding themselves, thrust into the role of caregiver for someone with a chronic or terminal illness. Their involvement may be continuous, providing physical and emotional care, or sporadic and limited to conversations ranging from pleasantries to final good-byes. While everyone wants to do the right thing, many believe they haven't had enough experience. They look for answers to questions such as the following:
How do I begin the conversation about how much my loved one has meant and how much he or she will be missed?
How do I ask for forgiveness for my unskillful acts and words?
How do I balance my loved one's needs against my own?
How can I accept abuse from someone to whom I've devoted my life?
How do I give permission to die to someone who has been a part of my life?
This is not a book of step-by-step directions for caregiving. It's a book of preparation. Preparation for significant others who want to be as helpful as they can to their partners. For adult children who want to repay their aging parents for a lifetime of love. For family and friends who want to do what they can for others who have been an important part of their lives. And for parents who may have the dreadful task of caring for and helping their adult or young children through a chronic or terminal illness. It's also for those in the health care professions who want a deeper understanding of the emotional turmoil that follows caregivers as they serve loved ones and patients preparing to die.
A TRANSFORMATIVE EVENT
We often enter relationships we instinctively know are special, although we may not be able to put a finger on why they are. In many ways, caregiving is that sort of relationship. Some people come to it out of conviction and love; others, from a sense of obligation. It can be a limited experience for family members if there is money to hire full-time caregivers, or a constant experience when finances are scarce or become exhausted. Regardless of why someone becomes a caregiver, the experience will be transformative in both positive and negative ways. There is great potential for enlightenment and tragedy in caregiving, since there is nothing neutral about caring for another human being who can't care for him- or herself.
Accept the Ultimate Gift
We often think of caregiving as a one-way sacrifice. The caregiver gives and the loved one receives. That may define some caregiving situations, but not all. Nick's single mother had been devoted to him her entire life. When he was a child, she cared for him when he was healthy and when he was sick. When he was a young adult, it was her kindness and understanding that carried him through various bouts of addiction. Later, when he fathered a child whom neither he nor the child's mother could care for, it was Nick's mother who stepped in and, even though she was in her fifties, raised her grandchild with all the enthusiasm of a young mother. In her seventies, she hid her cancer from Nick until she no longer could care for herself. After a lifetime of her sacrificing for his benefit, he felt it was time to reciprocate. Since neither Nick nor his mother had funds to hire a caregiver, Nick moved in with her and, for eight months, attended to her physical and emotional needs. After she died, some friends asked how was it possible to provide round-the-clock care for another person for eight months. He said, "She gave the ultimate gift. She allowed me to care for her."
When I leave the bedsides of my hospice patients, I always thank them for the opportunity to visit them. Many don't understand why I'm thanking them. "I'm the one who is grateful to you" is a common response from my patients. Caring for anyone who can't care for himself opens a door to your soul that I don't think is opened by any other activity. The person who allows you to do so is saying, "I'm totally vulnerable and I'm placing myself in your hands." After eight years of caregiving, I'm still learning and, I hope, still growing. You have the same opportunity with your loved one. If you're open to the experience, you'll learn about yourself, death, and, most important, life. But to do that you must be willing to lean into the sharp points of caregiving.
Lean into the Sharp Points
Tibetans say that, to get over the things you fear most — the sharp points of your life — bring them closer instead of pushing them away. It's an idea that many people in Western societies view as counterintuitive. For example, some try to hide from the sharp points of aging by glossing over them, which has the same degree of success that a new coat of paint on an old car has in stopping the car's engine from sputtering. Some who have lost physical or cognitive abilities grasp at what is gone, doing little more than increasing their suffering. And faced with death — probably the sharpest point of all — we hide from it as if it were a tyrannical schoolteacher coming to discipline us. It is always our choice whether to follow the ancient Tibetan advice.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke thought bringing the sharp points in life closer was an opportunity for healing. He said our greatest fears are like dragons guarding our hearts. Few dragons are as intimidating or as capable of hiding our wisdom from us as long-term caregiving. Pushing away the sharp points of caregiving is like covering them with a permeable membrane, something porous enough that they emerge at unexpected moments. A smell, word, or sight allows them to resurface. Think about the transformative events in your life. I would guess that most, if not all, involved getting past the dragons. Personal growth doesn't seem to occur when life is pleasant. Few people would say something like: "Yes, I turned my life around sitting on the beach in Kauai being served piña coladas by attentive waitstaff." Just as intense heat and pounding are necessary for creating the highest-quality swords, sharp points are necessary for shaping our lives.
THE DYNAMICS OF CAREGIVING
Considering all the things that can go wrong with our minds and bodies, I'm amazed we can last as long as we do. But when things start going wrong, very wrong, caregivers are often thrust into chaotic situations. Daily, they are often forced to make momentous decisions without much guidance. What was needed yesterday may not be sufficient today. Just when they understand how to care for a loved one, the illness takes an unexpected twist and they're dumbfounded about what to do next. A loved one was grateful for what was done yesterday, but today it's just not good enough. And tomorrow? Will things finally stabilize, or will the roller-coaster ride continue? With chronic and terminal illnesses, nothing stays the same for long. Instead of trying to become comfortable with what you are already doing, it's better to become malleable, ready to move along with the ebb and flow of the situation. Much has been written about the hows, whats, shoulds, and should nots of caregiving. But to clearly understand caregiving, all the peripherals need to be stripped away, leaving its most basic component, offering compassionate service to someone who can't do things by him- or herself.
Expect Limited Stability
We can expect celery to always be green, the car next to us at the intersection to stop when the light turns red, and, when purchasing something for sixty cents, to receive forty cents back from a dollar bill. But these assumptions work only when the world in which they exist is stable. Progressive illnesses turn stability on its head. Along with the inevitable changes in loved ones may come changes in their behaviors and personalities, as happened to the husband of a woman I counseled. Her husband was diagnosed with Huntington's disease, and his physician was clear that the illness's progression would be measured in years, if not decades. During the first year after the diagnosis, the husband's caregiving requirements were minimal. He was ambulatory, and medications slowed his involuntary movements. His wife read everything she could find on Huntington's. She understood that, along with the involuntary movements, her husband would experience changes in personality and cognition, and finally, after twenty years of dreadful changes, he would die. During the first year of caregiving, she developed a routine for serving her husband and caring for herself.
Although it wasn't the life this woman wanted or had expected, her love for her husband was strong enough to justify the required changes in her lifestyle. Even though his Huntington's symptoms increased in intensity, her expectations about what she needed to do, and what he was still capable of doing, remained the same. By the third year, unable to adjust to his new changes, she became despondent. The stability that she wanted for herself and her husband never materialized. The lesson I learned from my client was: If you expect stability, you'll be disappointed. Assume that throughout the course of caregiving, the needs of your loved one will continually change, as may his personality and your caregiving responsibilities.
Accept the Difficulty of Change
Change is analogous to a large boulder balanced on a precipice. It looks like it could tumble off the cliff if just a little pressure were applied. But despite your great effort, it won't budge. The weight and inertia of the boulder prevent it from moving. And just as with the boulder, inertia prevents us and our loved ones from changing a behavior that's been with us for a long time. There is a story told of a dog lying on the front porch of a house and moaning loudly. Next to him sat an old man in a rocking chair, impassively whittling a piece of wood. A stranger came by and was amazed by the scene. He walked up to the porch to see what the problem was with the dog.
"Howdy," he said to the old man.
"Howdy," the old man responded, barely looking up from the piece of wood he was carving.
"I was wondering why your hound is yelping."
"He's lying on a nail," the old man said, taking a puff on his corncob pipe.
"How long's he been doing that?" the stranger asked.
"Oh, I reckon about eight hours."
"Eight hours!" the shocked stranger said.
"Well, why doesn't he get off of it?"
The old man stopped whittling, took another puff on his pipe, and stroked his beard as if in deep thought. Then after a moment he looked up at the stranger. "I guess he forgot what it feels like not lying on it."
We are all resistant to change, even when we say we are not. And just like that old hound dog, we fear change's double-edged sword: giving up the known while simultaneously accepting the unknown. Change will be difficult for you and your loved one. Your loved one is moving from independence to dependence, from health to illness, and from being in control to having little of it. You are about to give up significant parts of your life and substitute activities you never would have chosen if your loved one were healthier. Both of you are moving from A to B: from what you were to what you are becoming. It's a rootless psychological state that inevitably causes anxiety. There is discomfort in most transitions, sometimes even fear. You and your loved one will be moving from something you both know to something unknown to either of you. The discomfort can be reduced by holding on a little less tightly to what is familiar. Assume that many things in your and your loved one's "pre-illness" life will lose their permanence.
Be Nimble as the Illness Progresses
We know that in the vast majority of cases where people require extended care, the illnesses are relentless, ultimately ending in the deaths of those loved ones. These illnesses may be Alzheimer's, other forms of dementia, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease), congestive heart failure, metastatic cancer, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), AIDS, Huntington's disease, or other progressive illnesses that eventually can't be controlled. As a loved one's condition changes, so does the role of the caregiver. That was the case with Bea. Had she developed her renal failure fifteen years earlier, caregiving would have been limited to months. But in 2008 the prognosis indicated at least another five years of life. She had a nephew who doted on her and willingly accepted the role of primary caregiver. While the progression of the illness was slow, it resulted in constant changes in the type of caregiving required. When incontinence and poor bowel control became a problem, Bea's modesty and her nephew's discomfort with handling bodily wastes affected their relationship. The favorite aunt developed an array of problems because she was embarrassed to ask her nephew to change her absorbent underpants. The doting nephew began having second thoughts when his idealized image of caregiving was replaced by reality. Because he did not understand how his role would change as the illness progressed, the nephew grew distant from his aunt, and she felt isolated at a time when she most needed compassion.
From the moment of diagnosis, caregivers begin a journey of adjustment. We adjust to the needs of our loved ones. We adjust to our new lives. We adjust to continuous changes in our loved ones' physical and emotional conditions. We adjust to the misunderstanding of friends and strangers about our loved ones' behavior and our own. And finally, we adjust to the loss of our loved ones' personalities or lives. Our roles as caregivers continually evolve, leaving behind expectations of what "should be" as if they were 1970s computers.
Adapt to the Fluctuations
The arc of dying, from the moment of the diagnosis to grieving after a loved one's death, is characterized by a constant flux in emotions. Change isn't orderly, and at times it is barely understandable. What a loved one felt last week will not necessarily be what she feels today, or tomorrow, or perhaps in the next two hours. That's what happened with a seventy-five-year-old woman I served who had breast cancer. Her husband was devoted to her, and even though he was eighty he assumed the role of primary caregiver to provide for her physical and emotional needs. I would sit next to Betty's bed when Rich did his weekly errands. We would eat chocolate, one of the few foods that she could taste and one that gave her great pleasure. Each week I brought her a chocolate bar from another country, and she would savor a small piece, commenting on the texture and butterfat content.
"I can't believe how much Rich is doing," Betty said to me on our Belgian chocolate day. "He's constantly caring for me. I told him we could afford someone to come in and help, but he insists on doing everything himself. He says it's important to him. God, I'm blessed!"
For three months she would repeat her accolades during my weekly visits as we sampled new European delights. About three weeks before she died, our conversations started changing. She began complaining that Rich would forget to do certain things, that he wasn't as attentive as he had been, and that he wasn't as caring. She even began wondering if he was seeing another woman when he was supposedly doing errands. On one occasion, she reprimanded him in my presence when he was ten minutes late getting back.
Was he changing? Based on three months of interactions, I didn't think so. If anything, I saw a greater attention to her needs. What was changing was Betty's fear of suffocating as her lung capacity decreased. Rich was aware of this, and when Betty berated him, he would apologize, saying, "I'll try to do better, honey." He understood that his wife's condition was changing, and that along with the changes came an uncontrollable fear that he couldn't reduce. Although her anger was directed at him, he knew it wasn't about him. Life was changing for Betty, and therefore it changed for Rich. Had he reacted to her as if her condition hadn't changed, he might have drifted away from her, leading to a more difficult death for her. Instead, he adapted to the changes occurring in his wife's body and mind. During one visit, after Betty had made abusive accusations and we left her room, he turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, "I know how afraid she is. I don't expect her to think about my feelings." Just as happened to Betty, your loved one's emotions will fluctuate. The fluctuations may sometimes result from the pain; at other times they may reflect your loved one's realization of what is happening to him, or his recognition of the lack of time he has left to complete unfinished business, what he is putting you through, or a future he won't have. Regardless of the reason, adapt.
Excerpted from Leaning Into Sharp Points by Stan Goldberg. Copyright © 2012 Stan Goldberg, PhD. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.