Last week, I had a nightmare so vivid that it woke me from my sleep. On a normal afternoon, an eerily calm friend warned me of a fast-approaching tornado. When he brought me to the window and I saw it for myself, I knew time was of the essence: this monster storm, equipped with lightning bolts and roofless homes, was tearing through the streets. As quickly as I could, I grabbed every nonno and nonna in sight and hurried to the elevator. Once safely in the basement, I slid into the crawlspace and peaked out its tiny opening. When the twister hit our building, it was so loud I panicked IRL. How horrifying is that?
My nightmare does not go with the compassionate, encouraging, optimistic theme of this blog. It is neither comforting nor hopeful. It is, however, an indisputable metaphor for an unfortunate reality: despite its infinite rewards, caring and advocating for the elderly can burnnnn youuuu outttt.
Is this burnout inevitable, or is it felt only by the weak? I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Charles Dodgen, author of Simple Lessons for a Better Life, this month. Dr. D has posed a similar question:
“Is the capacity for love, compassion, and caring for others finite? … Do the burdens of human service necessarily result in exhaustion of caretakers so that they either have limited careers or become emotionally debilitated?”
Respite and self-care, I’m learning, are a lot like trekking sticks: no matter what we’ve got to offer or how in shape we think we are, we all need them:
“There is no limit to the depths of these reserves or the number of people one can love or care about. However, there are certain basic conditions that I believe must exist in order to maintain the supply of compassion.”
To care for someone you love, particularly someone older, frail, and vulnerable, is both an honor and a duty. Advocating on their behalf will be equal parts rewarding and disheartening.. hopeful and discouraging.. empowering and humbling. It is simultaneously one of the most fulfilling and draining things you’ll ever have the strength and courage to accomplish.
The ultimate loving act, however – the ultimate selfless act is to first love yourself enough to care for you:
“Think of it as an investment that will allow you to love and support the person who’s sick. When I felt my reserves were depleting, I’d remind myself to stop achieving and start receiving.”
As Dr. D reiterates, “Another major factor that affects a caretaker’s ability to give positive, loving care to residents is the general condition of his own life.” We must secure our oxygen masks before attending to a child, and blow up our life vest before assisting a companion (sorry not sorry for the flight references 😉 ). The point is, if we do not take care of ourselves first, we will not be in a position to love and care for others. Get your nonna to the basement, but make sure the crawlspace is vacant.