March 17, 2008
Creating Memories by Routinely Avoiding the Everyday Routine
March 3, 2008
Redefining 'Service' in Caregiving Terms
January 21, 2008
Planning for the Last Days of a Loved One’s Life
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Posted: February 18, 2008
Amidst Caregiving’s Demands, Taking 22 Minutes to Witness a Life
When I was serving as a caregiver, I never seemed to have a spare minute. There was always so much to do, and the priorities shifted constantly. One summer day, I learned an important lesson about that. I had moved Mae, the elder I was caring for, out to the porch to enjoy the sunshine. I got her nestled comfortably in her lawn chair, adjusted her sun visor to protect her eyes, and then took a step toward the door.
“Come sit with me,” she requested.
I immediately thought of all the projects I had in process in the house and the dinner simmering on the stove. “Okay,” I ventured. “Let me just check on dinner, pop the bread in the oven, and get some iced tea. I’ll be right back.”
Because I was baking bread, I brought a timer with me to the porch sat down on the top step with my tea right by Mae’s feet. Before I was settled, Mae began with “I was born ….” Twenty-two minutes later, according to the oven timer, Mae let me know she was finished by saying, “And that is the story of my life.”
Mae, like many elders who are in the last chapter of life, had chosen who would witness her story. Because I had the good fortune of being with her over an extended period, I heard the story several times. But, on this particular day, I heard the expanded version that I knew she wanted me to hear from beginning to end.
In the midst of the demands of caregiving, storytelling often seems way down on this list of priorities. When we’re managing the laundry, medical appointments, grocery shopping, cooking, bathing, and everything else, the juggling never stops. But, if we can think of it from the elder’s point of view, storytelling may actually be the top priority.
A month before my mother died, we had a New Year’s party especially for her in our home. During the party we invited each guest to sit next to Mom while a photographer friend took pictures of the two together. My mother’s illness was causing her to lose her voice, and she was very short of breath. Still, in the last month of her life, when speaking was difficult, she would take out her photos and say a word or two. They became a storyboard of the friendships of her life.
As we got closer to the end, I would often see her contentedly looking through the pictures quietly by herself. Sometimes she would hold one up and look at me. That was my signal to provide the narrative that I had heard her say over the years. We would recount specific memories of each person and the gifts this friend brought into her life. The stories ranged from the prayerful to the playful. Gratitude was always the theme.
The person telling a life story gets to decide what will be told, which events are included, and how they are interpreted. The story says, “This is my narrative while I have been on the planet. This is what I consider important for you to know about my life.” Because 95% of life is in the past for the elder, it is critical to make meaning of “being here.”
As the caregiver, you may be gifted with an elder’s life story. At the same time, it may also be important for your elder to tell the story to others. The greatest gift you might provide is to avert interruptions so that the elder can tell the story in its entirety.
What I’ve begun to realize is that we all need to know that our lives have been witnessed. This puts a different twist on the invitation to “come sit with me and have tea.” To “witness” someone’s story is not the same as “hearing a story.” With the constant requirements in caregiving, stopping time is challenging, but 22 minutes might be all it takes to tell what matters and validate a person’s whole life.
Send your questions and comments to Barbara Bernard at ASKBarbara@caregivershome.com. Barbara is an experienced family elder-caregiver, writer and public speaker living in Eagle River, Alaska. Within a single week in 2001, both of Barbara’s parents were diagnosed with a terminal illness. Barbara and her family cared for both of them at home in the months preceding death. Her reflections from this period were the inspiration for her book, The Secret Gift: Growth in Times of Loss, first published in 2005.
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