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March 17, 2008
Creating Memories by Routinely Avoiding the Everyday Routine

February 18, 2008
Amidst Caregiving’s Demands, Taking 22 Minutes to Witness a Life

January 21, 2008
Planning for the Last Days of a Loved One’s Life

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Posted: March 03, 2008

Family Caregiving

Redefining 'Service' in Caregiving Terms

In my 50th year, within a period of four days, both of my parents received a terminal diagnosis. My father’s massive brainstem stroke served as a catalyst for change within me. Seeing my father immobile and unable to communicate, jolted every fiber of my being. What I realized was that this man, who had always served others, needed me to serve him now.

I grew up in a family where service in the larger community was highly valued. From a young age, I learned about service from my father, who was a Rotarian. Recently, when cleaning, I came across his Rotary medallion which states, “Service Above Self.” This phrase truly was his philosophy of life. It seemed my father was constantly busy taking care of the needs of others -- so much so that his own family sometimes took second place. He, like many parents, found great satisfaction in helping families in need as well as being involved in organizations that had altruistic goals.

Reflecting on the time when my relatives and I were the caregivers for my parents, I began to see that, during that time, my parents were my service. This initiated a new season of my life -- a season of caregiving.

The word service took on new meaning for me because, for an extended period of time, I was not able to perform my customary work out in the community. Rather, the service I provided was within my first community, my family. What I needed to do was to give myself permission to say that, for this period of time, taking care of my family was enough.

Now, six years after my parents died, I find myself speaking before Rotarians and other similar groups. Another new season has begun in my life. I have returned to service in the greater community.

What I tell these audiences is that serving one’s family deserves to be considered a form of community support because it is unpaid, volunteer time for the benefit of someone else. Service organizations often find that, in addition to the important programs they implement around the world, there are families within their own membership who may need their assistance. Like me, many individuals are discovering that they must step back from service in the larger community for a while to attend to their own families.

Because baby-boomers are caring for their elders at record rates, and their human resources are stretched thin, there are many ways that service organizations can help. Among these is to recognize and honor their members’ need to be caregivers within their immediate families, knowing that this decision reflects a pressing and temporary priority. Letting members know that they can return to participation in the organization at any time is a gift that releases them from the strain of trying to be too many things to too many people.

When I work with individuals as a life coach, I use the term philanthropy-of-self to describe the need we each have as human beings to give for the welfare of others. Caregiving is philanthropic. Caregiving is the ultimate giving of self and yet often isn’t recognized as contributing to the community. With an expanded definition, taking care of elders is community service.

Throughout our lives we make choices that will create our legacy. As you look at the patterns you’ve formed in your personal philanthropy-of-self, know that there are times and seasons in your life. A season is only a period of time.

Give yourself permission to step away from one version of service and into another that is more intimate and personal while still meeting the criteria of “Service Above Self.” When you choose to be in the dance of service within family, what you learn will inform your philanthropy-of-self for the rest of your life.

Send your questions and comments to Barbara Bernard at 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.

© 2008 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.
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