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Caregiving takes all of you–your heart, your arms, your back…and like all relationships, we’re bound to make a few mistakes along the way.

I made plenty of mistakes caring for my mother. She had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and her care progressed over the course of 12 or so years. At first, my caregiving consisted of calls, driving her places, overseeing her medications and doctor appointments–to eventually moving my mother into my home so I could give her full-time care. My mother passed away in our home and those last few months were some of the hardest and one of the most important times of my life.

So I understand why caregivers do it–push themselves to the edge. We have to give it our all at times–during hospital stays, as Alzheimer’s takes a dark turn, or as cancer ravages those we love.

I was watching a special on NASA’s quest to land on Mars. It’s 100 million miles away. That’s quite a dream and they’ve made lots of mistakes along the way. Costly mistakes. Some blunders can be blamed back to one person or one department, but some accidents are random, unpredictable–human error, solar flares, that most dangerous time when they enter the atmosphere that could wipe out everyone’s work in an instant and set research back years. It’s a huge risk, but the alternative is not to try at all.

They call that time the six minutes of terror. That’s when they’re not in communication and whatever happens is just going to have to happen.

That’s what it’s like to love someone, to try, make mistakes, deal with other people’s mistakes–and it all comes down to six minutes of terror when you have no idea how it’ll work out–all you can do is hope.  

There are a few caregiving mistakes you can avoid:

  • Caregiving too soon. Those first few calls from the emergency room scare you do death and it’s so easy to buy into the drama, to freak out, worry, and jump in. But the problem is, you’ve got to pace yourself. Caregiving can be one long journey and it’s wise not to react emotionally to every blip, to ask for help, and to look at the big picture and make short and long-range plans.
  • Caregiving too late: I was so busy being a mother to my children that I believed my mother when she insisted she could live on her own. I had little checks, little moments of concern–but I denied and ignored them. I wanted–and needed–her to be okay. I knew she was happy living at home–but I wasn’t paying attention. She wasn’t eating right, she was falling all the time (lots of bruises, lots of excuses), and although I was driving her or arranging for her transportation needs, she was desperately holding onto a life that was slipping away.
  • Leaving Yourself Out of the Equation: Worry, lack of sleep, long periods of recuperating from a bad fall or an extended hospital stay…you start to forget. You throw on your clothes, forget to comb your hair, don’t bother with check-ups, don’t fill your prescriptions. You’re always on alert. You don’t mean to, it just happens and months or years down the road and you forget a piece of you. You forget how to have fun, how to let go, how to relax. 
  • Taking Every Piece of Advice or None at All: Either extreme is exhausting–and scary. When I first realized my mother had Alzheimer’s I read everything i could get my hands on–it freaked me out.  I could see our future–her completely mad, me attempting to reach her. In truth, it wasn’t like that–not for a long time. We still had each other. We laughed, We ate together. We held hands. Yes, it got bad at the end but I’m still glad I went down this path. Too much information can drive you crazy. No information is foolish–there’s good out there. Treatments, medications, resources that help–but it has to stay in balance. You have to decide what you listen to.
  • Giving into Guilt and Depression: Both are bricks on your soul. They’ll drown you. I can’t say it’s not going to happen, that you’re not going to have bouts of guilt. You will. I can’t even tell you that depression won’t sneak up on you. But be careful. Depression is tricky. It’s like an alligator–it’ll take you under and won’t let you back up.
  • Not Trusting the Journey: You’ll get off center. You’ll lose your way. You’ll go to the bitter edge–but don’t believe that can’t find your way back.  Humans are amazingly resilient–we can nearly freeze to death or drown, fall down a mountain, recover from life-threatening illnesses–and survive. Don’t think for a minute that you can’t recoup from caregiving. You can. You gave of yourself and the good that you gave will return to you.
  • Not Letting Go: There comes a time when you have to let go. Whether it’s creating a healthy emotional distance or grieving an impending death, we have to learn to let go. I remember one very difficult night when my mother was having a bad episode. She was frantic, not knowing where she was, and I had to pry her hand loose from the rail just to get her back in the bed. I couldn’t do it by force and I didn’t want to hurt her.  I had to undo each finger, gently, calmly, and I knew right then that I was meant to help her figure out how to let go of this world. Letting go isn’t about giving up. Letting go is really about trusting.

All we can do is self-correct. We get off. We yell. We beat ourselves up for saying or doing the wrong thing. We fall into a funk. We lose our way–and all we can do is recognize it and alter our course. Every day, every hour offers a new choice.

Life’s a lot like that bouncing Land Rover on Mars. Will we survive the impact? Will we survive our own mistakes? Will we experience our own six minutes of terror?

Sure we will, but we have to try. 

~Carol O’Dell

Author, Mothering Mother

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