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Care giving teaches us to love more deeply

Care giving. I would bet the majority of you reading this have been caregivers in your life. And if you haven't, hang on tight, because statistics show that one out of every three folks will spend one to four years of their retirement as a full-time caregiver. And it goes without saying that if you are not a primary caregiver, you will become involved in a care giving situation, whether short term or long term, sometime in your life.

When my husband, Ron, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I accepted the role of caregiver willingly, knowing the physical demands it would entail. But I never anticipated the emotional impact it would have on me.

I learned quickly that I could not walk this journey alone. It is too long, too complicated and too lonely. The day I made my call to the Alzheimer's Association was the day I began to accept and learn about this disease.

At the time, I felt that both Ron and I were in the early stages of Alzheimer's. I, in the early stages of learning what it was, and he in the early stages of the disease itself. It was then that I realized this was not his disease -- this was our disease.

I had no idea the programs and information that are available through the Alzheimer's Association. The Safe Return Program is a must for both the caregiver and the person diagnosed. It offers seminars that make available every resource to help you through this, the latest research information and tips on how to cope.

Attending support group meetings can be helpful. It was through these group sessions that I learned so much about this disease and, more importantly, that I wasn't the only one who felt the way I did.

I remember a woman being so frustrated because her mominsisted on wearing a knit hat while watching TV. The daughter would fight and argue with her and make her take it off. The mother would become anxious and aggressive. Finally she said, "Fine, wear the damn hat," and her mom would sit for hours watching TV and laughing.

Is this normal? Perhaps it's not what normal once was. But there is a new normality in your life and this is part of it.

Caregivers are the ones who handle the difficult decisions. We are the ones who must ensure that our wills, health proxies and power of attorney papers are updated and in place. We worry that something will happen to us, and must have plans in place to ensure that our loved one will be taken care of.

The latest statistics show there are more than 15 million Alzheimer's and dementia caregivers in the United States providing 17 billion hours of unpaid care valued at $202 billion. It is estimated that 5.5 million people have been diagnosed and are currently suffering from this disease, and more than 500,000 of these folks are under the age of 65. Every day, 1,200 people are diagnosed with Alzheimer's or some type of dementia.

Care giving is not easy. It is not something that we ask for and it is not something that we plan for. We can deny it, fight it and hate it, but if we also allow ourselves to learn about it, accept it and embrace it, we will eventually be thankful that we had it.

Care giving teaches us to love stronger and care more deeply. And when it is time to say goodbye, it gives us the gift of knowing that we gave the best of ourselves to the one we loved the most.

Jacci Smith Reed, who resides in Lockport, is the author of "A Stranger in the House.