Yesterday I wrote about the toll caregiving takes, especially on women. This is not news. For several decades we Boomers, shocked at the fatigue and messiness and expense and relational difficulties of caring for our parents, have been writing about it. And we have written truthfully: caregiving is hard work.
We’re used to hard work, of course. We’re the generation that brought you the two-or-more-career household, the omnipresent electronic office, and the answer “Keeping busy” to the question “How are you?” Thanks to us Boomers, younger folks have no memory of long winter evenings playing board games, Sundays without shopping, or even family dinner.
But caregiving is not like our other work. Caregiving is unpaid. It does not lead to career advancement – in fact, it often makes it hard for us to keep our jobs. And since it still falls primarily to women, it serves to widen the status gap between men and women.
Here’s a heretical thought: maybe it’s time for us to talk less about the pain of giving care and more about the pain of needing care.
I do not need care yet, so I am only guessing at what care-getting feels like. I did, however, care for and observe my parents as their health declined. I have also come face to face with a life-threatening condition myself, and I can affirm Samuel Johnson’s observation: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Lacking British reserve, I would speak not of concentration but of primal terror. The healthy body – or at least the body that feels healthy – struggles to live. Yet many people who are very old or very sick or very demented find sweet release in death. What, then, must their lives feel like?
How does it feel when your spouse of sixty years dies and nearly all your friends are either dead or too infirm to visit you? When your body aches constantly from head to toe, whether you’re sitting or standing or lying down? When you can’t walk to the bathroom without help? When you can’t make it to the bathroom even with help and have to wear diapers? When your vision dims and your hearing is nearly gone? When you no longer recognize your children and feel as if you are living among strangers?
How does it feel to be nobody, to be called by your first name by nursing-home and hospital attendants younger than your grandchildren, to be told what to eat and where to live and how to spend your time, to know that even the kindest people are treating you like a kindergartner?
How does it feel to think you are a burden to the people you love most, to suspect that they are forfeiting jobs and money and family time and much-needed rest because you desperately need their care?
Pretty soon a lot of us Boomers are going to know exactly how these things feel. And I’ll bet any amount of money that we’ll start focusing a lot less on the stress of giving care and a lot more on the stress of needing it. We’re selfish that way.
Truth is, of course, that there’s plenty of stress to go around. It is very stressful to care for someone you love as she gradually, and often painfully, disintegrates. It is very stressful to become dependent on your children and strangers as your body, and often your mind, weaken. Parents and children who respect and honor one another recognize the mutual stress and are grateful for the bond of love that continues to hold them together.
Still, when it comes to caregiving, I’ll go with Jesus’ observation: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).