Monday, July 16, 2012

The Caring Of A Caregiver

I have been someone's daughter, wife and mother, with all the attendant roles and obligations. Yet I never felt these more than when I became the caregiver for my parents.

During a Shabbat morning a few years ago, my synagogue had a special service as part of "Hillel's Call to Action," a response to issues important to its membership. This service provided an opportunity to acknowledge those who are caring for others. Caregivers' Shabbat highlighted this issue by having temple members recount poignant stories of evening calls, crisis intervention, long-distance guilt and local role reversal.

Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz described caregivers within the framework of Jewish tradition. Upholding the commandment "Honor thy mother and father," to care for your parents is love through loss. And to care for one's spouse, says the Talmud, is to move from the love of Passion to the love of the Ages. Add caring for children, siblings or special friends, and most of us will be caregivers.

The definition of a caregiver is one who takes on total responsibility for another person's wellbeing. The term is new, but not the enormous task. Coined in recent years by my generation's penchant for infusing the mundane with nuance and necessity, caregiving is now a calling with its own language, service providers, support networks and books.

There are three things that make the current caregivers different from those of past generations:

First, caregivers are older than before, but have younger families. I married at 29; my husband, 38. Our daughter was a young teen when our parents began to falter.

Second, times have changed. In 1971, when my husband's bubie (grandmother) needed something, his mother walked the four blocks to her house. We don't live that close anymore; having an elder living in our homes is an exception, not the rule.

Finally, our parents are living longer. But older age can sometimes lead to disease and distress not dealt with when people died earlier.

When I moved my 68-year-old father to Boston in the late 1990s, I became his sole advocate. It was a role I never thought would be mine, and one for which I was not prepared. Yet when he died eight years later, I knew I had done the job well, and the exhaustion yet relief I felt were the rewards of doing the right thing. Dad had the best housing, medical care and a good quality of life, even during his final days.

Often, I felt alone in my struggle to care for him. His complicated medical and emotional situations were unique, and not everyone could relate. Learning the ways of caregiving, I discovered there were people who had walked this road. Professionals helped me and there were empathetic friends with stories--the war stories that can be sad yet uplifting to another person in the same boat.

I used to work for an organization that supported children with special needs in Jewish educational settings. I saw parents struggling to care and advocate for their children, some with severe impairments. The love and devotion of these families to find the right school and services were inspiring. And an example of my last point.

Caregiving takes enormous energy, both emotional and physical. You need your full resources to accomplish your goal: your mind, to seek answers and make decisions; your body, to get the physical work done; and your heart, to love, honor and cherish those you hold dear.

A version of this article first appeared in The Jewish Advocate,, June 8, 2007.