A few months ago when we asked our 18-year-old grandson if he knew where he wanted to go to college following graduation, he said, “I want to go somewhere on the East Coast.”
When we asked why, he said, “Because I’ve never been there, and I want to have a different experience.”
Later that night my husband and I decided to take William, and his 20-year-old brother Cooper, to New York and Washington D.C. We had spent a lot of time with the boys when they were little, but as with most families, as they got older they were more interested in school activities, sports, and friends than in spending time with us. We saw this trip as an opportunity to share a great experience and to hopefully establish an adult relationship with them.
Lessons Learned from a Multi-Generational Family Outing
We all agreed to ban cell phones during mealtime, which enabled us to have real conversations. We were amazed when they asked our opinions on topics such as philosophy, religion, politics, careers, romantic relationships, drugs, and even sex.
On our last day in New York, William and I got up early and went for a long walk so we could witness the city waking up. I asked him if the trip had changed him in any way.
I was thrilled when he said, “Yes! I have accepted that if I’m going to get into a college like Fordham or George Washington, that it’s going to be up to me to make it happen. I’m going to have to take charge of the application process. I’m going to have to invest a lot of time and energy in applying for scholarships and lining up financial aid, and I’m going to have to make sure I’m the kind of student they want. I guess I’m also going to have to accept that if I don’t get into one of the top private colleges, that I will still find a way to go to a good school, and I’ll make the best of it.”
You Are Responsible for Your Own Happiness
That led to a very interesting conversation about accepting the responsibility for our own happiness as well as coping with changes, disappointments, and loss.
I said I thought acceptance could be empowering and also scary, regardless of our age. I told him there are times when I have a hard time accepting the fact that his grandfather and I cannot turn back the hands of time. Alex has had two major back surgeries, and although his pain isn’t as debilitating as it once was, it still diminishes his energy and limits his ability to do the things we have enjoyed in the past.
I told William we had accepted the fact that this could be our last big trip, and that’s why we had decided to not be stingy with our money or our time.
As William and I were walking and talking, I thought of a letter my mother wrote to one of my sons shortly after he graduated from high school. She said:
“It isn’t very exciting to be in the position we are now where you realize every time you buy something new that it will probably be the last time you make that kind of purchase. It’s also frustrating to know there is no way you can get a job to add to your income and that you don’t have the opportunity to make long-range plans any more.
We’ve had a good life and a good marriage, and there does seem to be a built-in clock that knows the whole show could be over any time. It’s something a person seems to know, and in a way, accept. It’s much easier for us than it would be for someone your age to know life will be over in a few years. When one has lived life well and has no regrets about choices or actions, there seems to be an in-born intelligence that realizes what is happening and accepts it without self-pity or fear.”
I have to admit I’m surprised at how fast the time has passed, and there are times I have to work pretty hard to gracefully accept how the gradual losses of my husband’s strength, agility, and energy are impacting our lifestyle.
I am acutely aware that my life could soon be remarkably similar to my mother’s life during her caregiving years. As a result, I am constantly reminding myself to follow her example of developing an “Attitude of Creative Indifference” toward the changes and losses that come with aging and illness.
Developing an Attitude of Creative Indifference
The three steps are:
- Become AWARE of the specific issues that cause you the greatest amount of emotional stress.
- ACT! Take charge of the things you can change, and release the things over which you have no power, influence, or control.
- ACCEPT the fact that there will be changes and losses that are exceptionally difficult to witness, experience, and endure.
Awareness, which is the first step, is relatively easy. If you will take the time to write down the source of your stress, it will help you view your circumstances dispassionately and objectivity.
Action isn’t nearly as difficult as one might think if you separate the problems into two categories:
- People, situations and events over which you have SOME power, influence, or control
- People, situations and events over which you have NO power
If you can identify a problem, and if you are in a position where you can also identify a solution, you can make a plan and set about fixing whatever is wrong.
Even if it’s a situation over which you have NO control, you still have a choice: You can choose to obsess over it and let it completely stress you out, or you can choose to release it.
I believe Acceptance, the final step, may be one the most challenging emotional struggles of caregiving, because as we witness the progressive physical and/or cognitive decline of someone we love, we have to find a way adapt to continuous losses and changes in their life as well as in our own. Without a doubt, accepting and adjusting to these losses has to be one of the top difficulties caregivers face. We want to believe there is a solution for every problem and a cure for every disease. We desperately look for a way to stop the progression, recapture the past, and avoid what inevitably lies ahead.
Making Conscious Decisions
I think my mother got it right. She hated the impact my dad’s stroke and prostate cancer had on both of their lives, but she accepted that there was nothing she could do to change the situation. Time and time again she made a conscience decision to not become emotionally ravaged by events or the progression of his disease. Her mantra was, “As long as I have the ability to think and reason, I have the power to choose my attitude toward any situation, person, or event.”
My grandson and I are at very different stages of our lives. We are both aware that things may not work out exactly like we’d like. William may not get admitted to the college he most wants to attend. Even if he does, he may not be able to swing the finances. He’s accepted that, and he’s still optimistic about his ability to control his future and have a positive impact on the world.
I have accepted that my husband will never have a body free of pain, and that our ability to travel and do other things we love will become increasingly restricted. I’ve also accepted that there is more life behind me than ahead of me, and that it is likely that I will be a family caregiver for a very long time. In spite of that, I’m not afraid of the future or depressed about it. I know who I am. I’ve experienced more joy than pain, more love than loss, more success than failure, and I’m confident that I’ll have the emotional courage to face whatever lies ahead.
As family caregivers, we will experience countless losses that will require us to accept what we cannot control. But if we can wrap our minds around the idea that there is a cycle to life, and that we have an opportunity every day to grow mentally and spiritually, share what we’ve learned, and provide encouragement and comfort to others, we could end up doing the richest, most meaningful and important work we have ever done.
Elaine K. Sanchez is a caregiver speaker, author, and co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, a video-based caregiver support program. She writes the caregiver blog, “Caregiver Help Word of the Day”. Three of her online online continuing education courses for mental health professionals are available through Professional Development Resources: Caregiver Help: Sex & Dementia, Caregiver Help: Anger & Guilt and Caregiver Help Depression and Grief.