Family caregiving: Among the most magnificent gifts in life
Not to mention relentless and exhausting, too
By Sona Mehring – Guest columnist
My mom, Bonnie, has been gone since 2001. She didn’t get to see any of my three boys graduate from high school, or college. I smile to think how she would have been first on the dance floor at the wedding of my oldest son a few years ago.
Breast cancer, followed by liver cancer, swept Mom away long before I was ready to let her go. I wasn’t done memorizing the sound of her voice, or all the funny things she used to say. I wanted more time to ask about her childhood, her career, her marriage. And, oh, she would have loved the new Vikings Stadium, cheering at top volume for the Packers.
But as the primary family caregiver for mom in her final years — back in the time before “family caregiver” was a commonly used term — I had the honor of a long goodbye. I had a chance to really connect with mom, as did many of my friends. They still talk about how she “lifted them up,” even as her own strength diminished. Being mom’s caregiver was among the most magnificent gifts of my life.
Not to say there weren’t moments. As a retired nurse, mom preferred giving care to being cared for. My hospital corners left much to be desired, as did the overall running of my household at the time. Picture this: I was working full time, on top of checking homework, writing checks, cooking dinner, packing lunches, folding laundry and driving carpools. Mom often rode shotgun in the minivan, among muddy shoes, so I could get her to doctor appointments, the pharmacy and the bank.
I saw myself in the mirror last year, with publication of the seminal report, Caregiving in the United States, 2015, by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving. Turns out the profile of a typical family caregiver, among the 43.5 million Americans who identify as “caregivers,” looked just like — me. During the years I supported mom, I was just inside the margins of being a 39-year-old woman, working full time, and taking care of a 68-year-old female relative who needed ongoing assistance for a long-term physical condition.
Yep, I fit that particular demographic. But from my seat as founder of CaringBridge, where a website is created every 7 minutes — often by caregivers, on behalf of patients — I see no “typical profile.” Wives support husbands, parents support children, siblings, grandparents, cousins, in-laws, friends and neighbors take care of each other. Over nearly 20 years, during which more than 600,000 sites have been launched to share messages of hope, love and compassion, I have observed countless combinations of caregiving. And the only theme that runs through, and true, is that caregiving is a gift.
Sometimes the gift is obscured, especially when you’re heads-down counting out pills, paying bills and wondering how you will survive the day. But the gift peeks through. An image sticks with me, still sharp after all these years: On good days, mom and I took my 3-year-old to the playground, while the big boys were at school. She and I sat side-by-side, my arm around her. I will never forget how it felt to smile and laugh as we watched my son — her grandson — take the world by the tail. If you are a family caregiver, I wish for you a gift like this. And if you’re not a caregiver right now, you will be, at some point in your life. And when the time comes, may you experience the gifts of caregiving, too.
Sona Mehring is founder and chief ambassador of CaringBridge, a global nonprofit social network, based in Eagan, that is dedicated to helping family and friends communicate with and support loved ones during a health journey. November is recognized as National Family Caregivers Month