Caregiving: A Dose of Reality

Learning to care for a senior adult the way God cares for us.

by Sharon Lee Goodman

Old sayings often speak the truth about life in a sharp and honest manner:

“Fish and company stink after three days.”

“Houseguests, who stay past their welcome, visit at their own risk.”

Both of these are good examples of why some clichés never die.

Times have changed since my grandparents’ days. Because Grandma and Grandpa raised me, however, some of my attitudes about family life and obligations are more in tune with their generation than my own.

Conflicting emotions

Quality long-term houseguests remain conscious of many things. They provide their hosts with privacy by retreating from them occasionally. They consciously monitor their own physical needs in a covert manner. They are not choosy about personal preferences and try to blend in with the routine of the house they are visiting.

My own father-in-law, whom I call Dad, seems to do all these things to the best of his limited ability. Why, then, do I consciously fight the wish for him to leave, at least for brief chunks of time? Why does this wish make me feel selfish? Is it because I judge myself against the grace with which my grandmother faced similar challenges? Or is it just because I am wrong?

Grandma’s example

Watching Grandma make her father-in-law welcome in my childhood home did not prepare me for the ambiguity I now feel toward my own father-in-law. I remember Great-Grandpa as an ancient, unobtrusive man with courtly, old-fashioned manners. I wish I knew if Grandma’s memory would agree with mine.

Great-Grandpa called his daughter-in-law Daughter, and Dad is the name Grandma answered him with. These names seemed filled with reserved affection when spoken. Did I imagine that fondness? What did Grandma know that I do not? Did she expect less of life? How might I better emulate her willingness to give so much of herself? I wonder.

Restricted dreams

Because my husband and I entered into our caregiving family situation under dire stress, perhaps we had unrealistic expectations. Based on medically sound reasons, we did not expect Mom or Dad to live an extended time. We were woefully unprepared for the stress of living with dependent, sometimes demented, elder loved ones long-term.

Because of extensive hands-on caregiving for Mom and enduring, with her, the cruelty of Alzheimer’s disease, we feel peculiarly blessed that she has passed on. Though Dad will never be able to live independently again, his physical health has improved since Mom’s death — also a blessing. The selfish question is, however, where does that leave us?

Family obligations and related responsibilities hastened our retirement while limiting our income. Now we may face years more of caregiving, with the uncommon possibility that Dad could outlive us! Like many baby boomers, we once dreamed of leaving the daily grind of the workforce behind. We planned to occupy ourselves with fulfilling and joyful pursuits. Those dreams are now restricted, and a drastic attitude adjustment is required of us to willingly accept God’s plan, instead of our own, for this period of our lives.

Candid prayer

The Bible says that God even knows the yearnings of my heart (Romans 8:26, 27). Thanks to this, I can be candid with Him when I pray:

Father God, I wonder if You ever regret having welcomed me into Your home. I fear I am a poor houseguest. Dear Lord, I desire to please You. I yearn to grow in Christian maturity until I automatically respond to life as Your loving, unselfish child. Yet deep within my soul, I tremble because I know You have just cause to tire of me. I am uneasy in the knowledge that I fail regularly in living up to who You planned me to be.

Personality differences

I not only labor with longing for occasional privacy with my husband but also struggle with guilt because of that longing. Surely sharing their home with a granddaughter and an elderly father at the same time must have created stress in Grandma and Grandpa’s lives. I wish I could ask Grandma for advice. Was her life as peaceful as it appeared to me?

Much has been written on personality types, often drawing conclusions about compatibility. My father-in-law seldom speaks what’s on his mind and almost never enters conversations. This leaves me wondering what he thinks and feels. His fleeting smiles are rare, and laughter sounds hesitant in his throat. I stretch my memory across the years, searching for a time when he was more outgoing, but cannot remember one.

Though I am often quiet, I am a fountain of gushing sound compared to my father-in-law. I naturally smile, tease, and communicate with words, as well as with body language. I feel excluded when others don’t express themselves. Reserved people leave me doubt-filled and worrying that I may have inadvertently offended them. In retrospect, I question whether reticence is a trait of the more confident personality.

Expressing love

One of the few times I knew, without doubt, that Dad welcomed my presence was when I returned from a rare out-of-state trip. Words tumbled exuberantly from me, relating my experiences. My husband interjected questions from time to time. Dad listened attentively with a half smile on his lips.

When I embraced my husband, Dad surprised me by saying, “Where’s my hug?” I cling to the memory of Dad’s warm reception and assure myself that we do love each other. But we express our love in polar-opposite ways — mine with sociable service and his with quiet cooperation. Though I know it will never be easy sharing my home with someone I can’t understand, I’m thankful that my husband and I have chosen to make Dad welcome here.

Love, patience, and prayers help us deal with the unexpected, adjust to worst-case scenarios, and perhaps even become better caregivers. I pray these things may also help me behave as a better houseguest, from God’s point of view.

Author’s note: Since I wrote this story, my father-in-law lived the last twenty-one months of his life in a health care facility near our home. Though hard for us, Dad accepted the unavoidable change in his lifestyle with his customary quiet dignity. He never once reproached us or caused us pangs of guilt, and major differences in our personalities did not make either of us wrong. Perhaps because of his intestinal fortitude we now face his death with as few regrets as possible.