the best use of me

I had been off on a grand, month-long adventure, and just recently returned to my sweet little village. In the midst of a birthday party for a dear ninety-year-old woman, one of my friends mentioned something about her new job, a job that I knew nothing about, because I’d been gone. When I asked what she was doing, she, in a respectful whisper, said that she’d fill me in at some later date, because it warranted more than the span of one whisper stolen away from the festivities. We ended up leaving the party together, and as we walked out into the delicious summer evening, she went ahead and spent a little time telling me about her new job as a caregiver for another one of our community elders…a ninety-year-old man.

She then mentioned to me that one of his caregivers was leaving and wondered if I might be interested in taking the shift that was opening up. Seemed like a simple enough question, but it did not feel simple. No, not at all. “Oh, yes,” I thought to myself, “that is an EXCELLENT question.” A question which caused some kind of not so minor shock waves to rumble through my fairly delicate world – delicate because I had not been home that long after being away for close to a month…and I am not that great at the leaving or the returning, as far as taking trips is concerned.

I have a deep, abiding respect and love for the wise ones who have graced and still do grace my life. I’ve had remarkable and long-time friendships with some wondrous and rascally folks in their eighties and nineties, been a caregiver for a ninety-five-year-old and was present during much of the last few years of the lives of both my mother and father who lived to be 83 and 94, respectively.

Having been deeply involved in the increasingly complex, heart wrenching and utterly bewildering spiral staircase which sometimes headed up, sometimes down, and sometimes felt like it was part of Alice’s journey Through the Looking Glass, and which morphed over and over again as we attempted to give my father, with his advancing dementia, as long and as rich an access to his beloved home of some sixty years as we could possibly create, I have many stories…and many big, fat opinions (as one of my friends used to say about any of us who like to throw our words around) about what could give our elders a richer life as they head toward leaving this world to wherever is next for them.

After being interviewed on the radio earlier this year about a story of one such friendship and then speaking to a “dementia care” class, I realized yet again how deeply passionate I am about what so much of dementia care does look like these days and what it possibly could look like. And I began to understand and realize something about myself…about a gift that I am beginning to see and acknowledge, more fully.

I have always been quite sensitive to life, in pretty much every sense of what that statement could possibly mean. In looking at the experiences I have had with some of these wondrous old ones, I have begun to realize how important that sensitivity is – that very same sensitivity that has felt at times, almost crippling to me. One of its aspects is that I am able to experience with sometimes chilling accuracy, what others around me are experiencing, especially when they are in an altered state. For example, during high school and college, when I was around people who were drinking alcohol or using drugs, I would experience their sense of reality even though I was not imbibing in any mood altering substances myself. Some term this a “contact high”, and for me it was extremely disorienting, to say the least.

Because I have this “gift”…although I certainly did not see it as such when I was younger, it seems that I can be sober, and also sense where someone is when they are experiencing a different reality. What I have been able to see more recently is that because I am now so much more grounded, I can experience someone else’s altered state while still being connected to this “reality”. Hmmm…are you still with me?

The first time I saw how I can, in a sense, walk in two worlds, is when I was a caregiver for a ninety-five-year-old woman with Parkinson’s disease. She’d fallen and luckily ended up with a cracked pelvis instead of a broken hip. There was still a great deal of pain…but with the possibility of a much more gentle and rapid recovery. She too was someone who was extremely sensitive to most all of life, including drugs. We emphasized this to her medical team, but still when they dosed her pain medications, she ended up having some terrifying hallucinations. It just so happened that I was scheduled to work a shift with her not long after a round of the hallucinations began. I was able, in a sense, to keep one foot in this reality, while the “other foot” was standing with her, wherever she was. Because she could feel me with her, her fears were not completely all-encompassing…somehow she was able to also stay connected with me and this enabled her to eventually pull back from the hallucination and not be completely devoured by it. Later on, she was actually able to verbalize some of this, telling me how important it was that I had been able to be with her in that way. I heard her…acknowledged that somehow I was able to serve her well…but it was not until I had similar experiences with my father that I really began to see this as a “gift”.

There were several occasions where my father would, in a sense, get lost in “time”. He would fall into a place of not knowing where he was physically, and also not know what part of his life he was in. I was able to gently stay in touch with him in a way that enabled him to sort things out, with me again keeping one foot in this reality and one foot wherever he was. I was able to help my father find his way back by drawing a map with my words. He did not become quite so fearful, and therefore was much less traumatized during and after. Slowly he was able to return…sitting on the same sofa he’d been sitting on everyday for decades, and later on, he was actually able to speak of some of where he’d “been”.

Through these experiences and others, I’ve developed a way of relating to folks that doesn’t simply negate their experience…but instead allows it to coexist with the one that I’m having. As I recognize what I’m able to do, I have had a mostly unconscious debate about whether it would be best to “use” me as a caregiver…or as one who helps caregivers find their own ways to relate to elders who are slipping in and out of the places that they will visit more and more often as they prepare to leave. Maybe there is some other use of me that I have not even glimpsed as of yet.

When my friend posed her question wondering if I might be interested in taking the care-giving shift, all of this came tumbling through my mind in a moment’s passage. At the time she asked, she simply encouraged me to think about it and let her know. As it turned out, we both had the same idea…that this question deserved a conversation where we could really look into it. When that conversation occurred on the very next day, I heard the answer quite quickly. And my answer was “No!” I am still re-charging from the intensity of the time I spent with my father..letting the aquifer named “patience” fill back up, slowly, with cool, clear water.

Most of the rest of our discussion moved in the direction that I’ve been imagining myself being “used”. I asked questions about situations that were arising during her shifts, shared perceptions that have come to me about all the weighty and not so weighty issues that arise when a group of us concerned and loving younger ones try as best we can to sculpt a lifestyle, try to come as close as we can to what might have come naturally in some distant or not so distant time when our villages were still able to “raise a child” or “help an elder across”. When I heard that my answer to her question was “NO”, I also heard what I was saying “YES” to. We shall see where that clear “YES” leads me.