How I Learned to Practice Patience as a Caregiver
I’m not a patient woman by nature. I’ve never gone slowly and carefully into things but run full bore ahead. One of my mottos is, “If all else fails, read the directions.”
When I start something new, I want to go to the last chapter first and worry about how to get there later. In this hurry to get to the goal, I often lose patience with those that can’t keep up. I’m not proud of this, but it’s my nature – or perhaps my conditioning.
Immersion Course in Practicing Patience as a Caregiver
When Alzheimer’s kidnapped our lives, I was jettisoned into an immersion course in patience. Becoming a caregiver for my husband, Bob, was fraught with failure.
I often thought I fell short of being a good caregiver. I seemed to tumble off the patience wagon more often than was comfortable with. I was forever straining to pull myself back on, vowing to be better, yet not being able to fully realize that desire.
“What’s for Dinner?”
Sometimes I’d watch as my body and psyche shut down. It could happen gradually or swiftly. There was a physical reaction, often centered in the solar plexus, as well as an emotional retreat, that could be triggered by something as innocuous as Bob staring at me while I was cooking.
It’s dinnertime. We’re in our small kitchen. “What’s for dinner?” Bob asks for the third time.
“Pasta with smoked tuna and an arugula salad with sun-dried tomatoes.” I’m a frantic, focused cook, moving quickly around the kitchen with no time to wash up as I go.
“What’s for dinner?”
“Pasta and salad,” I say with strained patience and gritted teeth.
The smell of sautéed garlic and onions fills the room. I try to distract Bob with jobs like setting the table or washing whatever I’ve already thrown in the sink or piled up on the counter.
“What’s for dinner?”
“We’re having a yummy pasta and an organic green salad.” I try to brighten my answer and solidify my resolve to be patient, as I pour white wine into the sauce. In reality though, it’s better to repeat the same answer.
I secretly try to dirty as many items as possible to keep him busy. But as soon as he’s finished, he stands off to the side, just on the edge of my peripheral vision, almost at military attention, and watches my every move.
“What’s for dinner?”
Feeling Powerless as a Caregiver
Logically, I know there’s no harm in this watching or questioning. Logically, I know he’s bored and has nothing else to do, and I’m his only entertainment. Logically, I know this has nothing to do with me.
But emotionally, it drives me mad. It triggers a reaction I’m not proud of – shutting down and becoming crisp cold. I watch this happen and feel powerless to stop it.
It’s not until my brain chemicals subside and the gate of warmth opens that I can really be with him again, friendly and affectionate.
Studying the Shut Downs
I’ve studied these shutdowns, trying to figure out a way out of them, a way of being more compassionate with my husband. Sometimes they come upon me for no special reason, and I watch myself retreat inside a suit of armor.
The harder I struggle, the more locked-in and distant I become. It feels like I reach a point where I’ve had enough, and I just can’t give anymore.
The Only Way Out is Through
I’ve realized that the only way out is through. The only thing to do is to be as aware as possible of what’s truly going on. It seems to me that this awareness holds the key to healing.
I also see the need to have compassion for myself and for what I’m endeavoring to do. Awareness and self-patience don’t come easily. You can read more about these realizations in my book Piece by Piece: Love in the Land of Alzheimer’s.
Finally, a New Country
For years I repeatedly failed at patience, until one day it was as though I’d stepped through an archway into a new country, and I was patient.
I could finally be with Bob without berating myself for failing. I could be with him, open and inviting, experiencing what was going on with curiosity.
I’ve come to see that caring for him was a gift on so many levels, and one of the gifts that has stayed with me is patience. Believe me, my family, friends and staff are grateful for this gift.
Are you a caregiver? What do you do to stay patient? If by nature you’re impatient, what experiences have you had to deal with it? If you’re a caregiver, what tricks did you use with your loved one to be more present with him/her? Do you feel guilty for your impatience? Do you have any advice to help those who struggle with impatience? Please share your thoughts and experiences below!
Susan Tereba, an artist, jewelry designer and writer, has lived in Bali for 27 years. She had 14 years of experience as the primary caregiver for her husband, who had Alzheimer’s. Susan now writes and speaks with the goal of inspiring other caregivers for those with chronic illnesses. Please visit her website for more details.