Early in this journey called family caregiving, when helping care for my own mother, I made the comment to my brother (the primary caregiver) that taking care of Mom was not unlike taking care of a child, except that the movement was in the opposite direction. As we made our comparisons, the differences became clear. At a functional level, children are moving forward in life, while seniors are moving towards death. For example, when a child demands to pick up the glass and drink from it “myself”, even when the glass and liquid end up on the floor, we lavish praise for a good try, usually adding that next time will turn out better. Now looking at the same situation when an elderly person in our care who makes the same type of attempt and “achieves” the same result, we feel frustrated that the care recipient made the attempt to get a drink, because he or she should know that this task is beyond the scope of his or her capability.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m talking about gut reactions here. Most often we are able to self-sensor our reactions and assure the care recipient that there is no reason for us to “cry over spilled milk”, and that the clean up is simple. But, when I’ve caught myself feeling these frustrations, I’ve wondered if mother sensed my frustration and disappointment, before I was able to catch myself and make the attitude adjustment. In short, I’ve felt terrible for my first response. As I became more comfortable with taking care of my mom, I would apologize for being short with her, and while she was capable of helping with the clean up, I would happily accept her help. And, given the role that humour played in my family of origin, quite often I’d introduce a silly comment or two, to shift into a happier mode. The little quip that worked best with my mom was for me to comment about the number of times she wiped up my spills, and it is my turn now. Even as Mom’s dementia increases, comments such as these would bring a smile to her face!
Now going back to my original comparison of our responses to seniors versus children spilling milk, this example helps make it clear that our expectations make all the difference. When a child makes a failed attempt to drink by herself, we want to encourage her to move forward in her development; but, when an elderly adult makes the same failed attempt, it becomes painfully obvious to us that this person is in decline. She no longer can do something that she’s done for years, perhaps something that she taught us to do, and this is a bitter pill for us to swallow.