The Reluctant Caregiver

When relationships are strained, caregiving can be especially challenging.

After years of coping with the emotionally charged and excruciatingly painful divorce of her parents, it came time for the adult daughter to assume the care of her aging mom and dad. The lifelong irreconcilable differences were compounded by incompatible distances–her folks lived hours away from each other. She found herself running ragged from one parent’s house to the other, struggling to take care of them, and having to listen to and endure their ongoing battle.

“She said ‘they were never there for me when I needed them because they were always fighting with each other, and now I’m supposed to take care of them? ” recalled Roberta Cole, co-author of “Caregiving from the Heart: Tales of Inspiration.”

The woman described is one of the almost 100 caregivers across the United States Cole interviewed for the book. She heard time and time again stories of people who had strained relationships with their elderly parents, but were forced to pick up the around-the-clock caregiving.

The woman told Cole: “ I’m resigned to doing this because when they’re not around, I’ll feel guilty. It’s just sad to see they never are going to stop hating each other.”

Cole recounted how another man told the story of his estranged relationship with his father. He is gay, and his father rejected him when he was a young adult. Now, years later, his father’s health was failing and he was the only one who showed up at his dad’s bedside to care.

“He came back to care for his father, because he felt it was his last hope to melt the ice,” said Cole, a New York City writer and university teacher who took care of her own mother during her last 10 years. “He was hoping that finally he could find a way for his dad to identify with him and to share a bond they never had.”

These stories, and dozens of others hint at the emotional and spiritual land mines a growing number of people face as they suddenly and unexpectedly are thrown into the role of caregiver.

"Even if you had the best parent in the world, every caregiver is at some point reluctant or at least ambivalent, making the difficulty of the situation even greater,“ said Cole.

Taking on the role of caregiver can be especially tough for adult children who may have to navigate caring for an elderly parent who wasn’t that great at parenting. Or, with the growing divorce rate and evolving scope of families, many ex-spouses are finding themselves thrust into the role of caregiver for their children’s father or mother–the person they divorced. Also prevalent are those people who are forced to take on the role of caregiver in non-loving and often abusive relationships.

Certainly illness becomes a spiritual teacher in the practices of forgiveness, prayer, and letting go, according to Amy Baker, a self-proclaimed “reluctant caregiver,” who chronicles her perseverance and hope as she coped with the decline and death of her parents in her book, "Slow Dancing at Death's Door: Helping Your Parents Through the Last Stages of Life." The book details Baker's own strained relationship with her parents and how she reconnected with both of them before their deaths.

“Dealing with the emotional and spiritual issues becomes paramount,” said Baker, a Fort Worth, Texas, mom of two teenagers. “The raw emotions just come pouring out. What we don’t realize is that all of these unresolved relationships are simmering somewhere ready to surface. The reality is, we all will become sick and die one day, and our loved ones will too. It’s a truth we can no longer ignore.”

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Mary Beth Sammons
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