We took care of my mother-in-law in our home for five years. Many of you were reading here at that time and offered much prayer, love, and encouragement.
I had a sudden realization about that period of our lives this week. It was such a jolt, and then a comfort, that I thought I’d share it with you.
We had moved my mother-in-law, Colleen, from Idaho, where she lived for 30+ years, to SC, where we then lived, to an assisted living facility. She had to move again when we moved to TN. Then she had to be moved twice when her physical state declined to the point that the facilities could no longer care for her. She ended up in a nursing home, where she declined rapidly. She was 90 lbs. and in a constant fog. We felt she was being neglected, so we brought her home, thinking we were bringing her home to die. But with one-on-one care, she gained weight and became clearer and lived for another five years. I wrote about our experiences, things I learned, challenges we faced, etc., and filed them under Adventures in Eldercare.
My biggest regret from our caregiving experience was that I chafed under most of it. I wanted her to be well cared-for. But I didn’t want to be the one to do it. Of all the things I wanted to be when I grew up, a nurse was never one of them.
Plus, our “nest” was emptying, and though I missed our kids, I had big plans for my free schedule. I was going to write a book and all sorts of things (in the three years since she passed, I still haven’t finished the book, so obviously caregiving wasn’t the main roadblock).
I had to remind myself many times over those years that if caregiving was God’s will for me at that time, that He would give grace to do it; that He doesn’t always place us in positions that use our strengths, but often He puts us where we feel totally weak, that we might find our strength in Him; that caring for one person, even a mostly unresponsive person, in a back room is as much a ministry as preaching to thousands or writing a best-selling book or whatever.
But I can’t say I ever “got” those lessons in a way that stayed with me. I had to repeat them often, sometimes daily.
For some reason, one morning this week my mind wandered to some of the caregivers both in facilities and in our home who . . . let’s say, did not do a good job. I could tell you stories . . . At first I put several of those stories here, but then decided to delete them.
You think, when you’ve researched facilities and placed a loved one in one, that they’ll get the best care possible, that everyone knows what they are doing. But that’s not the case. There are a lot of kind, caring caregivers who do their best. Our dear Jessica, who was Colleen’s main caregiver for 3 1/2 or so years, was a treasure worth her weight in gold. But there were others who were just punching the clock. There were some about whom we wondered what ever brought them into health care in the first place. Did they think it would be an easy job to prepare for or to do? Did they used to be good but then got burned out?
Some of them did a good job as far as the physical things they were responsible for. But they seemed to forget that they were dealing with a person, especially when that person didn’t speak. They’d talk over her to each other instead of to her.
So this particular morning, as my thoughts ran through some of the caregiving situations we encountered, I began to realize that maybe what Colleen had needed most from me was not my nursing care. Maybe what she needed most from me was someone to watch out for her, to advocate for her, to insist that she be cared for in not only the best physical ways, but the most humane ways.
It’s not that we griped to caregiver managers or corrected all the time. We didn’t want to come across as know-it-alls or can’t-ever-be-pleased nitpicky types. We didn’t bring up every single little thing we felt was wrong. We only chose the most vital issues to discuss with the staff at her facilities or at the home health care agency. Still, there seemed to be way too much that we needed to speak to them about.
Years ago, before there were so many personality tests and ways of classifying them as they are now, the main way of sorting personalities was the four spiritual temperaments. I remember poring over Beverly LaHaye’s The Spirit-Controlled Woman. Though no personality classification is perfect, this one made sense to me and seemed a lot simpler than many of the personality classifications today.
My personality, according to that system, was melancholic—an unfortunate name since it sounds like I’m depressed or sad or morose, which I am not. One aspect of melancholics is perfectionism, which, like most personality traits, can be good or bad. Perfectionism can drive one to do the best possible job rather than leaving things done half-hardheartedly. You’d want your brain surgeon to be a perfectionist. But perfectionism can also lead to hyper-criticism and misery when you and everyone else can’t live up to your ideals. This trait “clicked” for me when a guest preacher in our church several years ago, Jim Binney, said that melancholics see things that are wrong and want to set them right.
I felt like much of the care I provided for my mother-in-law felt outside my natural gifts. As I mentioned before, that situation cast me on the Lord like nothing else.
But this particular morning, I realized God had used me in the ways He made me by helping me see the things that were wrong in her care, helping to right them, and eventually bringing her home. It’s not just that this area was one thing I did right in the midst of so much I felt I did wrong or struggled with. But I just felt particularly known and loved and useful in God’s hands. I hope that makes sense.
Whether God uses us as we feel gifted or totally outside our gifts and personality, our sufficiency is from Him.
(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)
Thank you Barbara! Loved this post. 💜
Thanks so much, Lucy. ♥
I really like your thoughts here! Truly in our weaknesses, HE is strong. Reading the post, and as a fellow melancholic, I could imagine how frustrating it must have been to have been needed for a job that felt so far from your natural inclinations and abilities. I know that your mil is eternally grateful for the care you provided her for those years. And I’m so glad that you now do have the freedom to write and do other things that you postponed to care for her.
My main consolation in having her here was knowing that she was being cared-for and not neglected. I know some people have good experiences with assisted living and nursing homes, and the early years when she did not need as much assistance went well. But it seemed like the more care she needed, the more her care deteriorated in those places.
Barbara, I so appreciate your story. My Mom has lingered years longer than any of us would have imagined. She’s been on and off Hospice for 18 months and 5 years ago she was given 6 months to live. And while she wants to go home to be with the Lord, is now pretty much disabled, and she’s lived in constant pain for decades, in His wisdom He hasn’t called her yet.
We are grateful for the care she is receiving, but it is a long, sad, good-bye. One of her favorite verses is ‘Thou art my God my times are in Thy hand.’ I pray it with her often.
My aunt called my m-i-l’s journey “the long good-bye.” Her last 3 years, she slept 20-22 hours a day and could do nothing for herself. It was hard to understand why the Lord left her here in that state before taking her home. I’m sure part of the reason was that we might learn to be more selfless. I’m so thankful now that she’s with Him, well, and experiencing an “eternal weight of glory.” Praying for you and your mom.
I’m so glad you were able to be an advocate for your mother-in-law, Barbara. And may you continue to make progress on your book – day-by-day, line-by-line – until it is completed.
Thanks so much, Lisa.
Barb, I appreciate your thoughts in this post, as well as your sensitivity to what your loved one really needed, which was not necessarily medical expertise. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is to those who can no longer advocate for themselves.
Oh, Barbara, you and I could have a long talk over tea. My mum lived with us for 5 years and I have so many regrets about the way it went and the way it ended. Grace covers it, but I am determined not to waste the lessons.
Your last line is my feeling exactly. Regret weighs heavy, but I can’t do anything about the past except take it to the Lord. But I can also seek His grace to learn and grow from it.
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