Photo by Kareen King

I remember these days of care giving. These recent weeks have taken me back to that time.

Planning and shopping for healthy menus and then weeks later filling the trash can with rotting produce and expired dairy; the food plan gone straight to ruin as emergencies, hands on care and endless hours on the phone take over life. The kitchen counter is littered with chain restaurant cups waiting to be rinsed and recycled or tossed: coffee, caffeinated diet sodas. Every water bottle and insulated cup in the house needs washed. The car feels like a second home: changes of clothes, extra cell phone chargers, extra masks, notebooks for keeping track of medication changes, errands and medical updates. Food wrappers, work laptop and prescription packaging pile on the floor of the front seat, crumbs all around from the meals and protein bars eaten in transit.

Too much over processed food has been consumed. No one feels good and sleep is either not possible or is the passed out sleep of total exhaustion, only to wake with adrenaline pulsing through our bodies as we leap back into action. With every text message or ring of the phone comes another swift hit of cortisol, engaging our bodies engage in fight or flight mode, anticipating the next crisis. We take big gulps of air as we try to manage earning a living and family responsibilities without having a stroke from the pressure and stress of it all.

This morning I cleaned out the fridge, throwing grocery bags of expired food into the trash. I felt bad about the waste, but having been down this road before it was more okay this time around. Sweet hubby began clearing the cups from the counter and when I emerged from the fridge, the counter was clear and being wiped down. We re-washed the mildewing load of laundry and it’s now heading for the dryer.

Control in this life is an illusion. But the tidying did our minds and blood pressures a bit of good. I’m doubtful that any of that mildew-free laundry will get folded or put away before it is worn again but who really cares?

We are not alone. This is the story of the caregiver. Caring for an ailing family member is taxing in the best of times. A global pandemic is not the best of times. Nurses are in short supply, exhausted and burned or burning out.  Corporate healthcare is a for-profit model even when it has a non-profit business status. Family care givers are the greatest unpaid workforce in this nation, and even in the “best” situations, it’s overwhelming.

In the end, expired food, mildewing clothes, trashed kitchen counter, mail and packages piled in the entryway, most of it matters very little and has to be put on hold. Stripped down to the essentials of life, what matters are people. The people we love, the people we care about, the relationships and exchanges of affection and caring that we share with those we love are all we really have.

Care giving is a marathon, not a sprint. Eventually the laundry will get done. We will finally take up our friends on the offer to set up a meal train. In the mean time we will do our best, with our focus will be on people, not things. We will work to get our own oxygen masks on, to find a routine again. For so many families, the role of a caregiver is just to get through the day, living from one crisis to the next. We will be thankful those receiving our care are practical, trust us, are willing to accept our help and that our family can work together as a team.

We will carve out as much time for rest as we can and be grateful when we get it. We will set a goal for healthy meals as often as possible, filling the fridge and deep freeze with easy grabs that are not encased in plastic wrap and cardboard. We will take turns cleaning out the car; recycling the bags of charging cords for hearing aids, cell phones, and the blue tooth speakers for piano jazz that we hope will help reduce a bit of violent delirium. We will continue the now miles long thread of text messages between siblings as we hand off hospital shifts, home health care and the all too brief brushes with our own bedroom and shower.

In the end, we do the best we can and try not to judge our best against someone else’s. We identify the barest essentials for getting through as we take every moment we can have with those we love.

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