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The Caregiver's Cairn: Caregiving Lessons from Our Critters

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Blog by Jane Barton

Greetings one and all...

Welcome back to The Caregiver’s Cairn - a sustaining and empowering guide for caregivers and care receivers. I hope you and yours have enjoyed a lovely month since my last posting. I invite you to pour a cup of coffee or hot tea, curl up in a cozy chair, and take a deep breath. Today, I want to chat about the amazing things we learn from our beloved critters about giving and receiving care. I use the term critter to include any creature that you love and consider part of your family. Dogs. Cats. Horses. Birds. Hamsters. Fish. Bunnies. It matters not whether your critter walks, struts, gallops, flies, swims, hops, or slithers. There are lessons to be learned if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

I have been blessed with extraordinary mentors throughout my life. Family. Friends. Teachers. And critters. All have enlightened me in the ways of the world. But the lessons learned from my critters are some of the most profound to date. Granted, my critters have provided little guidance in balancing a checkbook or filing taxes. Instead, my beloved cats and dogs provided (and continue to provide) instructions regarding how we are called to care for each other. Being creatures of few words, my critters convey these all important caregiving lessons by the manner in which they care for each other, themselves, and me.

Critters, particularly dogs, understand and embrace the journey of caregiving. First, critters serve as incredible caregivers. I have yet to meet a human caregiver who is as masterful as a dog in regard to presence, nonverbal communication, and unconditional love. On the flip side, critters are gracious recipients of care. I have never heard a critter reject an offer of assistance by loudly proclaiming, “Thanks, but I’m FINE!” Rather, critters appreciate our caring interventions when needed. And finally, critters exhibit tremendous calm and courage when confronted by the reality of mortality. Over the past ten years, I have companioned both cats and dogs to the end of the road. Each time, there were important lessons to be learned not only about death, but about life. My life is enriched and informed in countless ways by witnessing how my critters have chosen to live until the journey’s end.

As caregivers, critters are gifted healers and guides. In my opinion, there is no better medicine in the world than a purring cat or loving dog. If you share a home with cats and/or dogs, I am sure you’ve experienced the blessings of intuitive critter care. We don’t have to say a word, do we?  Whether the flu or the blues, dogs and cats come running. They just know when we need and want them. In fact, a critter’s intuition can literally save a life in some instances. Many people rely on specially trained critters to warn of seizures or heart attacks. So, I think it is fair to say that critters are some of THE best caregivers in the world. Thus, we are wise indeed if we choose to learn at the feet (or paws) of our caring critters!

I am also amazed by the scope of care offered by critters. Healthcare providers tend to compartmentalize various types of treatment, thereby specializing in a particular kind of care. Critters, on the other hand, serve as a holistic balm offering healing for the mind, body, and spirit—comprehensive care. Simply by licking your hand, a dog alleviates anxiety, provides companionship, and offers hope. It’s truly amazing when you think about it. How does the presence of a dog lower a person’s blood pressure? Why do persons with Alzheimer’s disease become less anxious and aggressive when a dog is present? Well, there is scientific evidence supporting various hypotheses and theories related to the human response to critters. However, it is not data that serve to prove the caregiving prowess of critters. Rather, it is the experience of being cared for by a critter that substantiates the claim. Perhaps the healing derived from a caring critter lies in the sense of being heard, being honored, being loved, and being accepted without judgment. I don’t always need a rational explanation for what I observe or experience. Instead, I choose to accept the mystery and to embrace the blessings of the care offered by my critters. And hopefully, I choose to learn from that experience. By so doing, I will grow in my ability to give and to receive compassionate care thanks to my furry, four-legged, fabulous caregiving mentors!

Thanks so much for stopping by today. I invite you to share your perspective on the caregiving journey. Make suggestions. Pose questions. Provide resources. Share your story. Coming together and sharing, we will improve the process for one and all. I look forward to continuing the conversation next month. Til then, blessings to you and yours...Jane W. Barton

Do you have a question for Jane? Please email us at coaarp@aarp.org and we will be in touch soon!

 

Jane W. Barton, MTS, MASM, CSA is a passionate speaker, writer, and listener. Jane is the founder of Cardinal, LLC, a consulting firm that provides educational programs to assist people in confronting the daunting challenges posed by aging,  serious illness and disability. Jane is well-versed in the areas of grief and bereavement, caregiving, hospice and palliative care, change and transition, and spirituality and health. She presents innovative, transformational programs to community members, healthcare providers, pastoral caregivers, clergy, funeral service providers, and national audiences to improve the experience of people and families challenged by serious, advanced, or terminal illnesses. Previously, Jane served as Director of Education for a hospice and palliative care educational institution. She has also served as a hospice chaplain and bereavement facilitator in hospice and palliative care. Jane is a certified Spiritual Director as well as a Certified Senior Advisor. In a former life, she worked as a financial services representative and an exploration petroleum geologist and manager. 

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