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The Caregiver's Cairn: The Last One Standing

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Blog by Jane Barton

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 think about the people with whom you share the amazing journey of life. Our families - biological and chosen -usually inform and influence the process of aging. Personally, my family of choice does more than influence my lived experience. My family is a determining factor in how I engage and perceive life.

Research has proven what we all hoped to be true - our social support systems (i.e. families) impact our quality of life and ultimate longevity (Social Relationships and Mortality Risks by Holt-Lunstad, 2010). This is born out in reflections from seniors who have outlived their spouses, partners, children, and peers. Quite often, when those nearest and dearest to us die, our motivation to thrive can wane.

When working as a hospice chaplain, I witnessed the rapid decline and subsequent death of many bereaved spouses in the year following the death of their beloved. To be the last one standing is a solitary, isolating existence for many seniors. This reaction highlights our intense desire and need to be known by others, to have a life-giving sense of belonging. Without an anchor in this life, a safe harbor, we can feel adrift and lost. I learned this important life lesson many years ago from an amazing woman, my Aunt Jane.

My godmother, Aunt Jane, was one of my greatest mentors. She was full of life! I always thought of her as my personal Auntie Mame. She lived life large to say the very least. She married a man, my Uncle Doc, who was 12 years her senior. She always knew that she would probably outlive him. However, she never imagined she would outlive all of her friends as well.

I remember an especially poignant (and funny) conversation with Aunt Jane when she was living in an assisted living community. We were reminiscing about life and lamenting the loss of family and friends. Aunt Jane shared her shock and anger at outliving all of her beloved peers. She had done everything in her power to be one of the first to die. She drank. She smoked. She didn’t exercise. And she was always fighting the battle of the bulge. She related all of this in a joking manner, but I knew beneath the laughter was an intense sorrow.

Being the consummate caregiver, I rushed in to “fix” the situation for Aunt Jane. I reminded her that I would ALWAYS be there for her and that I loved her dearly. I wanted her to know that she would never be alone! She patiently listened to me. Then, she gently held my hands and courageously shared her truth. She was alone. She no longer had people to “remember with,” people who had been part of her memories. In that moment, I realized there were some things I could not "fix" - regardless of my desire to reassure and console Aunt Jane.

Aunt Jane desperately missed having people in her life that knew her from the inside out. She longed to be known! She said, “It is no fun being the last one standing. There is no one who knows me anymore.” I will never forget the overwhelming sadness I heard in her voice and saw in her eyes. More importantly, I will never forget the hard earned wisdom she graciously shared with me. Life is ALL about the people we love and who love us. We know ourselves in relationship to other people. And we are sustained by the shared experiences and memories.

The lessons learned from Aunt Jane continue to serve me well. To age well, usually requires a plan and having a positive attitude. For some people (the last ones standing), aging also can require a tremendous amount of courage - the courage to face the end-of-life alone. Because of Aunt Jane, I cherish my current sense of belonging and being known. I pray that I will be known until my last breath. However, if I am the last one standing in my family, I hope to be as brave and as grace-full as Aunt Jane. A lofty goal indeed.

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!

 

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