AARP AARP States Oregon Caregiving

Caregiving During a Pandemic

Close up human hand pointing to photo in photo album

I’m sitting on a dusty carpet surrounded by boxes of vintage photographs, travel journals, and tarnished silver. They don’t belong to me, yet I have become the caretaker of not only these treasures, but also the memories they generate. It’s a slice of caregiving I find most heart rending—packing up a person’s life, sorting it into piles to give away, throw away, or hold onto. It seems wrong to brazenly examine the possessions of another person’s life, despite the fact that they no longer understand the meaning of what they once held so dear.
These artifacts belong to a quiet, gracious woman who celebrated every holiday and significant event with our family. She was well read, traveled extensively, enjoyed a distinguished career, and was a revered community volunteer. Growing up, our children would ask how she was related to us, but explaining she was a second cousin of a grandparent seemed distant and inadequate. It really didn’t matter how she was part of our family—she simply was, and for three decades we reserved a spot for her at our dining room table.
We attended concerts, exchanged books, and had our favorite lunch spots. In later years I became her driver. I knew her oncologist, dentist, physician, and frankly, more about her medical record than the details of her personal life. She was reserved and dignified— the sort of person who always spoke in complete sentences, never using too many words. Now as I open her desk drawers and go through her closet, I find myself a thief of her privacy.
When these alienating times of COVID subside, when we finally have the opportunity to see each other face to face, I will hand her the jewelry I found in a carved wooden box, looking for a hint of recognition and emotion in her face. Meanwhile, I’ve made her a memory book, labeling it as best I can. I commissioned it to the lobby staff, because for now, that’s as far as they allow non-residents to enter the facility. I can’t offer her a tender smile or put my hand on hers. The geographical seven miles between us might as well be an ocean.
As her family, we are the thin thread of connection to help her hold on to a fading glimpse of who she was. We pray she will find some sense of solace in her new world of strangers. COVID has taken over one million lives. She doesn’t have the virus, but I fear hers is already among those lost.

Elaine Friesen-Strang is the immediate past AARP Oregon Volunteer State President.

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