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I have been a private duty caregiver for the elderly and disabled for the past ten years, and I enjoy my work immensely. During that time, I have met a number of remarkable individuals, which not only includes the person I'm caring for, but also their family members.
It's an odd role, but I love it anyway. Taking care of someone else's loved one can be tricky at times. Families are often reluctant to invite an outsider into their homes, especially to deal with a very personal problem, such as a debilitating illness. Some families are more willing to open themselves up than others, and I have experienced both kinds.
For five years, I worked regularly with a lovely woman who had suffered from a stroke. Most of my time with her was spent watching classic television shows, sharing meals, assisting her with activities of daily living, and most importantly, making sure that she was safe in her environment. She was an absolute delight, and we spent many hours singing nonsensical songs together and laughing a lot. I treasure every single second I was able to be with her!
Interestingly, with as much time as I spent in the family residence, I was never invited to participate in any additional activities. My relationship was strictly professional. The woman was very well-cared for, and my job was a pleasure. Because of her stroke, however, she could recall very few details of her life, especially the more recent years. We would often walk by beautiful photographs of family members, which decoratively framed the family's three-tiered staircase, but she would be unable to tell me who most of the people were. Her daughter would fill in the details when I asked, but other than that, I really had no personal connection with other family members. I did, however, have an extremely personal relationship with the woman I cared for, but it was very unique. A close friendship with someone who didn't even know my name! After she passed away a few years ago, I didn't find out until months later, when I called her daughter to ask why I hadn't heard from her. In my heart, I knew what had happened before I made the call, but it was difficult to believe and accept. I always wished that I had been given the chance to say goodbye to my "friend."
On the opposite side, is another amazing woman I've had the privilege of working with for almost three years. Because of her Dementia, she doesn't know my name either, but she definitely knows my face! Her family is spread out geographically, and as such, I have been invited to care for the woman in a wide variety of locations.
I've met people in her hometown, where she and I enjoyed many hours reminiscing about the wonderful times she spent there over the past nine decades. Her daughter, who I now consider a friend as well, lives on the other side of the country, and makes sure that the home is properly maintained during frequent visits. One beautiful Autumn day, the woman and I visited the yacht club where she had raced (and won) as a young girl, and the actual sights and sounds of the location triggered some previously untold memories from a very long time ago. The woman was utterly thrilled when one of the employees, who had not seen her in many years, recognized her and asked how she was doing. It was a very nice moment.
Last summer, I had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time with the woman's son, his wife, and their children in upstate New York, where the family owns a hundred year old camp on a serenely secluded lake. As the caregiver, I shared a separate cabin with the woman, and over the course of three weeks together, she told me many fascinating stories from her youth that were related to memories of being at the camp. She even recognized a high chair that she and her sisters had all used, and which has since been used by many generations to follow.
During that time, a wonderful thing happened. I actually became a part of her family! At least that's how it felt to me. I was invited to join in a variety of events and activities that included extended relatives from both sides of the family. For a few weeks, my own son, along with our dog, were invited to stay with me and the woman in our cabin, and the experience was nothing less than incredible. We all shared dinners together, went for rides on an historic re-built family boat, and got to know each other quite well. My connection with this amazing woman couldn't have felt stronger, and I sorely missed her over the next several months when I didn't see her for a while.
Over the holiday season, I was asked to stay with the woman in her new Florida home, purchased so that she would not have to endure the often brutal New England winters anymore. At ninety-one, she is quite strong and hearty, but not quite as strong and hearty as a full-force Noreaster. For five weeks, I lived with the woman in the new home, and helped her get oriented to her unfamiliar surroundings. We spent a merry little Christmas alone together, and I couldn't have felt closer to her if she was my own Grandmother. My time there even included regular visits with the woman's older sister, a striking ninety-seven year old who resides in an assisted living facility. Watching the two women interact was an incredible experience, one I will never foget.
But after five weeks, my "assignment" ended, and I returned to my own home, minus my now "best friend." I learned an important lesson about boundaries, and have spent many months since that time grieving what feels like a loss. And a painful one at that. The woman's family has now found other caregivers nearer to where they live, which certainly makes practical sense. And as close as the woman and I were during our time together, I am sure that she has "connected" with her new caregivers in the same special way that she did with me.
Well... maybe not exactly the same. Individual lives often cross for a limited amount of time, and as a caregiver for other people's family members, especially the elderly, it's a reality that must be kept in mind at all times.
I am scheduled to spend a few weeks again with the woman later this summer, and I can't wait to see her again and share stories from her fascinating life. But this time, I will be more aware of the fact that I am not really part of her "family", at least not by blood. She is certainly a part of mine, though, and for that, I could not be more grateful.