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Caregiving Lessons

A daughter learns a lot about herself in the process of caring for others

En español │I'm a third generation caregiver, which sounds as if I should be expert at it. But in truth, it took me three generations to really understand the fundamental truths of caregiving, and, more important, how to apply those fundamentals to myself.

My Grandparents

When I was just 13, my maternal grandparents moved in with us after my grandmother's stroke. She was in the early stages of dementia, and the stroke had weakened her so she needed constant supervision.

It was a lot of fun in the beginning; Granny told wonderful stories of her life, and I didn't mind fixing her hair or helping her get dressed. But as her dementia progressed, her stories grew tedious. Her silliness became annoying. My mother handled this progression with grace and poise. I was not always so kind.

I came home from school one day to find my grandmother in my room, reading my diary. I jerked it out of her hands and ordered her out of my room. I instantly regretted my temper tantrum. But it was too late. Her crestfallen face would forever remind me how fragile dementia patients are.

I confessed all to my Mom, so ashamed I couldn't even look her in the eye. Later, I tried to apologize to Granny, but she had no memory of the afternoon. But I did, and took the lesson of true caregiving that my mother taught me into the second generation.

 Clarissa Leahy/cultura/Corbis

The only good thing about Alzheimer's, at least for my mother and my grandmother, was that it at least stranded them in a time when they were the best versions of themselves.

My Parents

I was 35 when my parents moved in with me. I'd lived two hours away for many years but kept in close contact with my two brothers. It was clear that Mom and Dad needed someone there 24/7. My mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. My dad had endured two strokes and two heart attacks, and his diabetes was way out of control.

"I can do this," I assured everyone. My relationship with my father had always been an uneasy one. I'd spent most of my adult life seeking his approval in some form or another, and I think, on some level, I thought that by doing this, perhaps I'll finally win the old man over. And I truly wanted this time with my mother because I knew the day would come when she no longer knew me. I just didn't expect it so soon.

The first six months went smoothly, although Dad spent a lot of it in the hospital. He'd arrived at my house with failing kidneys, so getting him to a manageable level of health took several months. I think those weeks at the hospital took the hardest toll on Mom, and some nights, she simply couldn't walk out of there. I would get a hospital wheelchair and push her. But she wouldn't miss a day. My dad was and still is her world.

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