5 Caregiving Lessons I Learned From My Mother


I am back from a 4 month leave-of-absence for caregiving. I left when my 94 year old mother fell in January and broke her hip. I thought she would, as usual, beat the odds and recover, but she did not. Here is some of what I learned in the process.

As I told those who came to her funeral, my mother was a study in paradox. Kind and loving, and tough as nails. Well-educated and very superstitious. Above all, however, she was pragmatic.

When it became evident that she would not heal the way she wanted to or regain the life she wanted, she decided to be finished. The awareness of “it’s time to let go” balanced with “I’m sorry to leave you like this.” The knowledge of what she needed to do balanced with the awareness of the impact on others.

It was easy in those weeks to be so caught up in taking care of her and the logistics of that, it could have been a total and complete focus. (I did let go of some responsibilities, like writing this blog.) But statements that I needed to see clients or walk my dogs were always met with an affirming nod and the knowledge that other elements of life must continue.

We were fortunate that we could afford round-the-clock care. However, not all paid caregivers are created equal. And it can be frightening to leave the care of your loved one to a stranger. The fact that “someone” was there did not mean I did not have to be there.

Especially in her last few days, when she simultaneously was struggling to live and struggling to leave, my sister and I stayed with her the full time. It brought home these 5 important points.

  1. The things we can do in the short-term crisis cannot be sustained over time. You really do need to sleep and eat – enough and regularly – to function well.
  2. You need to let others help. The friend who will bring a meal once a week is amazing. Many people say “Let me know if there is anything you need.” Have a list handy of what would help.
  3. Taking a brief respite to be with friends provides both support and relief.
  4. Laughter is important. Find ways to do it. See #3
  5. Most importantly, love can give you the strength to do what is necessary, even if it is not what you want. Whether you are the one who is leaving or the one who is left, you each have important challenges to tackle. Mutual love and respect help you know that it’s not all about you, but it is certainly about you.

As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” There was no greater challenge than to hold these words as my mother was failing. And yet, what I learned from my mother in those days was that there is no more important lesson than the paradox that you can only be there for others if you are there for yourself.

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About Elissa Lewin

Elissa Lewin is a Licensed Psychologist and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has maintained a private practice outside of Philadelphia for 25 years. Her own experience as a caregiver led to her founding Nancy’s House, a comprehensive respite program for family caregivers. www.nancy's-house.org

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