Honey undoubtedly gets you further than vinegar. But for family caregivers, frustration, exhaustion, and endless responsibility can push the buttons of the most patient person.
Logically, Susanne White knew that dementia and tough circumstances were affecting her mom rather than the will to be "difficult." Still, as she and her mom waited for her dad to come out of surgery, Susanne prayed for patience.
Then an innocuous moment changed everything. Susanne stopped seeing her mom as "snarky" or "mean" but understood her vulnerability and need for nurture.
"As caregivers, patience doesn't always look how we think it should," says Susanne. "But, sometimes, being willing to be patient is where the magic is."
It's funny how memories sometimes come up at the strangest times. They can be triggered by something we see or hear or when our hearts need us to remember something.
Today, I was minding my own business over my morning coffee when I had a flashback of me and my mom in a hospital cafeteria.
My dad had just had successful open-heart surgery. He was resting, so I took a break and went to the cafeteria for something to eat with my mom.
My mom and I had a hard time with each other for most of our lives. Looking back now, I blame her anxiety, my youth and ignorance, and lots of misunderstanding between us.
I knew Mom wasn’t being “difficult,” but it felt that way
My mom had been diagnosed with dementia the year before. Being around her and taking care of her hurt sometimes. When she was snarky and mean, it opened up the historical baggage I still carried around.
On top of her struggling with this horrific disease, her soul mate had been separated from her. Because when it came to my dad, his well-being, and her need to be with him at all times, her clarity was unwavering. She was concerned for him and thrown off by him being in the hospital, which she expressed as agitation and anxiety. That day in the cafeteria, she was being even more difficult than usual.
Meanwhile, I was exhausted and extremely worried about Dad and Mom. Patience was not a tool I had handy at the time, and I felt defeated and annoyed. I needed to snap out of it but couldn't see how. I sent up lots of serenity prayers.
That's when something saved me: the simple act of figuring out what I could get my mom to eat.
A small moment turned into a minor miracle
It wasn't some great self-help tool, breathing exercise, or the positive self-talk I was desperately trying. Instead, the shift in how I was feeling and acting came from a little conversation.
Since there were too many choices in the cafeteria and every portion looked huge, my mom said "no" to everything. She just wanted coffee (which made her sick).
As I scanned the overwhelming choices, my eyes rested on some hot dogs grilling in one of those little glass boxes. Bingo. Not the healthiest of food, but food nonetheless. She had to eat something.
"Mommy," I said, "Do you want a hot dog? We can get mustard and relish, I bet!”
"Oh!" She said, "A hot dog? Yes, I'd love a hot dog!" She then looked at me like she was a six-year-old in a candy store, and I'd given her permission to eat anything she wanted.
A wave of empathy washed over me
My heart burst open. My strong-willed, stubborn, control-freak, snarky Mom had become childlike and vulnerable. She looked at me as though I held the key to her safety and joy.
In this sweet, innocent moment, she was happy and depended on me to be gentle, kind, and compassionate. She wasn't there to hurt me. She was there for me to protect and nurture, in much the same way she’d tried her best to protect and nurture me as a child.
Everything stopped right there for me; all the annoyance, all the impatience, and the awareness of my exhaustion. This shift wasn't about something I'd done; it was a feeling that came to me organically.
“Fake it until you make it” can work, but real understanding locks the lesson in
So, I had no conscious input into the empathy that suddenly washed over me, but I'm forever grateful it did. It gave me a road map to follow the next time I was at the end of my rope.
I'd found my patience with the help of angels, the universe, or luck (if that's what you believe in). Without meaning to or understanding how it worked, I’d been inspired to try one more thing for one last time. I’d come up with a choice for her that gave me 1) a breath of fresh air and 2) a new way of seeing my mom.
As caregivers, patience doesn't always look how we think it should. Sometimes, being willing to be patient is enough. That's where the magic is.
When I was a caregiver, I didn't have the answers. I was often messy and didn't have as much patience as I wanted or needed. But I learned something valuable: we're all walking each other home, and help can arrive in the most unexpected ways.
So, the next time you're out of steam and struggling for patience, trust that you're not alone. There's always the chance that a small miracle will help you find the patience and answers you're looking for.
My "miracle" came in the form of a hot dog! What will yours be?
NPS-IE-NP-00708 March 2023