Caring for Others: The Giving and the Taking

By Ellen S. Gibson

There are four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.  –Rosalynn Carter

farm family walking with goatsWe have all had the experience of being taken care of, whether it was a bout with chicken pox as a child, a period of recovery from surgery of some kind, or a hug from a friend on a day that seemed particularly bleak. Most of the time, we get better in a matter of a few days or weeks.

Many of us will also find ourselves in the role of caregiver at some point. “Caregiver” is a synonym for “parent” during the years when our children are young. Children grow up all too quickly and become capable of taking care of themselves. We grow older and our own parents grow older, and then the caregiving roles reverse.

In 2015, I spent the winter living with my parents, both in their 90s. My sister had taken on this role for several years, and it was my turn. It was a winter of emotional ups and downs. I traveled back and forth to the farm every day to take care of the goats. My father was not an easy person to live with. Though he liked my cooking, he thought I spent too much money on food. And he couldn’t understand how I could make such a mess in the kitchen! Occasionally there were harsh words and hurt feelings. There were also great conversations, reminiscing about our dogs, or what life was like during the Depression, or being stationed in Alaska during the Korean War. My father passed away in 2017. It may have been difficult at times, but I treasure this  time we spent together.

Caregiving a part of AgrAbility’s Mission

At Maine AgrAbility we routinely work with caregivers. And that is because the mission of AgrAbility is to serve farmers, members of their families, and farm workers who are disabled in some way. It may be a farmer whose wife has Multiple Sclerosis and is in a wheelchair. It may be a child with epilepsy. It may be a farmer veteran with a service-related injury. It could be an intergenerational farm family caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s.

Sally Karioth, PhD RN says, “I’ve learned that a person doesn’t get a disability, a family does.” Within the family constellation, there is usually a primary caregiver. The degree to which a disabled family member is able to live fully and productively has a lot to do with the quality of the caregiver.

Caregivers provide the lifeline for a child or spouse or parent whose abilities have been limited. They are advocates, they schedule appointments, provide transportation, cook meals. They help with recovery, and with relapses, with disappointments and with the important milestones. Caregivers keep righting the ship, and they keep it moving steadily ahead.

The toll on the caregiver

The rewards are great, but there are also challenges, such as loss of personal freedom. There are many needs, too–for patience, to rethink priorities, to ask for help, to adapt, to learn new skills. Communication can falter over misunderstandings or emotional topics that are difficult to discuss. There may be financial stress.

Responding to the need

Because caregivers are so integral to AgrAbility’s mission, the National AgrAbility Program has developed a number of resources specific to caregivers’ needs. They can be found at Caregivers. Here you can read stories from the front lines–mothers, fathers, spouses, sons and daughters talk about their circumstances as caregivers and pass on their insights. There are activities to help with all kinds of daily stresses. It can be helpful just to have a reminder–oh, yes! I always feel better when I turn on some music–because sometimes we just get tied up in knots and lose sight of where we are going.

When caring for others, we need to remember to care for ourselves. It may seem selfish or counterintuitive, like the instructions we hear at takeoff: “Secure your own oxygen mask first.” We can offer an abundance of loving kindness to others when our own inner supply has been well tended. If we are running on empty, there will be nothing to give.

During this season of giving, be discriminating with how you spend your time. Conserve your energy. Ask for help when you need it. Stay well, and thank you for your good works.