When I started blogging a few months ago, I was sharing the caregiving story of our two parents: my father and my husband’s mother. Now there is one. We buried my 93-year-old mother-in-law earlier this month.
After gradually declining health the past three years, she died very suddenly. Her exit came too quickly for us to make the 50-mile trip to hold her hand and tell her goodbye. We just didn’t get there in time.
She died in a nursing home, where she’d lived since 2013, after being in her own home with family and professional caregiving help for as long as my husband’s family could manage.
In the past few months of her life, she had become wheelchair-bound, incontinent, nearly blind, unable to chew, on oxygen 24-7 and suffering from dementia. She still knew us when we came and was thrilled to greet us, even though she often forgot who we were five minutes after we arrived.
So her death was bittersweet. We were sad, but she had suffered so much that we were also relieved.
Even though we weren’t there to share her passing, others were. I’ve heard so many deathbed stories from professional caregiver companions in my job as a writer for Home Instead Senior Care. Most of these caregivers work in seniors’ homes. But regardless of whether they are in a private home providing companionship or in a care community assisting with medical support, those end-of-life, real-life tales are moving and compelling.
Professional caregivers provide comfort, read scripture, ease anxiety and, when it is all over, suffer the trauma and heartbreak of loss, just like family. Some need time to recover. I thought I understood.
But I didn’t have a clue. Not one. It never sunk in until it was personal. The picture I saw
when we made that final trip into my mother-in-law’s care community the morning she died was worth the thousands of words I have written. And that picture has changed my view of caregiving for good.
Two of my mother-in-law’s caregivers were waiting for us. I broke down after one look at them. With tears streaming down their cheeks, they threw their arms around me and my husband and sobbed. Yes, our loved one’s passing was personal to us. Turns out, it was personal to them, too.
When my husband’s mother moved into the care home nearly two years ago, there were only glimpses of the woman she had been. The feisty business owner – a woman ahead of her time – who had owned and operated a Dairy Queen business even after being widowed young, the generous lady who would give anyone the shirt off her back, the dog lover, the baker, the knitter, the football fan, the mother and grandma.
It took some digging to find her behind the ravages of aging. But these caregivers looked and, somehow, got to know her, and love her.
We saw the same look in the eyes of the nurse who had been with my mother-in-law the past two years and attended her passing. The one who had laughed at her funny comments, helped her when she wasn’t feeling well and kept us updated at the slightest change. The one who assured us she went quickly, peacefully and ready. In the end, she thanked us for the privilege of caring for our loved one.
I thought about the toll it takes to provide care in a place where the “in memoriam” board adds new names, often weekly. How do these people face loss, sometimes each day? How do they share heartbreak and continue on, doing what they do best?
I may never know the answers, but I’ll be forever grateful.
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