They say it takes a village to raise a child. I believe the same holds true when supporting an elder as independence is redefined in a way that is empowering and maintains a sense of freedom, choice, belonging and validation in their lives. A team of supporters is necessary to form a circle of loving care around the elder as advancing age brings certain physical and mental challenges into play. These supporters may be neighbors and friends, family members, professional caregivers, advocates and volunteers. What each person brings to the team and whether the collaboration is positive or negative is influenced by the openness, trust and disclosure, support and respect that connects the elder to this network and each person in the circle to each other.
Having now brought my own 91 year old Mom to live with me, I am amazed at the unexpected gifts I am receiving. Unsure of how my husband and I would adjust to this sudden transition, we are gathering a Circle of Care team around us, connected by the love and respect that we each share for my Mom. Every day I get to see firsthand how unconditional love and caring attention is transformational as Mom begins to feel safe and able to let go of her former resistance to what we were defining as support. Seeing my Mom happy, relaxed and joyously connected to having her “team” around her daily, warms one’s heart in a way that can only be described as a miracle.
Truly honoring and integrating our elders into our lives raises our own fears of the aging process and sometimes even causes us to ignore them, protecting ourselves from facing some of the realities that living into our eighties and nineties entails.
Erik Erickson described eight stages of development that he believed we must pass through over the entire life cycle. The eighth stage, extending from the age of 65 to death, he defined as Integrity vs. Despair. This time of life is when we engage in a life review and consider the worth of our experiences. Some look back with a sense of integrity or fulfillment on the choices they have made and the contributions they have offered that leads them to wisdom. Others may have a feeling of despair during this stage, as they struggle to find a purpose to their lives, focusing on regret for the life they have lived and the decisions they have made. It can determine whether they move peacefully towards death or fear death, resisting the love around them, fighting to the end.
What is our role when we become caregivers of our parents? We can help them ease through this stage to a sense of peace and acknowledgement of the gifts they have contributed to us and to others. In this life completion process, it seems apparent to me that each person who has joined the Circle of Care team, are receiving their own individual gifts from the experience to support their own growth.
I sit in the evening now on the edge of my Mom’s bed and listen to her telling me the stories of her life, many which relate to what she perceives as bad choices and regrets. Erickson’s description of the eighth stage of life reminds me to listen attentively and to also share with her the stories of how her creative and loving way helped all four of her daughters become caring adults and innovative thinkers. Each member of the team is doing the same in their own way.
My Mom’s eyes light up and she smiles gently, taking in our remembrances of what she has given in her lifetime. I see and feel her coming to a greater peace and acceptance of some of the difficulties she has experienced on her life journey. At the same time, having her with me daily, I am beginning to know that this stage of life which I will be entering all too quickly, holds the incredible possibilities of wisdom and acceptance. Mom just taught me another great lesson and as always, I get to pay it forward.