"How can you laugh when you've served as a caregiver for nearly 30 years through all the brutal challenges that your family continues to endure?"
This was how a conversation started recently when talking to a woman caring for her aging parents. Continuing on, she stated, "I love to laugh and carry on, but when the topic comes to my family and the heartbreak I am facing right now with my dying folks - I just can't go there."
My response? I must laugh."¨"¨Laughter is like a muscle I work - and practice every day. For years, I used humor as a defense mechanism to push back against the heartache and fear as I helped my wife through 78 operations. With the help of others, however, I've learned to laugh and have joy from a healthier place in my heart. Although my wife lives with extreme circumstances, I've discovered it is inappropriate to wait for her to get better or worse before I live a healthy life - emotionally, physically, financially and professionally.
Unhealthy caregivers make lousy caregivers.
As the conversation continued, the woman broke down into sobs while relating the intense pressures of being an only child with elderly and chronically ill parents. I listened as she struggled to make sense of her new life as a caregiver. After a few minutes the conversation lightened somewhat, and I evidently quipped something funny, and she burst out laughing. "See," I exclaimed to her, "You still have tears on your cheeks, but you are laughing as well - and it's OK!""¨"¨ We all know we're permitted to cry, but we can laugh as well - and we can do it from a healthy place in our hearts.
Clowning around one day while speaking about the subject of caregivers, I did my best Jeff Foxworthy imitation and delivered a one-liner of, "If you have a professional carpet cleaner on retainer - you might be a caregiver.""¨"¨ Friends agreed it was funny and said, "You and Jeff ought to do some of those - it would really connect with folks."
Jeff and his wife have been dear friends to my family for many years. During particularly rough patches, I can recall numerous long phone calls, some tears and a lot a love and laughter that they have offered - in order to help me as I sought to provide leadership to my family through what most call a medical nightmare.
When I launched my radio show for caregivers on Nashville's WLAC, it was Jeff who told me, "Make 'em laugh, Peter." He added, "You know more than most how hard this is, and they need someone they can trust to give them permission to lay down their burdens for just a bit - and lighten their hearts."
With AARP's help, Jeff and I got together to offer a little humor, love and support to let my fellow caregivers know that they are not alone - and that help is available. Drawing upon AARP's desire to offer practical help, encouragement and community, we saw this as a real opportunity to reach out to hurting hearts during November's National Family Caregivers Month.
We caregivers can easily get bogged down in what I call the Three I's:
- We lose our independence;
- We lose our identity;
- We become isolated.
Because we're often cut off from our normal social circle and enmeshed in the lives of the ones we're caring for, it's hard to step back and get a healthier view - and laugh at the absurdities we deal with every day.
Taking on that isolation factor, we wanted to let others know that although it is a lonely walk, they are not alone. Check out the practical resources and community waiting for caregivers at aarp.org/caregiving"¨"¨ Jeff and I wanted to help others laugh, even while tears streamed down their cheeks.
With a couple of jokes, the extended hand of experience and the community of AARP, we seek to strengthen caregivers - one weary heart at time.
-- Peter Rosenberger
Peter is an AARP Tennessee volunteer and blogger from Nashville who has cared for his wife through 78 surgeries and multiple amputations. The president of Standing With Hope, which refurbishes and provides artificial limbs to amputees in Africa, Rosenberger hosts a caregiving radio show on WLAC and wrote Wear Comfortable Shoes: Surviving and Thriving as a Caregiver.