November 21, 2017

“If you Think You’re Enlightened, Spend a Week with Your Family”

Ram Dass, a very wise man, said this many years ago. I’ve just spent a week with my family and it deeply challenged what I think of as my evolution. It was humbling, moreso on this visit than any other.

Humility has many definitions, and the ones that seem most relevant to me have to do with pride or arrogance and the ego.  I don’t think of myself as arrogant, but I am proud of who I am and what I stand for and how I love. And sometimes I’m not aware of the impact I have on others.

It’s a strange dance with aging parents who are proud and want to maintain independence, but don’t drive well, can’t get up on ladders, walk with canes or walkers and don’t hear well. With an open heart and the best of intentions to be a helper and supporter, I offered some ideas for ways to help them stay independent, thinking I was offering a gift. But a gift offered is not a gift if not perceived as a gift!

Watching my parents decline physically and mentally is heart-wrenching. Between my partner and I, we share 4 parents all in various stages of this. One resides in the Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home, one has a son living in their home who does cooking and errands, and 2 live alone without using local support services, choosing fierce independence. They all look like they could be blown over by a stiff wind. That pride, stoicism and independence allows them to go on. And in the past few weekends, we’ve been the ones to climb the ladders to change the batteries in smoke detectors, change light bulbs, maintain irrigation systems, program remote control devices, and return some phone calls. 

Doing what is asked is a joy; offering other help that is not accepted is a challenge. And therein lies the humility. Where to draw the lines? When to report a dangerous driver to DMV, knowing that will be the end to independent living? When to honor a request to not visit? How to show love and appreciation with no expectation of it being received or returned? How to maintain dignity and safety simultaneously, when they may be in conflict?

Then there are the discussions about finances and what care is best, and who makes the decisions. How do you navigate this with siblings who have different opinions and agendas? How do we place our parents needs in the forefront and accept our differences without letting them distract us from the central goal of having our parents age as gracefully as possible?

As you can see, I have more questions than answers. And all of this reminds me of how I support those on the cancer journey. There are so many difficult choices to make that have long ranging and often-unknown consequences. Standing alongside those on the path, loving them and assisting when asked, sharing wisdom and learnings when appropriate, and loving more so that they can live their best life, feel empowered and respected as the navigate the choppy seas of cancer treatment and an integrated and loving life.

Always reminded that I may not be as enlightened as I think I am.

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