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Being a Caregiver Is a Powerful Way to Learn to Love

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Can you love being a caregiver? Perhaps not – but you can learn a lot about love, being a caregiver. That’s the theme of a powerful, personal article that we came across this week on the NextAvenue website. Writer and speaker Connie Baher wrote the piece as a Valentine of sorts for caregivers. Valentine’s Day may be over, but we found her sentiments worth sharing.

Baher knows what she’s talking about, having served as her mother’s caregiver for 13 years. She writes with honesty and poignancy. If you’re a caregiver, we hope you’ll be encouraged by Baher’s words. If you know someone who is a caregiver – including those professionals who provide in-home care – share this with them as an encouraging pat on the back.

Being a Caregiver: It Helps to be Honest

Baher begins her NextAvenue article with a quote that’s so authentic it brought us up short. Her opening statement: “Everybody at some point really hates being a caregiver.”

Baher explains, “That’s what Amy Abrams, former director of education for Alzheimer’s San Diego, told me, and, believe me, it resonated. That may sound like a perverse way to start a Valentine for caregivers, but stick with me and we’ll get around to the candy hearts.”

With that honest opening statement, let’s go on the journey through Baher’s article.

Is Being a Caregiver Really a Blessing?

“One sunny day in Carlsbad, California,” Baher recounts, “I was driving to visit my mother (I was her caregiver for 13 years). The seatbelt on the passenger seat was strapped around a 12-pack of Ensure. My giant tote bag was filled with Kleenex and paper toweling, a new pair of reading glasses and assorted cleaning materials for the tray on Mom’s walker. A voice from the car radio broke into my thoughts. A clergyman on some interview show was saying, ‘Caregiving is a blessing.’”

Baher’s reaction was immediate: she wasn’t buying it. “Watching someone slowly being consumed by frailty, sliding into cognitive decline — no, for me, caregiving was anything but a blessing,” she writes. “Cynically I figured he was just testing out some theme for next Sunday’s sermon.”

A Caregiver’s Cry: “I’m Losing My Life!”

Baher describes how her journey as a caregiver began simply enough, assisting with a few basic errands – only to become increasingly overwhelming as her mother declined.

“Caregiving is stealthy,” she says — “for me it had sneaked up from a simple offer to help with the groceries until, as my mom’s needs expanded, it had just about engulfed me.” She’s honest about her own growing resentment. “Maybe you know the story,” she relates. “I was struggling and stressed out, angry and then guilty for feeling angry.”

Reaching Out to Caregiving Peers and Professionals

Wisely, Baher began connecting with others in a similar plight. “I began to talk to other caregivers, started an informal support group where we swapped stories and tried to help one another,” she writes. “I sought out hospice workers, palliative care doctors, psychologists and social workers, looking for answers.”

She recalls one “fateful phone call” with a caregiver consultant from Massachusetts named Carmel Murphy-Kotyan. “I’m losing my life,” Baher yelled in desperation into the phone. But in what Baher calls the moment that “changed everything,” Murphy-Kotyan paused – and then replied simply, “You’re a caregiver. This is your life.”

“Man, she had nailed it,” Baher remembers. “I knew I was resisting being a caregiver. I was trying to stuff it into a corner of my life and it wouldn’t stay there.”

Being a Caregiver Means You Can “Outrun Your Love”

From that moment, Baher made a decision. “I began to lean in, even when I felt depleted and overwhelmed,” she writes. “Maybe this is shocking — and I suspect the minister would be taken aback — but as a caregiver, you can outrun your love. Sure, it begins with a loving impulse, but then the ever-changing demands, day after day and month after month, can leave you numb with exhaustion.”

Baher’s words ring with true transparency, as we suspect most caregivers will agree. “Let’s face it,” Baher states, “maybe your person is difficult, maybe you never really had a close relationship with them in the first place. Maybe your person’s world has shrunk to be mostly about them, their pain, their fears, their needs. Perhaps they ask about you but don’t really listen to your answer. Maybe they are depressed, and nothing you try will make them smile.”

On top of all that, Baher describes “the grinding feeling of inadequacy because, ultimately, you cannot cure their sickness and you know how this journey will end.”

Being a Caregiver Means “This is What You Do”

Nevertheless, says Baher, caregivers stay at it. “You keep on keeping on,” she writes. “You’ve run right through all the love you had and are driving on empty, perhaps out of obligation, perhaps because you’re the only one in the family who lives close to them, perhaps because you vowed to care for your person in sickness and in health, till death.”

As one friend, a man who was the caregiver for his mother for over a decade, told Baher, “That’s all there is. This is part of love. You do the level best you can. This is what you do.”   

Caregiving Has a Deeply Personal, Intimate Side

Through a few individual stories that Baher recounts, she plumbs the depths of the caregiver role. “There’s also something unique about caregiving,” she writes — “a kind of intimacy we don’t often have with another human being. Caregivers tell me of their discoveries as they go through keepsake boxes with their person, discovering old photos, love letters and whole sides of their person’s life that would otherwise have been lost.”

From her own memory, Baher recounts a conversation during which her mom repeated an often-told family story about the “hobby farm” in Connecticut where the family had lived.  Her father had built a barn and raised sheep, but Mom was an artist more comfortable in the city. Baher quotes her mother: “When your father was away on his business trips, I had to go out to that barn on chilly February mornings, break the ice in the sheep’s water pail, and put fresh hay in the feed rack. Every morning,” she said, almost shivering in recollection. “I hated that.”

Mother and daughter formed an unexpected bond through this familiar tale. She writes, “I knew this old refrain by heart, but while I listened, I saw that she was adding up her life, getting ready to let go, needing to share this memory one more time. And, as we sat there together, without any need for words, our hearts just connected.”

That Moment When “Your Heart Melts”

Baher spoke with Dr. Daniel Given, a geriatrics specialist and hospice director in southern California. “Often,” he says, “individuals and their loved ones have an opportunity to connect on levels that they don’t connect on when they aren’t confronted with mortality, the concept of death. Their connections are deeper.”

Given goes on. “Caregiving is difficult. It’s hard. It’s tough. Afterwards people will say, ‘I’m so grateful, even though it was hard. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend that meaningful time with my loved one.’ You live for those thirty seconds when you look at your loved one and your heart melts.”

Learning to Love, Being a Caregiver

We appreciated Baher’s touching summation. “People talk a lot about romantic love,” she writes, “but this is about a difficult, demanding, gritty, sometimes one-way kind of love, and that rare chance to live out your love for someone. Maybe caregiving is a kind of blessing after all. No, I never learned to love being a caregiver. But I learned a lot about love, being a caregiver.”

Her “Valentine” to caregivers celebrates what Baher calls “a different kind of love. It’s about what you’re doing now. Showing up every day, holding your person’s hand on their last journey.” That, she argues persuasively, is true love.

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(originally reported at

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