Observations from the finish line
Someone I admire and respect described life once as a race. It’s a great description and one that has relevance for us no matter our age. I used to imagine the race to be a sprint, but I am more inclined these days to view it as a marathon. My efforts, lately, have placed me at the finish line in many respects. I work now in aged care, or more specifically in pastoral care in aged care. I get to join people for part of their race, especially as they near the finish line. Perhaps it might help to share some observations from there.
1) Runners don’t always decide near the end how they want to finish
That decision is taken much earlier in the race. There is a skill to finishing well, it seems. A host of decisions from earlier years contributes to the framework that holds a person securely during the days when options are closing down.
A person who has lived negatively and critically is not suddenly going to transform into a person of sunny disposition in the final leg of the race. It’s more likely that the grumpy one will remain grumpy and irritable, perhaps with an added measure that derives from frustration. By the same token, a person who has cultivated those good graces of kindness, gracious speech and thankfulness will be more likely to retain those qualities towards the end, to the enjoyment of everyone around them.
The question becomes: What decisions about my approach to life do I need to make in the earlier stage of my race that will serve me well later, and that will allow me to finish well?
2) The runners are not the only ones on the track
Family members are running their own race, trying to keep up, slow down or just be there patiently, sensitively and compassionately for their spouse or parent. And they are not always ready for the rigors of the race that they were not expecting to have to run just yet. I have watched family members rushing from demand to demand, frantically hoping to fulfill their elderly one’s expectations (or their own expectation of what a good daughter or son should be).
The unacknowledged difficulty is that family members are not always gearing up for the personal challenge and unique growth possibilities that will present themselves as they turn their attention to practical caring. They can often be attempting desperately to live their own lives while squeezing in the care of a loved one to an already full lifestyle of raising a family, paying a mortgage and trying to get some exercise. Then, too, I have seen spouses put their own lives on hold to devote themselves to the full-time care of the one they love, with very little preparation time for what might be an extremely taxing stage of the race.
In days to come, I wonder what adjustments the aged-care sector will undergo to build in a vital preparation of family members for their own part in the race. We are becoming more and more aware of the struggle that families are facing emotionally and spiritually, and we are taking every opportunity we can to engage with family members as part of our overall pastoral care. That leads quite naturally to my final observation.
3) The race can be that much easier if the team on the sidelines is factored in appreciatively and deliberately
All of the care and support staff are committed to keeping the runners running well. Most care staff take up this kind of work primarily because they care. It’s more than a job and many of them become attached to the people they care for on a daily basis. Some unique bonds develop, and staff can feel the loss of residents keenly. The staff will never replace the family, nor should they. But they work extremely hard to create an environment that feels as much like home as they can offer.
Realising this fact is both a comfort to family members who fret that they cannot provide a home for mum or dad anymore, and it is a rich resource of human capital surrounding the older person and providing assistance to the family. Together it ensures that we are not alone in the race.
By Dr Ian Simms, Head of Pastoral Care