I was spending some quiet time thinking about a recent talk I have to give at a conference in March. I was mulling over different ways to approach the topic on maintaining connections in relationships where Alzheimer’s is part of the equation. As I was thinking about the topic, it occurred to me that caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is a caregiving crucible. If you don’t know what a crucible is, its a container that can withstand very high temperatures. Back in my university days I used it in the chemistry lab to melt and/or alter metals in experiments…and that image came to my mind when I was reflecting on different caregiving experiences.
Dealing with a parent who has Alzheimer’s disease puts the relationship into a crucible – where the disease affects the way of relating and being together. It also puts the caregiver themselves into the ‘high-temperature’ crucible. Whether they are interacting with their mom or dad at that particular moment or lying awake at night trying to figure out what to do next, there are tremendous stresses and strains on the individual caregiver.
The crucible burns up but it also refines and purifies. Thinking about the Alzheimer’s relationship this way can be quite transformational. I don’t want to in any way minimize the difficulties and the heartache but I have found that focusing on how I can grow and improve is a very helpful framework for dealing with difficult experiences. So using that lens I can approach the relationship asking myself these questions:
- What am I learning about myself? I find that during difficult experiences I see the cracks in my own character…the places where I am not all I want to be. While this is not a pleasant view, it is an important one, for you can’t really change what you can’t see. The times in my life that really challenge me are ones where I see my weaknesses up close and personal. I then have points of struggle – areas of my character where I want to grow and change.
- Am I growing in patience? Overcoming my frustrations with others – whether they are 4 or 84 – is a constant battle for me. But I do react better than I used to 20 years ago. I find that taking the time to stop, slow down and focus on the person in front of me helps me to treat them with love and respect and not as just something to be checked off my to-do list.
- Am I growing in love? I think this is the ultimate question. At the end of our life it will be the quality of our relationships with others that will give us the most satisfaction. I remember when my uncle was dying, one of his favourite things to do was to sit and look at the picture of his family. He had been a busy, successful professional – but it was his family that held the keys to his heart.
In some experiments the crucible is used to burn away all that is not essential and it is important that in the crucible of caregiving you retain what is essential…and that essential element is love.