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Stuck on nature of love

This week I tried hard to write a column about the nature of love. I'm having tender, Valentine-like thoughts about specific people and situations. And I assumed it would all come together.

It didn't.

I guess I'm stuck on a Sunday morning conversation with my 91-year-old mother-in-law a few weeks ago — she was in the hospital and I spent several hours at her bedside. We chatted about everything from her reoccurring urinary tract infections to her loving regard for the daughter in whose home she lives.

That daughter (I'm going to call her Barbara) is a saint — the entire family agrees. Have I mentioned her before? She's widowed, living on her husband's military pension, a loving grandmother — a strong, long-suffering woman who is always thinking about others, perhaps at her own peril.

But let's get back to that morning in the hospital. When Barbara arrived, she looked tired. Her always-ready laugh was a little forced; she sighed a lot. The doctor entered the room soon after she did. He reviewed my mother-in-law's chart and suggested another day of hospitalization. Barbara seemed relieved.

My sister-in-law has been a 24/7 caregiver for eight years. She's taken exquisite care of an elder whose needs are many and whose expectations can sometimes be over the top. Before she cared for her own mother in such a full-on, loving way, she cared for her husband, whose cardiac situation necessitated a heart transplant complicated by Legionnaire's disease and an earlier-than-it-should-happen death.

If all the caregivers in the world were lined up in rows, my sister-in-law would be in the center front. And I know she would not be alone; that front row would be jam-packed with people like her, or you — family caregivers.

I think it's the nature of love to give care when it's needed, rising to circumstances presented by an ill or aging parent or an unexpectedly dependent spouse. All who give such caring deserve our gratitude and a little life-saving advice.

Here it is. Care enough to take care of yourself first. You'll know you're not doing that when you start feeling emotionally-stretched. Maybe you sigh a lot or you're inexplicably sad all the time, irritable, fatigued. That's the moment to enroll in a series of Powerful Tools of Caregiving classes.

I've taught these classes, I know what they do; they offer life-critical information and support. They reinforce the importance of caregiver self-care. They help identify practical solutions to all those daily burdens. It's a place to vent a little, "get" instead of "give" all the time.

It would be so much easier for me if Barbara were living here in the Valley; there's a Powerful Tools series starting in April — I could even attend it with her. The six-class Powerful Tools series will be held at Providence Hospital Senior Services, 799 Spring St., Medford, on April 14, 21 28, and May 5, 12, 19, from 1:30 to 4 p.m. To register call Kim at 732-5466. For questions about other classes, call Sandy at 776-6229, extension 253.

Not a caregiver? You will be. It's the nature of love.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.