Caregiving, identity, impermanence

As caregiving has occupied a chunk of my timeshare, mind-share, emotion-share, my sense of identity has become bound with this role. I find it affecting all my other roles, and it remains in my mind like a persistent buzz, even when I am not handling any related work.

For a while now, this has puzzled me.

First off, there is nothing unique about handling multiple roles. All of us juggle roles, and cope with it. Even a school-going boy balances between roles: student in class, boy playing cricket, participant in a painting competition, fond (or not so fond) son, polite son of colleague at his father’s office party, and so on. When older, the balance moves to balancing job roles (boss, subordinate, colleague), family (parent, child, sibling, spouse), participating in community activities, and so on.

People manage multiple roles in various ways, some more effectively than others, using approaches tuned to their personality. Advice abounds. Compartmentalize, say time management gurus. Live in the present moment, say new age gurus. Debates abound, too, like whether to multi-task or not.

Another factor is that everyone reacts to a role differently. What a person takes away from a role depends heavily on the person’s personality, upbringing, environment, and so on. One parent may end up developing a sense of deep love from the role, another may learn to sacrifice for the child. Some parents may feel helpless or angry because they are unable to do all they want for the child, while some are  frustrated because the child disappoints them, or is rude or obnoxious. Love, again, could be the expansive sort, the possessive sort, or the controlling sort, and may express itself in making the child feel secure and eager to explore and achieve, or spoiling the child, or even suffocating the child and dictating the child’s choices.

Caregiving, too, affects people differently. When I meet other caregivers, I find a range of reactions to this role. To many, it is one additional, overwhelming responsibility, a set of tasks to be scheduled in along with all those other roles. To some, it is a depressing helplessness because their own lives are on hold, and they are tired. Others are depressed because they see a loved one deteriorate, and do not know how to handle that sense of loss.  Some feel sympathy, then empathy, and find themselves as more loving and caring persons; others are put off by all that illness and the smells and nitty-gritty of caring.

For the last few days, I have pondered over  my current emotional state as a caregiver. Not how I handle the role, or what I feel about the responsibility, or about my mother, but how caregiving, if at all, has changed me as a person.

And I think I finally understand why caregiving affects me so much, and touches every part of my life. It is because caregiving has made me acutely aware of impermanence. While many caregivers see caring as being for someone who needs care, and is unwell and in an unfortunate circumstance, I have started seeing the deterioration as something that can happen to anyone, including me. 😦

No one, in other words, is “safe” from deterioration and dying. Not even I, though I am competent right now. My memory is good, I am articulate enough, I can learn new stuff, I can walk, eat, laugh, enjoy life. But none of this is permanent.

This is neat and quite understandable as theory, and not unique. What caregiving has done is move this for me from theory to an experiential realization, one I cannot fold away after reading a book or writing a blog. It is not an intellectual aha! It is a fact that frightens me with its all-pervadingness.

How can I go about a normal day, doing normal things, when my foundation of life is such a quivering mass? How can I be ambitious when something so basic is bothering me? How can I reconcile the buzz of an active life with the fact that I cannot ensure permanence and stability, whatever I do?

A few years ago, I was reasonably clear of what I was. I was a caregiver, a caring daughter, and a (trying to remain) informed and active member of the caregiver community. I was also a professional who wrote technical books and even a business novel. I was learning how to write speculative fiction. I was part of a family – a spouse, a mother. I wanted to read every book I could get my hands on, and then some. I liked chatting with like-minded friends (though the available circle was reducing). I cared for my health, I enjoyed dark chocolate (yes, that was a significant part of my identity 🙂 I enjoyed learning new things. There was a list of things I wanted to try  – Alexander Technique, playing a musical instrument, learning Urdu, learning sketching, resuming painting,…oh, it was a long list.

I still want many of these things (including chocolates), and some new ones. But now, in my emotional substrata is this nagging feeling that I am missing something big that matters much more. Because, while all these activities are enjoyable and fulfilling, none come anywhere close to filling the emptiness inside me when I remember the caregiving lesson of impermanence.

A decade ago, I would have nodded wisely at, but dismissed this ‘impermanence’ talk as – it’s all very nice, but I have to live in this world and be practical, so, yes, but later. But the stage I have crossed in these last few years has made such dismissal impossible. I cannot ignore or reverse that insight.

My challenge now is to integrate this new perspective into ‘normal life,’ so that it ends up invigorating me instead of draining me.

Theory-wise, impermanence is a very liberating concept. Because, if we accept that everything is going to change, there is no need to cling or grasp, or to get upset when things don’t go the right away. It is easier to enjoy things without getting tense that they will fizzle away with time, because we accept that they will fizzle away.

Like enjoying a freshly opened flower, fully aware that a few hours from now, it will droop.

But  while the thought of impermanence is still big inside me, the fact that this could be a plus point is only theory for me. Nice to write about, but something I don’t emotionally subscribe to.

I guess that will take its own time, and till then I will remain active and energetic in my search for ways to integrate my emotions.

More blog entries on caregiver role and identity are available here: Caregiver Role.

Resource page to prepare for the caregiver role is available here: Understand the caregiver’s role

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India, and deeply concerned about dementia care in India. On this blog I share my own caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care in this set of pages:

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