Life in Limbo – When Duty Calls.

April 6, 2024

Life in Limbo – When Duty Calls.

May 29, 2023

Chip’s Thought: This is the third in four installments of guest posts from Barbara Kreisman (the last one is tomorrow). If you missed her first two guest posts last weekend, go back and check them out.

“You just found out someone you love is terminally ill. The rush of emotion bombards you… You think: We are going to find a cure; he is not going to die. You are drowning in emotion; you are totally unprepared. Suddenly, amongst the grief, you recognize that now you will become a caregiver. You feel completely lost. How will you help someone else be comfortable during a time that feels so bad? How will you care for yourself? How will you deal with life on hold?

- Katie Duncan

As many as 6.7 million Americans over 65 have Alzheimer’s Disease and that number is expected to more than double by 2060. An estimated 1.9 million new cancer cases are diagnosed annually, and another 1.4 million individuals suffer death by heart disease each year.   

Many of us in midlife have found ourselves thrust into the role of caregiver. In fact, there are approximately 53 million caregivers in the US and the average age of caregiver is around 49, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving.  These individuals play a crucial role in aiding others, often family members who are unable to fully care for themselves due to age, illness, or disability.

Witnessing the decline in health or cognitive abilities of a loved one can be emotionally distressing. Familiar to us all are the sensations of grief, guilt, frustration, or isolation, physical exhaustion, fear, and the lack of time and support.

As a Hospice volunteer and as a student of the aging process, I have learned there are two main types of death—slow and fast, and both should be considered in the context of planning for a final transition. A prolonged decline or gradual deterioration of physical or mental function over time, includes degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or certain types of cancer. A slow passing may involve a longer period of suffering for the individual as well for loved ones and caregivers but allows for more time to prepare emotionally and spiritually. 

A fast death refers to a sudden and unexpected death, caused by heart attack, stroke, accident, acute illness, or suicide which may result in less physical suffering for the individual. A fast death may spare someone from a prolonged period of decline and dependency on others but this type of passing can be extremely traumatic for loved ones, leaving them with little time to prepare or to say goodbye.

Whether one type of death is "better" than the other is subjective and deeply personal. Some people may prefer a fast death to minimize suffering and preserve dignity, while others may value the opportunity for closure and preparation that a slow death can provide. Ultimately, what is most important is ensuring that the individual's wishes and values are respected, and that they receive appropriate support and care, regardless of the speed or manner of their death.

If you find yourself in a caregiver role, remember that taking care of yourself is not selfish—it is necessary for your own well-being and for being able to provide the best possible care for someone else. By prioritizing self-care, you will be better able to navigate the challenges with resilience and compassion.  Set realistic expectations and accept that you cannot do everything and that it’s okay to ask for help.  Take breaks throughout the day to rest and recharge. Seek support when you need it. Talking to others who are in similar situations can provide validation, empathy and advice. Lastly, stay connected. Take part in MEA alumni activities, don’t stop your exercise and above all stay connected to others. 

The subject of dying is often closeted away and brought out only in small doses until we have to face it straight on. Hiding the reality of death only makes living the experience more difficult for the dying person and people surrounding him or her.Not many individuals are comfortable talking about the end-of-life process and for some death is something that “happens.” Those left behind eventually move on and if they have trouble doing so; most don’t talk about it.  

A person’s dying time can be a space to share wisdom, experience healing and minimize regrets. We are all mortals and life will end one day. If things work out as they should, older family members or friends who have had the chance to live full lives will die before us and we will learn from them. Being a caregiver can be excruciating but being supported in one’s dying time shows us how life can be lived more fully.

-Barbara

Barbara Kreisman earned a PhD in Leadership and Organizational Development from the University of Texas and is an Emerita Professor at the University of Denver where she served as Associate Dean of the College of Business for 17 years.  Prior to entering the academic environment, Barb was a senior leader at Dell Technologies.  She is currently affiliated with the University of Denver’s Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging and will return there upon completion of the LSI program. She is a four-time MEA alum.

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