Their Past and Our Present

How well do we know our care recipients?

Perhaps as well as they'll let us.

We may know where our parents, or spouses, or other aging relatives lived during the Depression or WWII. But, do we know how they felt about living through a Depression or a World War (or two, for some of our care recipients)? We know our care recipient's personal history through what they tell us, although perhaps it's only what they themselves can bear to tell.

We may only now learn of the pain of their past lives' trauma; we may only learn now as we take a trip back in their lives through their own short-term memory loss or their own life review process.

Only today, in our present, may we learn about the heart-ache of unemployment, the continual worry about money, even though the Depression took place seventy years ago. Only today may we feel a care recipient's pain over the death of a child or a spouse. Only today may we understand our care recipient's unnerving emotional distance as we come to understand their survival of a childhood trauma.

Our care recipients often tried to keep their past in the past, folding it neatly into a pile that's kept in the back of a closet. As we form the intimate attachments inherent in a caregiving relationship, that past may take life again. And, that past will certainly affect a caregiving relationship today, much as it may have altered a care recipient's life years ago.

As your care recipient moves back in time, you can join him or her in the journey. Use the Internet to research important times in your care recipient's life; learn what was happening on a world-wide scale, on a national scale and on a local scale in your care recipient's home town. When your care recipient begins to speak about certain events or episodes, you'll have the historical perspective needed to truly appreciate the context of a story.

You also may choose to revisit history by physically making the trip, visiting your care recipient's hometown, college town, first home. Your trip may take you across town, across country, even across the Continent.

Walking back in time with your care recipient is really a process called life review. As we age, we begin to take stock of our lives, our decisions, our choices, our actions. Just as nature provides a pregnant woman the energy to clean and prepare her home for the baby's arrival, the life review process allows us the opportunity to heal old wounds, forgive old hurts and resolve old resentments: It's our last work before we die.

As you accompany your care recipient on the life review journey, be an active listener, acknowledging painful memories with comforting words. In addition, don't quibble over details, such as exact dates and times. The true gems of the stories aren't the details, but the emotions and feelings evoked. As you share your care recipient's life review process, you gain greater insight into your care recipient.

When you learn about your care recipient, you learn about yourself.

Recommended Reading:

In her book, Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust - A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past, Fern Schumer Chapman chronicles the trip she and her mother, Edith, took to Edith's hometown of Stockstadt, Germany. Edith left Germany at 12 years of age in 1938; her parents remained in Germany and later died in the Nazi death camps.

In Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, Author Mary Bray Pipher describes how our aging relatives prize self-sufficiency above all; they also believe that sharing emotions and personal challenges is a weakness. A psychologist, Pipher, wrote the book while caring for her mother, an experience she calls "horrid." She wrote her book in order to help others in a caregiving situation feel less alone.

Life Review Resources:

Association of Personal Historians:

Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writingby Thomas G. Madison

The Wounded Storyteller by Arthur Frank

A Guide to Recalling and Telling Your Life Story, Hospice Foundation of America

Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness by Joanne Lynn (Editor) (Includes information on life review.)