Sustenance in the wilderness: sources of resilience for the family caregiver

by | May 30, 2013

The terrain of caring for a dependent loved one can feel barren, like the wilderness the Israelites encountered once they left bondage in Egypt. We may feel lonely, confused, resentful, sad and afraid as we do what we can while our friend, lover, sibling or parent faces decline and ultimate death.

What can sustain us in a harsh surround? For the Jewish people in the wilderness, one source of sustenance was the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that guided them from one place to the next by day and night.

As they wandered in the wilderness, the Israelites had no idea which way to go. There were no guideposts around them. There were, however, divine signs to help them as they moved forward. According to the Torah, they were guided by a pillar of cloud by day, and by a pillar of fire by night. For caregivers, the values embedded in Jewish tradition provide an always-available source of orientation amidst the swirl of decisions and dilemmas that surround us. Within the texts and the stories of the tradition are core values that can ground and direct us.

For example, the great rabbinic sage Hillel teaches, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I, and if not now, when?” This deceptively simple teaching is a wonderful shorthand guide for the caregiver. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” The caregiver, according to this teaching, must attend to his or her own well-being. No one else can do this. Implicitly, the text suggests, if I do not nourish myself, I will be unable to care for anyone else. This first direction is counterintuitive. One woman who was caring for her aging parents told me, “I hate it when people ask me what I’m doing to take care of myself. I don’t have time!” Yet Hillel’s teaching demands that we put ourselves on the “to do” list, for the sake of those we care for, and for our own sake.

“If I am only for myself, what am I?” The balancing perspective for caregivers comes from the second part of Hillel’s wisdom. We are required to attend to ourselves, but ultimately, we are meant to be there for others. We are fulfilling our human potential when we offer compassion and support to the people around us. I have seen many caregivers surprised and delighted by the wellsprings of patience or sheer physical endurance that have become available to them as they meet unforeseen challenges. One daughter told me that her monthly visits to care for her mother, who was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease and no longer able to speak, healed the pain she had felt over a lifetime of receiving judgment and criticism from her mother. “All of that hurt has just melted away,” she told me.

“If not now, when?” Hillel teaches us the incalculable preciousness of the present moment. As caregivers, we need, in each moment, to discern what is most important right now. There may be three, or seven, tasks simultaneously calling us, but we can only do one thing right now. We cannot put off the most important one. And perhaps the most essential thing is not any instrumental task, not a phone call, or a bill, but being there with the person in our care. The moment may not come again––so can we tolerate frustration and exhaustion and show up with as much tenderness as we can muster?

The values highlighted in this teaching, and those reflected in the vast treasure trove of Jewish text and tradition, like the pillars of cloud and fire that appeared our ancestors, can offer direction and help caregivers to discern our path.

A blessing for the caregivers

My prayer for all of us who sojourn in the wilderness of caregiving is that we will find direction and solace as we companion our dear ones, and that all of us will be sustained by the Source of compassion and life itself in this daunting, but sacred terrain.