The Luxury and Cost of Empathy

canstockphoto20739510I’ve written before about being a member of the “sandwich generation”, caring for a child and aging parent. It’s a flippant phrase thrown off to encompass and neatly categorize a myriad of emotions and actions. This week has rendered me battered and exhausted, sleepless and emotional. If there were any time for me to be anti-Zen, it’s now – as in, I’d rather not be in any more moments. I would like to daydream, write feckless fiction, doze off in a chair thinking of an island in Greece.

My daughter experienced her first “frenemy” moments, crying for the second time in a week when one of her friends was deliberately cruel to her. It’s a rare thing for my child to cry and while she is sensitive to others, she’s not easily upset. This is new. And it’s the first time I’ve ever wanted to drop-kick an 11 year old, who tells my daughter she’s only joking, after a cutting remark. I calmed and comforted, talked about how some people didn’t know how to be good friends and that if this friend continued behaving in a hurtful way, the friendship might need to be reconsidered. I sounded reasonable and mature.

That night, I tossed and turned, alternating between rage and fear. I felt that gut-wrenching pain that only the tears of my child seems to bring on. I railed against myself for projecting all my childhood anxieties onto a kid who has more confidence than I’ll likely ever have. I thought about how this was just the beginning. That more hurts would come, that I’d have to be diligent and listen and try to hold back my adult anger and defensiveness. Then my mind spiraled into a darker place. The pain of mere social interactions was nothing compared to thinking about the years ahead when I might lose her or she me. Part of me wondered if there was anything I could do to protect myself, never imagining I’d be so connected to another human.

Morning came. We talked at breakfast. “How are you going to deal with so-and-so?”

“I’m just going to act like nothing happened.”

My dull, tired brain harrumphed, but I kept my mouth shut. Where’s the righteous indignation, the fiery cry for justice?

canstockphoto8541895And off to school she went.

I began my newest morning routine, packing up some exercise gear and headed over to my mother-in-law’s for the now daily physical therapy exercises she must do. She is 85 and living independently as long as we can keep her moving and engaged. Early stage dementia was diagnosed many years ago and over the last couple of years, cognitive impairment has shown up in the form of short term memory loss. Lately, it’s started to scare her.

Last week, I met with the services coordinator. My mother-in-law, for as long as she has lived in this senior building, has played Friday night cards with a group of her peers. Until one Friday, she went down and they had shut her out of the game. The other players were becoming irritated with her forgetfulness and decided they no longer wanted to play with her. My heart ached for my mother-in-law, who contrived her own explanation for no longer playing cards. As I waited to meet with the coordinator, I heard her in conversation with a couple of elderly people in the the hallway.

“I never said she couldn’t be in the library. She told Joan that I said that, but I never did.”

An old man piped up “She’s a troublemaker.”

I sat in the coordinator’s office and sighed. She came in, apologizing for the delay. I said “It’s like grade school all over again, isn’t it?”

“You don’t know the half of it. Every day is like this – gossip, fighting, misunderstandings. I spend a lot of my day just mediating.”

I shook my head. “And I suppose you can’t just tell them to grow up!” We laughed and proceeded to discuss a plan for my mother-in-law to get interaction with some of her nicer peers.

I headed upstairs and knocked on my mother-in-law’s door. She opened the door with a smile. “I’m ready – I took my shoes off.” We laughed – taking off her shoes had become part of the routine before starting exercises that required her to lay on the bed. Her table was littered with hastily scrawled notes. Tomorrow. Thursday. 1:30. Next week. Notes she took when I talked, ignoring my typed schedule that sits prominently in the middle of the table. She is trying hard to hold on, to keep cognizant of time and day, to keep herself from drifting away. Sometimes I just want to grab her writing hand and tell her it’s okay, but I know that the effort anchors her.

A low grade depression has settled over me. Some weeks, I feel like I’m disappearing. Dramatic life moments are happening all around me, but I’m inconsequential, a blank white board getting covered in reminders and lists and other people’s needs. I remind myself with a mental kick, that this is a luxury, to have problems that don’t belong to me. To be able to lend a shoulder, a hand, sage advice I earned years ago. But all the aphorisms in the world don’t change the fact that empathy has a price and I wonder how much I’m capable of paying, in these years of learning and losing.

As my daughter got off the school bus later that day, I watched from the window. Hmm, usual bounce in the step, turning and waving to the friends on her bus. Maybe a good day. Later that evening, I asked how it went with her friend, expecting a same as usual response. She said, “I told her that she was mean to me and needed to apologize and she did.”

I slept well that night.

32 Comments on “The Luxury and Cost of Empathy

  1. It sounds like your daughter’s got a good handle on interpersonal relations…resolve things asap (when possible).

    I’m finding myself in a similar situation. My kids are older but still at home, I’m “parenting” five adults and a teen. And yes, I’m still parenting because they are slow at seeing themselves as adults while they’re still at home. At the same time, they chafe against me constantly because they see my smallest input as interference.

    Now my elderly mother will be coming home from rehab–to her own home– but will need constant care and company because dementia is pretty advanced. So I’ll be splitting my time between two households, neither of which feel like mine. Thank the Lord I have siblings who are sharing the load with me here.

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    • One of my reasons for writing these days is to keep a grasp on “self” when everything seems to be about everyone else. I’m grateful in so many ways for the opportunity to be a parent and to be there for my mother-in-law, but some weeks seem denser than others when it comes to need. This was one such week.
      It sounds like you have a much more dense household. I’m fortunate in that I can usually find periods of solitude or things would become rather untenable for me very quickly. Best wishes as you navigate between households!

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  2. You have one helluva daughter! Good for her, it sure sounds like she’s got her act together. As for your mother-in-law, I am so sorry. Dementia and alzheimer’s runs in my family. My grandmother had dementia. Three of her sisters and a brother had alzheimers and my mother’s youngest sister had dementia. It is a terrible disease, for both the patient and the loved ones and they just seem to be nowhere on coming up with ways to prevent it, really delay it or stop its progression. Asking for a cure seems greedy, so I stop myself. Although my mother didn’t have it, she had many other serious medical issues and in the last couple of years she needed my help so I understand what you’re going through. It is challenging and difficult at times, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. It’s what the book I’m writing is all about.

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    • My daughter surprises me regularly with her astuteness and confidence. I could learn a lot…

      Cognitive impairment diseases, after a point, do seem harder on loved ones. Right now, we’re in the painful stage of her still being aware of what she’s losing – lots of anxious phone calls and questions asked repeatedly. I try to remember to stay in the moment. When we do that and can laugh together, it’s balm for the soul.

      The other thing is that it’s a very uneven disease. Some days, clarity and lucidness give hope and then the next, cloudiness overtakes the mind. I’m grateful that I have the time and resources to help her.

      It sounds like you have a terrible familiarity. One of the things I’ve learned, too, is that often doctors ascribe dementia to the elderly when there are underlying health issues that go untreated. My mother-in-law does have a family history of Alzheimer’s, though. Despite all the advancements in science, the human brain still has secrets to be unlocked.

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      • I think that is the absolute worst — to be aware of what one is losing. It’s a very cruel disease. I completely agree, there are many, many secrets yet to be unlocked. I hope to be alive to see progress.

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  3. I relate to the feeling of disappearing — heavy, but I’m going inside it. Tie a rope around the waist and lower me down, you know.

    I really enjoyed the life in this post, especially the scene of you with your MIL in her home, and the somewhat funny parallel to taking care of your daughter, that I came to as a reader right before you connected me to it, which is nice when that happens. (Like, you led me there but I felt like I figured it out first.)

    I am a hack in the realm of philosophy, but this notion of not being real without being yourself (that’s how I interpret or relate to your phrase) seems ageless, ties in with alienation, the struggle of the artist et cetera, et cetera. I think, consider ourselves lucky to suffer that way. It’s not something you can call a plumber to fix, and I’m OK with that.

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    • There is a level of gratitude for these experiences that seems more mercenary than altruistic. In the realm of philosophy, of which I am also a hack, it’s not just a sense of fading away, but time has taken on a different meaning.

      I sometimes get this weird Dr. Who vibe of being able to see all of time, these brief flashes of human life from birth to death, here and gone, where moments are a lifetime. And then a Dan Fogelberg song pops into my head and my brief glimpse of deep cognition is gone.

      Sometimes I have to fight against the sense that everything is rendered meaningless, but perhaps that is what writing can do – imbue ordinary moments with sacredness. You’ve got me on a different track of thinking now, Bill – the visual of being tied off and lowered into the depths seems rather fitting.

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  4. Good for your daughter. I’m always in awe at my daughter’s straightforwardness and confidence. I try to be more like her every day.

    Sorry to hear about your mother-in-law’s struggles. I completely relate to being in the “sandwich” situation. My mom is 81 and becoming increasingly forgetful. I’m afraid she’ll leave her stove on or burn herself or fall down the stairs. I’m lucky I live right next to her but still I worry because that is what I do best. Between her and my kids (my son is starting to experience anxiety and insomnia) I sleep only about 4 to 5 hours a night lately. Sigh. And the low-grade depression? I’m struggling there too. Going for long walks and meditation are the things that save me. Sorry for the long comment but I can relate to so much in this thoughtful post of yours. You are definitely not alone in how you feel.

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    • Lack of sleep is a killer when it comes to caregiving. I’m just trying to get some exercise, limit my caffeine and get outside every day, in the hopes I can start a few days off well-rested, but it’s tough going. Even beyond physical needs, I tend to agonize over the psychological bullshit and that keeps me tossing and turning, too.
      In some ways my depression comes from realizing that you put so much into raising kids and helping the elderly, yet like most things, it’s a temporary state. Someday, if I do my job right, my kid won’t need me. Someday, I won’t have anyone to care for and because I would have spent so much time caring for others, I would be a shell of a human. Maybe depression is just a yellow warning flag, reminding us to take care of ourselves along the way.

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  5. Good for your daughter! It’s tough watching someone older go through the changes. I am helping out with an older neighbor and our relationship has changed from friendship to emergency contact. The change from visiting a friend to helping with life changes is a tough one to navigate emotionally. I watch my grandmother decline slowly over many years but was living in a bit of denial over my friends perceived resilience. At 102 she should be allowed to be needy and worried, but it still rocks me to see that change in her world view.

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    • It’s one of those inevitable lessons, watching someone age or illness progress. We want to differentiate ourselves just to avoid thinking about our own mortality, but I think middle age is when that becomes impossible. You start to imagine how your own life will play out. I think, or at least I hope, that it makes us more compassionate towards those who are leading the charge off the mortal coil.

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  6. I met the daughter of an old friend today at the market. She is the sole caregiver for her mother. I could sense those few minutes of letting her vent brought a huge weight off her shoulders. Everyone needs a safe haven where they can take a break from reality to receive comforting words.

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    • For me, it’s now, blasting some blues and sitting back in my chair. Sometimes after a lot of human interaction, I just need to escape. I try to limit my venting, because I’ve made a deliberate choice to be a parent and to be a caregiver. Changing “I have to” to “I want to” often gets me on the right track.

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  7. As always, you are bang on. Your piece is very moving. I also have a daughter whose EQ is up there, and when I worry about her, she proves me wrong each time. Isn’t it comforting?

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    • My daughter has consistently proven two things: 1) She has some great skills dealing with life. 2) Her mother is an anxiety junkie. So many lessons to learn…more me than her I suspect!

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  8. My daughters recover from these types of slights much quicker than I do. They tend to move on while I let them fester and grow inside me. A range boils up

    Am I a monster because along with a crushing sadness, I also felt a measure of relief when my mom passed away?

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    • I am definitely a ruminator when it comes to human interaction and can build up quite a head of steam on behalf of someone else, which always feels silly when they resolve it their own way.
      I think it’s human nature to feel relief when suffering and worry have ended.

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        • I try to limit my ruminating by thinking about the purpose – usually it’s a need for perspective, which, as I’ve gotten older, I tend to find more easily. I have a couple of issues that will set me roiling for days and I never seem to think my way out of them.

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  9. Glad your daughter worked it out! Speaking as a former and dual sandwich generationer (my uncle and mom needing care locally while his parents and aunt did at a 6-hour drive… how hard to weigh it all [and/or chalk and re-chalk the lines] against our teens’ and our little girls’ only childhoods), I would heartily suggest you and all caretakers always do something to head off that moment of finding yourself in the downstairs bathroom (on your “evening off”), tanked to the eyeballs on CC and not only dyeing your hair and shaving your body because you just don’t want to be you for a little while, but also trying to re-pierce your ears. One does come back from that, but it’s hellish to get there. Plus, your inebriated earlobes won’t even cooperate.

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    • Oh, wow – why wouldn’t you end up going off the deep end with all that going on?
      I’m fortunate that my mother-in-law lives within walking distance, so the stress of travel is eliminated and my husband pitches in as well. Hopefully I’ll keep all my marbles intact, but that might be an outcome completely unrelated to any caregiving!

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  10. Great post Michelle. You daughter seems well grounded. She was hurt and dealt with it the best way possible. You as a caregiver need to give to yourself as well ~ walks in nature, blasting music or whatever gives you replenishment.

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  11. The gift of your empathy has its sweet fruits: because of your care, your mother-in-law spends her days laughing and you daughter is able to wisely resolve her own tribulations. I would never call that inconsequential. Hopefully they stop and thank you for your presence in their lives every so often.

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