Caregiving as a school in humanity

This evening I read a short book written by my friend and colleague’s grandmother.

In the brief memoir, Walk with Me: growing rich through relationships, author Judy Rae reflects on the experience of caring for her husband Joe while he developed Alzheimer’s.

Presented with honesty and infused with a faith, Rae offers a window into how caregiving can be a school in humanity.

Judy recounts the pain and sorrow of watching her husband lose his memory and she does not skirt the undeniably tragic dimensions of this disease.

“I have been told that when a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he is introduced to a world of loneliness, rejection, terror, confusion, misinformation, and termination. Can this tragedy bring with it any victory into our lives?” she asks.

Rae speaks about how Joe became embarrassed and humiliated by what he could no longer do or remember. Despite the continual accompaniment, affection, and affirmation of his wife, Joe’s feelings of uselessness regularly caused him to get frustrated with himself and even to cry.

Rae was continually conflicted over which of her own feelings to share with Joe and with others. She describes the challenges of navigating and involving her community in an experience that seemed to make many uncomfortable.

Yet, she also knew that she needed her friends, family, and church to support her, both in caring for Joe and in taking care of her as the disease had its effects on their relationship.

They had been married for forty years. One night, Rae asked her husband to turn off the light.

He heart sank when he asked, “How?”

“Joe installed and wired that light switch; now he can’t even turn it off,” she writes.

Yet, Judy Rae was willing to discern “what victory it might bring” into her life and the lives of others to take up the task of caring for Joe with acceptance and faith.

“It is time consuming just to reassure Joe that he is loved, that we will be okay, and then to redirect him back into good humour,” she told herself. “Instead of viewing caregiving as an inconvenience to be squeezed into my already busy day, I must embrace caregiving as the most important part of the day.”

And similarly, later in the book, she reflected: “This is my present assignment: Joe. All else is peripheral. At this time it is within my power to make the life of a fellow human being more meaningful; I know it in my head, but it is obvious to me that it has not settled permanently into my heart.”

It is clear that journaling and writing letters to friends helped her to discern the meaning in the story.

I was particularly struck by her verdict, “I don’t think I am feeling sorry for myself; after all, I am living a love story.”

When caring for her husband became difficult, she would sometimes ask herself: “What kind of woman would I be today if I had not shared my adult life with Joe?”

She called the refinement that came from asking that question an “exercise in renovating my heart.”

Because of her character and her faith, Judy Rae was able to consider that her husband’s purpose was “to help others learn more about caring.”

As Joe was nearing the end of his life, Rae discovered “that Joe has been chosen by our loving God for the difficult assignment of helping those around him to become aware of the limits of their humanity and the subsequent need for divine strength and compassion.”

What a moving witness to faithful love Judy Rae has given, especially to her own family.

She shows that, “Joe lost his ability to link his days […] into a meaningful sequence, but those who loved him did not.”

Caregiving can be a school in humanity that brings a victory of meaning into our lives.

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