Too often, when we see the word legacy, it’s in the outstretched palm of a university, church or cause; an organization that wants us to remember them in our wills.
The reminder, though, is not a bad thing. Thinking of how we might want to be remembered can be a wonderful and, sometimes, challenging prompt to clean up our acts in the here and now.
The standard legacy question for caregivers might be: How do you want to be remembered as a caregiver? However, the more important question, especially in the here and now, is: How do you want to remember yourself as a caregiver?
You can imagine the hoped-for responses to the second question: “I was there when she needed me,” “I gave it my all,” “We did everything we could for him,” or “I turned my life upside down to care for her.”
The thoughts are great, but, especially in the case of the last one, is that what you would want your loved ones to say when you ease on down life’s road?
I cannot tell you how many caregivers tell me, “I would not want my children to go through with me what I went through with my (husband/wife/parents).”
The feeling may or may not be true when the time comes. One friend told me, “I don’t care what kind of life support system, chemicals or voodoo they have to use, I want to live until they can’t keep me alive by any means.”
But, if you are serious about not being a burden, then think about this as your legacy: I want my loved ones to do the best they can for me but not at the expense of their health and lives. As a caregiver, the best example you can offer is to take care of yourself as you move through your own caregiving experience.
Knowing where to ease off a little and do more self-care can easily be perceived as selfish and uncaring. Sitting beside the bed of a sleeping parent suffering from Alzheimer’s and holding their hand is a wonderfully loving, caring and giving thing to do—but, not every night.
Taking a little time for yourself is not a sin. Proverbs 13:22 says, “Good people leave an inheritance to their grandchildren.” Let’s think of legacy as an inheritance and expand grandchildren to all our loved ones.
A Merrill Lynch survey of what people think about passing on to their loved ones showed values and life lessons, instructions and wishes, personal possessions with emotional value, and financial assets or real estate as the big four. Values and life lessons scored 74 percent, while financial assets and real estate came in at 32 percent.
What if one of the most valuable life lessons you could offer is the importance of self-care? What if you showed that caregiving was not an exercise in self-sacrifice? Too often, one person’s condition affects one or more others. A University of Pittsburgh study showed that 6 percent of caregivers die due to the stresses of caregiving.
The inspiration of a legacy, “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor from the past,” according to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is not what we believe, it is what we do. It is action. Showing the people around you how to be caregivers and not let it make you crazy or physically debilitate you is a legacy to which we all should aspire.
Two comments form significant parts of the legacies of my parents. As I have noted here on occasion, my mother used to tell my brother, Joe, and me, “You take care of you.” It wasn’t that she wanted us to be selfish. As she explained, “If you take care of you and the need arises for you to take care of someone else, you’ll be able to do that.”
When the time came to make some difficult decisions about our mother’s care, I offered this to my brother, “We need to ask ourselves if we are lengthening Mama’s life or simply extending her death.” Knowing what her wishes were for herself and for us, we made the decisions we needed to make.
On the last night I saw my father alive, he was lying on an examination table in the emergency room at Southeastern Medical Center in Lumberton. He looked up at me as I stood beside him and he said, “You’re a good man and a good son.” As loving and supportive as he had been at times, he had never said those words.
As a Southern male, I tend to give some credence to the belief that we often are not really men until our fathers tell us we are. I hope part of my legacy is that I am.