In caregiver terminology the person with dementia is called the “loved one”. But what exactly is love and how much of it is a family caregiver capable of feeling and giving when the ongoing challenges of 24/7 care have depleted them to exhaustion?
The dictionary defines love as a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person. It seems simple enough but who can constantly feel strong affection for a person who is always in need and can often be difficult or just plain nasty? Even though you know in your mind their words or behavior is not their fault, it’s the disorder, you can’t help but dislike them at times and yes, sometimes have feelings of hate or resentment. But does this mean you stopped loving them?
I raised three children and although I loved each one the same, I didn’t like them the same. When they became adults, this became especially evident. It’s perfectly normal to love someone but not like them. If you didn’t like them before you began to care for them everything becomes more complicated.
So, you love the person but maybe not unconditionally. When we return to the dictionary it describes unconditional love as affection without any limitations, or love without conditions. Even with my adult children I continue to have expectations, so I wonder, is my love for them really unconditional?
My question is if we have expectations about what the person with dementia “should do or say” how can we hold onto unconditional love for them? Our expectations are our conditions. So, we still love them but not unconditionally.
And what about those feelings that get triggered over the unresolved past you have with them? It’s hard to not get sucked into those old scenarios.
For a time, I worked as a home caregiver and often found it easier for me to love them unconditionally than it was for their family members. There was no history or memory of who they used to be between us; no expectations or feelings of loss. I loved and accepted who they were at that moment and with whatever abilities they still had. Amazingly they would return that love unconditionally. My acceptance of them created a trust which allowed them to open their hearts and show me what unconditional love really is.
I wish I could say I have attained this with everyone but I’m still working on it. However, I remain forever grateful to those wonderful individuals with dementia who have passed through my life and shown me how to truly open my heart to others. For it was being with them that has shown me that unconditional love is really about acceptance and compassion.
A family caregiver on the frontlines every day might find it too difficult to feel the acceptance of your situation and although you love the one you care for, unconditional love might be difficult to attain. But you can try to be compassionate with yourself and accept you are doing the best you can. Learn to unconditionally love yourself first. You deserve this.