Caregiver purgatory, and learning to muddle through.

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By a Cambridge Caregiver

There are circles of care giving that apply under all circumstances.  First, there’s the nuclear core—parents to children, older siblings to younger ones, spouses to each other.  Over time, or when something goes awry, a new circle emerges, one occupied by pinch-hit caregivers. This realm is often occupied by nearby sons and daughters-in-law, the closest grown daughter, or the adult sibling who lives in the same town. 

Then there’s a second circle, made up of family members who, however well intentioned they might be, are simply too far away to help out—a plane ride away, a time zone beyond. They care, but they have jobs to attend to and people who need them where they are.  They call now and then.  They respond to group email updates with group cyber-hugs and gratefulness to all that are doing the hard work they can’t be there to do. 

Somewhere between that inner and outer circle lies a care giving purgatory.  It’s occupied by loved ones who are busy with their own lives and their own households, too far away to be the central caregiver, but too close to the situation to beg off.  They would do more if they could.  They make themselves available when they can, but it never seems often enough.  They drop in, write checks, send cleaning supplies and bring fresh fruit, talk to doctors and neighbors.  They lay awake at 4AM wondering how to make it better, knowing that it’s not really an option for them to swoop in and fix what needs fixing on an ongoing basis.  Their friends tell them that they’re saints, that the relative in need is lucky to have them in their life.

But no matter how much they do, and no matter what people say, they wonder: Is what I’m doing enough?  Should I be doing more?  Where do I draw the line between my obligations to my life and livelihood, and the loved one who needs more help than I can give? How can I help from my home, when relocation isn’t an option—and truth be told, isn’t what I’d want, in any case?  How can I accept that this purgatory is as good as it can be?

There never seems to be any good answers to these questions, especially not at 4AM.   The solace that comes with knowing that you’re doing as much as you can is faint, at best. The sense that at some point, a shoe may drop and the situation will shift and that inner circle will fall away, leaving you closer to the core, is pervasive.  A good night’s sleep seems not to be an option.  

What to do?  Keep doing what you can do.  Listen, and listen some more. Muddle through, and know that sometimes muddling through is the best that can be expected.  Then muddle through some more.  While not as tidy or clear-cut as your regular approach to life might be, muddling through might just turn out to be the only method that works, under the circumstances. 

Learning how to muddle through might not be a skill you were looking to master, but it’s definitely a skill worth acquiring.  Being willing do the best you can when clarity can’t be provided, when nothing approaching perfection is an option, can make getting through the day—and sleeping through the night—a distinct possibility.