Dignity: the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed
Weaving dignity into a tightly woven piece of art called caregiving is of vast importance. Care recipients depend upon caregivers for the physical aspect of their care, but we far too often forget that emotional and psychological wellbeing is vital to one’s wholeness. Many things can sever an adult’s self-respect and dignity. It can happen slowly over time or quickly through a stroke, heart attack or accident. Loss of abilities, such as driving, walking, talking, doing basic care for themselves, or losing the ability to make decisions often means loss of independence. That loss is usually what eats away at one’s dignity. Independence is an asset that lends value to life.
Even to your old age, I am He,
And even to gray hairs I will carry you!
I have made, and I will bear;
Even I will carry, and will deliver you. Isaiah 46:4
As a caregiver, what can you do? First, learn to see your care recipient through the eyes of God’s unconditional love. God sees them as His beautiful creation. So should we. This should cause the preservation of dignity to be central in our caring. We should be empathetic, aware of and sensitive to their feelings and thoughts. Try slipping into their shoes for a better understanding of what they might be going through. A relationship based on dignity and respect is key to the way we give care.
We can show respect of privacy by closing a door while you help them dress or use the bathroom. Knock before opening any closed door. Get their permission before sharing any confidential information, whether it is to family, staff, or friends. Respect their right to make choices, if they are able, so they can feel some sense of control over their life. By treating them with dignity, we are listening to their concerns, asking for their opinions, including them in conversations. Never talk to others as though they are not even there, and try to speak to them as an adult whether they understand or not.
The care recipient usually knows us and we know them. We know their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses, and their needs and desires. I needed to let my mother make some of her own decisions. Some of her wishes were dementia-driven. Rather than tell her “no” or argue with her, I walked gently, working around her decisions to keep her calm. There were times when she wanted “2 eggs over-easy, bacon, toast with strawberry jam” and she wanted it now. Now was 8:00 P.M. The nursing home kitchen was closed; we had no IHOP then. I found a little cafe that cooked breakfast 24 hours a day. I could drive there, order a Mama-breakfast and she would be thrilled, eating it like there was no tomorrow. Yes, it was hard on me, but it was worth it to see the pleasure she had eating her favorite meal. It can prove to be more important to let them make decisions for themselves (or think they have) than to try to control each issue. Decision-making is hard to give up after they have done it for many years, but when we want the best for them, we, too, must be willing to relearn. Dignity can easily be lost in our overprotectiveness or always knowing what is best.
Our tasks may start as simple, but they usually change over time. I never imagined I would be cleaning my mother’s bottom, helping her put on a dry diaper, or feeding her. There were times when her inappropriate actions caused her to be treated like a child by administrative staff. Many of her inhibitions were loosed with dementia. My mother, Italian and Irish, was a feisty woman, a proud one, but some situations really took a toll on Mama’s dignity. My mother did not like to be told what to do, nor to be put down. As she aged, it became part of my job to restore her self-esteem. I learned to slough off indignities by talking about how she took care of my sisters and me. I talked about the dress shop she owned and all that entailed being an entrepreneur, or about her WWII experience at the Naval Supply Depot typing up supply orders for all the ships at sea. She also loved to talk about her life as a Navy doctor’s wife. On her silly side, she loved to tell me how “gorgeous” or “beautiful” she was as I gave her a bed bath, or how “cute” her own bottom was, always with a twinkle in her eye. She made light of those hard moments and I joined her with laughter. These were our ways of coping with indignities. To find the best ways to get through these hard moments is your task. Caregivers who enter into the world of the person they’re caring for can accomplish more for that person’s dignity and respect than almost anything else. Listen to them. Encourage their telling you about the life they once led, their passions, their daily routines, and their memories. All of this still matters. Be a good listener. It does not matter if they repeat the same story. Respond so they know you are interested.
Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles at the future. Proverbs 31:25
Doing what a caregiver must for the physical comfort of your care recipient is extremely important, but do everything with compassion and empathy. You will feel so much better because you provided dignity and happiness in the midst of having to do the tough stuff. You will also create your own enjoyment in the caregiving process.
Something else I found that brought respect for my mother was to frame many of her photographs, beginning with her childhood on up through her 80s. I placed them around her room. When staff members would come in, they could ask Mama about a certain photo, “Who is that beautiful lady?” “When and where was this?” “What were you doing here?” These conversations became protracted because Mama’s longterm memory was excellent; she loved to tell her stories. Making an album or wall collage of grandchildren also gives them pride to share. The staff began to see my mother as a woman who had a childhood, who had been a professional, who had parents, siblings, a husband and children. They no longer saw Mama as just an old person who, one day, might be angry and demanding, or happy and loving on another. Mama became real and respect grew. The loss of independence takes so much away from a person, yet knowing that they are being heard, cared for from the heart makes such a difference in the way the one being cared for handles their own inabilities.
Caring for someone of the opposite sex can be difficult. They need to be treated in the same manner as I have shared here, but when a person has never had his daughter see him privately, it is hard. As the caregiver, ask how they would like you to handle the situation giving them choices. Be calm, bring humor if possible, and be dignified in the way you approach this. If they know you are lovingly caring for them, they will adjust with time.
You are God’s gift to His creation. You are His hands on earth. Be delighted. What you are giving is better than any other gift you could ever give. Yes, it may be tough. Caregiving may test you to your limits, but often those tough things can bring rewards so great that you will feel wonderfully blessed. I know that I can still feel the hugs and the kisses on my cheek, and hear Mama’s laughter as well as her words of endearment and gratitude to this very moment. Yes, fifteen years was long and hard, but there were so many precious moments. I would never exchange those years for the freedom of not caring for my mother.
And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me.” Matthew 25:40
Father, I lift up each giver of care whom You have placed with one who needs that care. I pray for patience and tender love as they care for another. May we always remember that dignity and strength and respect are from You and that we would look to You for guidance as we take each step in Your will. Teach us how to laugh and love in the hard moments, to bring joy and delight to those we care for, to do all we must by wrapping those tasks up in dignity and respect so that the recipient feels special, and to listen with empathy as though we are right there in their shoes (or slippers). Father, we want to love as You love, feel as You feel, and be Your hands, voice and heart here on earth. I ask for Your hand upon us as we walk this walk. In the strong Name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.
About Linda Gill
I am a quiet woman growing each day in the LORD. I became His 21 years ago. I am in a Christ-centered marriage of 21 years to Kenneth. We have no children. I am a retired elementary school teacher and children’s librarian. I now tutor primary-aged public school children. For fifteen years, I cared for my mother. Dementia, diabetes and a terrible fall demanded help for her, not only from me, but by staff members where she lived. I am grateful for the love God gives to me so that I may give it away. You can find me here: [email protected] (email), http://beingwoven.org (blog), @BeingWoven (Twitter), http://www.pinterest.com/iambeingwoven/ (Pinterest)