Denise Hannah, Washington Home and Hospice, Washington DC
"Compassionate Touch® has given our volunteers a stronger sense of purpose by using touch to connect with our patients and ease their final days and hours."
Caregiving as a Spiritual Gift
Vol. 11, Issue 09
Each of us, at some point, will become a caregiver to a loved one, parent or friend. Many of us can point to this kind of experience as the catalyst to our massage therapy careers. The benefits that come from being a caregiver are many and I've learned that my work caring for my clients is not separate from my spiritual practice — it is one.
I've dedicated my life's work to serving people living with effects of aging, disease or disability. People ask me, "Isn't it hard to do that kind of work — don't you get drained?" "It's so sad, how do you handle it?" Others say, "It takes a special person to do what you do — I don't think I could do it." Well, I assure you I'm no more special than anyone else! I can tell you I'm learning gradually to recognize the gifts of being a care companion and seeing that it is as much a part of my spiritual journey as anything else.
Every person we touch is a teacher. I've had the privilege of learning from hundreds of people in rehabilitation hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric facilities and hospice care. Some lessons stand out. I met "James" while interning as an occupational therapy student at a rehabilitation hospital in Chicago back in the late seventies. James was in his twenties, as was I. He had been shot in the back, leaving him with partial quadriplegia resulting from an incomplete spinal cord injury. Part of my job was to teach him how to dress himself again. His condition required him to dress in bed — not an easy task for an able-bodied person much less for somebody with paralysis.
One morning I was watching him struggle to put on his shirt and in the background his radio was playing a song by the Commodores called Still, a song about lost love. The song somehow connected us in that moment. James lay back with tears running down his face. Feeling helpless, I simply stood by his side and listened, feeling profoundly moved.
You see, another part of his story was that his wife was divorcing him. She didn't want a life with a disabled man. James taught me that sometimes there are no words and we simply can't do anything except be there. From that day forward we were not only therapist and patient.
We never spoke of that morning, but we both knew we had shared in something that connected us deeply. I can't hear that song now without thinking of James and giving thanks for that lesson in how to hold space for another person's grief.
Giving And Receiving
There is a paradox to caregiving. When we give even small kindnesses, we become a care-receiver. I can't tell you what you might receive, but I can share some of the gifts and insights that I've accepted.
Never underestimate the power of small acts. What might seem insignificant to you often is just what is needed at the time. Putting a blanket around the shoulders of someone who is cold; moving the box of tissues within reach; opening the curtains to let sunlight into the room. The simplest things make a big difference. One client, a gentleman in a long- term care facility, loved foot massage. He usually had slippers on when I arrived but after our session he asked that his dress shoes be put on. He always sat up a little straighter when those shoes were on. I think he felt seen for the man he was and not just an old man in a nursing home.
Lightening The Mood
Lighten up a little. Who says that caring for someone facing a serious condition has to be serious all the time? Humor is a natural expression and there are things that happen that are ironic or downright funny. It's okay to laugh and enjoy moments together.
Making A Respectful Connection
There's a little royalty in all of us. One of my favorite quotes is a Scandinavian proverb that says, "Address the royalty and the royalty will respond." I've noticed when I treat people with respect and dignity that I get it in return. I need to be around other people who serve as a mirror so I can see my own reflection. None of us live in a vacuum and I'm an introvert by nature and I have to actively remind myself of this one. We are mirrors for each other all the time, but we have to remember to look and pay attention to what we see there.
Those I've cared for have taught me that there are ebbs and flows; beginnings and endings; and, most certainly, change. I have a greater acceptance of the inevitable turns my own life will make even though I might not know what to expect. But whatever happens, I'll be grateful for people who care.
"You will find that the mere resolve not to be useless, and the honest desire to help other people, will, in the quickest and delicatest ways, improve yourself." — John Ruskin