Letters to the Editor

A lesson in the demands of care

Please don’t call them “caregivers.”

You can call them cooks, menu planners, pot scrubbers, kitchen cleanup crew, food shoppers. If there’s a dishwasher around, they load it.

They’re nurses, medication measurers, pain consultants. And personal valets, and launderers, clothing sorters and folders.

Bookkeepers, billpayers, phone handlers, message-takers and message-givers. Librarians. Television companions (nobody likes to watch it alone). Mail-getters, mail-dumpers. Fetchers, “please get this for me.” Some are gardeners, assuring that indoor and outside plants get fed and watered.

They straighten the bedding, get the pillows right, and, after the last chore — or what they think is the last chore — is done, they are the ones who tuck in the covers and whisper a loving, “Good night, sleep well.”

And, always, “If you need me during the night, please ”

That’s a whole lot more than “caregiver.”

My wife had successful surgery that requires six weeks of not putting any weight on one leg. I volunteered to be the “caregi...” (see the more detailed description above). I was no novice: the dinner chef three nights a week, get my own breakfast and lunch — I know my way around the kitchen. And I share laundry duties, know that darks get a cold wash and which fabrics get the delicate cycle.

So it was a major surprise to see how unqualified I am for this new job — or, more accurately, jobs. I can do them, yes, but it takes more than “do them.”

It takes stamina, and more: a system, a plan, adjusting the plan when there isn’t enough time for it to work. Stamina, and stubbornness that says this has to be done and there’s no one else to do it, so do it. Stamina, and patience to do the detail stuff, clean the edges of the pot, fold the clothes neatly, clean the countertop before stains can set in. Stamina, and awareness that it could be worse, much worse — that six weeks is a breeze, a wisp compared to the months that follow an organ transplant, a walk in the park next to the years that some diseases involve.

True, I’m 86 years old, and stamina is sometimes in short supply. But I’m fortunate: the vacuum cleaner works, the microwave and gas oven perform well, laundry devices require only loading and unloading, the garden is semi-neglect-tolerant, and I can pay the bills. There are legions of others who do it all by hand and who, if they are paid at all, get pitiably little.

As this is written, I am two weeks into it and face four more. If I had known, would I have? There’s no way to know in advance, and no way to answer. It is, after all, my wife of 60 years who needs this now. We know couples who are mirrors to us, but the one being helped will not put aside the walker in four weeks, or likely ever will.

It has been a living lesson, learning the work that generations of women did without question or complaint, and not just for one, but for entire families: husbands, children, grandparents, their lives spent in the endless task of caring for others, their only reward being loved for it.

I have to end this now. Have to get the spaghetti and veggie meatballs on the table.