God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. These words from the serenity prayer are familiar to many people. They make sense.
But as a caregiver, many times you feel hopeless to change anything about your current situation. For awhile, Viktor Frankl felt helpless to change his situation, too. Frankl was a German psychiatrist who spent several gruelling years imprisoned in Auschwitz.
Suffering the most cruel and humiliating deprivations, he observed: “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,…”
Frankl spends a large part of his book, Man’s Search For Meaning discussing the issues of attitude and responsibilty. As caregivers, we sometimes have this responsibility thrust upon us.
Suddenly one or both parents are no longer capable of living on their own. Or perhaps severe illness suddenly strikes a spouse or a child, a sibling or a friend. Or a family member becomes the victim of an accident or crime.
When called upon to respond to these situations, people may sometimes feel a certain sadness, due to a loss of personal freedom, a life schism that was unanticipated. There are times when tempers flare and caregivers may wish to fight against the unfairness of the situation, or resist the restraints caregiving puts on them.
While the focus is on the patient, the caregiver struggles with feelings of inadequacy, disappointment and sometimes even resentment.
This is wholly natural, and bound to occur. However, once the initial shock wears off, it is important to recognize what it is within the situation that can be changed. One aspect that affords change and which will bring the most benefit to you and to your patient is your attitude.
Take a person who resents being a caregiver. Perhaps they were thrust into the situation, perhaps they felt they had no choice in the matter. This attitude will create a negative atmosphere for both the patient and the person caring for them.
The effect, however, will be most harmful for the one harbouring the bitterness: every day will be a new source of irritation, frustration and general bad feelings.
But if the care giver can bring themself to the attitude that it is important to be the one who is accompanying the patient on his last journey, that it is a journey that demands dignity, humour and kindness, the days will pass very differently for both the patient and the person caring for him.
As Frankl notes, in dire situations, it is not always what we expect of life that matters. As caregivers, we must ask ourselves, what does life expect of us?
And for each of us, Frankl believes,a ‘unique opportunity’ is presented when we find ourselves confronted with severely challenging situations; an opportunity to find in ourselves a previously unfathomed capacity to act with dignity, compassion and honour.