Here’s what caregiving taught me

Caregiving is often described as a sacrifice. One individual bears a burden to care for another. There’s a connotation of drainage, evocations of burned-out batteries and tired limbs.

I was a premedical student. I was aggressive in pursuing an MD. I wanted to be the best doctor I could be. I did not realize that required me to become a much a better person.

I left school to care for my grandmother. But in the end, she took far greater care for me.

I was a big guy — I dabbled in wrestling, football, and weightlifting in high school. I brought the appetite but not the game to college. When I needed to be energetic at every hour, I learned how to treat my body like the machine it is. Exercise and intermittent fasting honed my body for the challenge.

I learned to preserve myself. I was particularly inclined towards danger, but I realized that I needed to protect myself not only physically but mentally as well. I needed to be wise, to be diligent in pursuing the best care I could provide. I had to focus and meditate on my priorities and remember the ethics pertaining to my duty.

I learned to set higher standards for myself. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the lack of attention paid to the elderly. It was tempting to shake my laurels and brass the bells. But when the product of my effort was quality of life for my loved one, I had to choose to work harder and to revitalize my approach to my responsibilities. I can shed tangents more easily, find strength faster and harness empathy better. These are my new tools — while I am now more vulnerable, I have become so at the benefit of connecting with strangers.

I was always very timid and shy. I wasn’t humble, per se. I knew what I wanted, but I was always looking for avenues that required the least direct confrontation. I learned to ask for the benefit of others and to give freely. When I am in pain, the number of things that matter dwindle greatly. I suspect this is the case for many. This awareness led me to emphasize the needs of my loved one over my emotional security. While this meant I had to open myself up, to become almost blunt, I found others to be receptive and welcoming.

I thought of myself as a writer. But something was off about my output. I feel now that I simply lacked maturity. I did not write with the confidence and purpose that I have now. In a time when there are so many words floating around as lyrics, news reports, campaigns and blogs, the value of an individual letter has fallen. It’s simple economics.

But now I communicate with the understanding that I cannot ethically spend my time on things that I find uninspired. There are other people out there whose needs are more pressing than mine. I have a responsibility towards them, created by my own knowledge that in their place I would be despondent and weary for help. I can be more than an individual agent in society — I can always choose to be more as part of a cohesive whole, even if I am unsure of where that puts me and what that means for my future. It’s really not about me, and it never has been. I loved my grandmother, and she taught me how to love and forgive others. Everywhere I walk, I leave some writing behind, be it on paper or in someone’s mind. I can choose to engrave something inspired rather than spray crude graffiti.

Not everything turned out perfectly. That’s a euphemism that anyone can understand, especially caregivers. But in the end, my grandmother was a peacemaker. I will work to rectify my wrongs, repent, and move forward a better man.

So, while I learned about the health care system, insurance, law, anatomy — even the art of learning — from my experience, above all else, my grandmother taught me to open my eyes wider and to look with empathy. I do not look at other people the way I used to before. I do not know you, and that means that I cannot judge you. But I can always offer informed aid. And I would encourage other caregivers to remember that we have an opportunity to help our loved ones leave legacies that strengthen our own character and equip ourselves with a fortitude that does not come easily. The form of the crucible affects the formation of the product, our conduct. We don’t have to look at it as a burden.

Ajay Dave is a former premedical student.

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