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  • Valerie Keating

Balancing Care and Tuna Sandwiches

My mother resided in a nursing home for just under four years.  She had dementia which can be a devastatingly brutal illness; hard on the patient, hard on loved ones. Visiting the nursing home was rarely benign.  In fact, most of the time, I left in tears and with agony stinging my throat and fracturing my heart.   Despite the inevitable pain of those visits, if a client at work cancelled or if some rare window of free time presented itself, I found myself rushing to be with her.   I visited her very frequently and often stayed for hours to comfort her.  Sometimes I could provide some solace, sometimes I couldn’t.  Regardless, I went.  A lot.  

As the days and then years passed, there were times when I had planned on stopping in to see her but I was too exhausted.  Perhaps I had seen more clients than usual in my counseling office, or I had an unforgiving, jammed-packed schedule that week, or my son needed transportation or extra help with projects.   Increasingly, I had commitments that made showing up for my mom on a frequent basis difficult.

And so, interspersed with the days that I visited my mother and held her hand, there were days when I drove past the nursing home and went home instead.   Sometimes, I put myself first because if I hadn’t, I would have become too depleted to help anyone else.  Sometimes I had to practice “selfullness” instead of selflessness.  I needed to tend to my own need for a break, for down time, for lunch. “Mom,” I would say to the air, “I have to go home and make a tuna sandwich.  I hope you’ll understand”.  

Now that my mom is in spirit, I am certain she understands that my heart was always with her even when my body was not, and that I always wanted to take care of her but that I also needed to take care of myself. Although we struggled during her illness, we both learned so much from a seemingly senseless disease - especially the need to balance caring for others and caring for self.


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