Caregiving and the Art of Waiting

In a discussion the other night, a friend made this observation:

“So much of a caregiver’s life is waiting.”

Exactly true. She was waiting while her care was in the clinic. I have done that so very many times. Sitting in the car or waiting room, with laptop and phone, trying make the most of every minute not directly involved in transport. Sometimes though, all one can do is just sit and wait. You expect a very short wait, you don’t bring a laptop, and ten minutes turns to 20, to 40, and the next thing you know, three hours have gone by. Three hours of nonproductive time, three hours of waiting.

It’s more than that also.

Waiting as a caregiver is…

…waiting for the next thing, for the next shoe to drop.

…waiting for something to change.

…waiting for them to get better.

…waiting for a need to be expressed.

…waiting for things to get worse.

…waiting to know what to do.

…waiting for the gift of patience.

These last two items are key. Sometimes to be a caregiver is to flounder in doubt about what to do, or rather, what is the best thing to do. Advice is rampant. Advice is also confused. Advice is also often ignorant. Figuring out what to do to support your charge, and more than that, to help them heal or to be comfortable, can be very difficult. It gets worse as you try to figure out things to do that do not increase their dependence on you.

Then there is the need for patience. Patience is hard, because its need is tied to all the waiting as much as it tied just to being patient with your patient.

***

Many of us were given a copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” as a graduation gift. About midway through it’s excitement about the possibilities in the future, the reader is warned that things may get difficult. The streets are not marked, the path is not clear. The journey may get worse and you’ll wind up headed,

“toward a most useless place. 
The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring,or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.”

Even though this passage has come to my mind in many waiting rooms, it is wrong. It is not always useless to wait. Sometimes waiting is the most useful thing one can do. It can also be the most caring, loving thing a person can do. The gift of time, from one to another, is precious.

***

Waiting can be a solitary activity. Waiting can also be a community activity. It was often enough that I found myself in the company of others waiting. Once Melinda started using the county transportation service, she did the waiting. The service often required her to wait hours for a pickup and return ride home. While this gave her some independence (freedom from me) it came at a price – inconvenience. And occasionally really poor service.

***

Over the summer I had to start physical therapy for some kind of damage to my ankle (it can cause screaming during my golf swing without drastically changing my swing). When I walked into the therapy wing of the orthopedics office, the receptionist said, “Oh hi! This is the first time I’ve seen you here for yourself.” Yep. I’m kind of recognizable enough because of my size, but two-plus years of escorting Melinda to PT and sitting patiently with a laptop, I leave something of an impression.

***

I guess with the passing of Tom Petty this week, quoting the chorus to The Waiting makes sense:

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
-Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, The Waiting.

Waiting can be hard. But as caregivers, it is a large part of what we do. We do it because it needs to be done. We do it because of love, commitment, friendship, whatever reason. But has hard as it is, I do not think waiting is the hardest part. The hardest part is the sense of powerlessness that occurs sometimes daily when you just can’t make things stop hurting for your patient. That’s the hardest part, followed closely by learning to accept that you can do only so much for someone, and doing too much can, in fact, be too much.

We swore we’d travel darlin’ side by side
We’d help each other stay in stride
But each lover’s steps fall so differently
But I’ll wait for you
And if I should fall behind
Wait for me
-Bruce Springsteen, “If I should Fall Behind.”

Waiting is an art. It is an artform we can all do, but we can’t always do well. It’s easy enough to just wait, but to do so without impatience, with grace, takes practice and effort. It is easy to become frustrated and grumpy. Impatience with waiting feeds into these emotions and creates undesired and unneeded conflict. To avoid this, we generally try to find ways to be productive while waiting. It can help and it can also be necessary to keep work moving. When I could afford the time, I found that waiting was often a good time to just take time to be. The stress of intense, long-term caregiving is such that caregiver can lose, or at least feel like they’ve lost, any sense that any moment of time is their own. Taking those moments in a waiting room or a carpark can be just what’s needed to find a moment for self. It took me long enough to learn that lesson, but I did learn it.

Waiting is what we do.