Over a person’s lifetime there are many labels used to describe that individual. Some labels we’re glad to outgrow like “teenager” and “student.” Some labels we may love having like “mom” or “dad.” Some labels define our professional place in the world like “doctor,” “officer” or “senator.” Other labels may define our passions like “artist,” “sports fan” or “musician.” Each of us carries with us at all times at least a dozen labels.
There is a whole sub-category of labels that we’re not always sure how they fit into our lives. “Survivor” and “caregiver” could easily fall into that description. Being a survivor is a positive label but many survivors, understandably, wish the label didn’t have a reason to hang itself on them. Not that they’d necessarily want the opposite end of the scale, which is being dead or a victim wallowing in self-pity, but they just haven’t found a way---yet---to be proud of overcoming the life-challenges a stroke brought into their lives.
Being a caregiver is a label I neither like nor dislike. It just is what it is, although early on in the process of becoming one it felt like a step backwards in the area of human relationships. It felt like I’d had to trade in another, more beloved label to get the caregiver status. For example, I went from daughter to caregiver to my dad and then again I went from best friend to caregiver with Don. “Caregiver” felt negative, like I was in charge of something I’d rather not be in charge of: another human being.
I remember the first time someone called me a caregiver. It was shortly after Don was released from the hospital. I had wheeled him into a medical office and the receptionist said: “Are you your dad’s caregiver?” Don and I are very close together in age and it really hurt to have someone perceive him as being that much older than me. It was the first time that I realized that our relationship truly had changed with the stroke. We were no longer just Don and Jean. It happened a lot in the first year post-stroke---being mistaken for daughter and father---but as Don got better and looking more and more like his old self, people quit hanging the father-daughter labels on us. A little color and a lot of animation in his face turned him from looking like a “victim” to looking like a “survivor.”
There is a phrase I heard several times in commercials a few years back: Show us your best. God, I love that phrase! I tried to research its origins but all I could find was a lot of photography sites where people were invited to show each other their best photos on various topics. The phrase applied to sports, though, takes on a whole new meaning---of working hard in the past to achieve something great in the present. I don’t follow sports but I can’t help but admire anyone who has earned the label of Olympic contender. I wish the Para-Olympics for disabled athletes were covered better by network television. I saw them last year and watching people with disabilities competing in many of the same arenas and venues of the regular Olympic athletes puts special meaning into the phrase: show us your best. It also puts a new meaning to the label of “disabled.”
Maybe we need a Caregiver's Olympics so all of us who wear that label could be prouder of what we've achieved. But there are no metals to win for that kind of dedication, determination and courage.........except for the ones we caregivers give each other with a soft-spoken, “I understand” or a loud cheerly shout of, "Way to go! You stepped up to the plate and showed us your best!"
Jean Riva ©