- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

What does it say about a society that outsources the last years and moments of life to a clinical setting that is neither loving, nor particularly caring?

More succinctly, what does it say about us when we ship our parents off to nursing homes instead of caring for them, in the toughest times, at home?

As we grow older, we all face life in different ways. We all see, upon occasion, the ravages of disease and the frailty and indomitable spirit of our humanness as loved ones struggle to face their own aging. Parkinsons, dementia, Alzheimer’s, cancer, strokes and other ailments take loved ones, issuing a summons to the younger generation to respond. How we respond tells us who we really are and what we are made of.

Dispirited by the seemingly shallow “caring” of medical facilities like “nursing homes,” many Americans are embracing “home care.” And the benefits of home-care experience can far outweigh the costs one expects in anguish and the pocketbook. One might find inspiration, an uplifting and newfound realization of the sanctity and importance of human life, and a life-altering family sense of love, caring, giving and togetherness.

Many families say, “My loved one gave more to us than we ever gave to her or him.”

Suffering can bring families together — or send the selfish to flight. The giving experience of knowing we all loved enough to bring the suffering member of the family home to our hearts and our ability to care, may forever change the way we remember who we are. There may be no Hallmark moment, no reward from the ailing family member. But you might surprise yourself and you might be surprised by how your suffering loved one inspires you.

There is no more caring environment than the home. There are no more caring people than loved ones and family. Any expectation paid strangers in white pants and shoes can do better than a loved one is the height of illusion.

There are times when the hospital, nursing home and even the hospice are mandated. But don’t sell yourself and your family short. Your love and care may well exceed that of all others.

In numerous ways, many of us live in a world without connection to the life-and-death struggles that make us loving, caring human beings. We rush to work, the kids’ soccer tournaments, even vacations, at break-neck speed. When we pause to give, we shop at Wal- Mart for the appropriate handout. We Americans spend more than $4 billion annually on our pets, but sometimes neglect our family duties and responsibilities.

So how do most of us care for our own aged, sick and ailing family members? Fifteen-minute visits in the hospital followed by even shorter stays every week in a nursing home?

I take my lumps and admit my own shortcomings. My own record on love is not stellar. But when I have extended myself, I have received much more than I invested. For that, I am eternally grateful.

American life is stressful. Giving, caring and loving are hard work. Wage earners need to maintain careers. And bringing a deathly sick family member home is a real test of love.

Oh, it is easy to love (if that is what you feel) when young and staring lustily at the opposite sex from across a smoke-filled room. But what happens when your mother, father, sister or spouse needs real love and caring?

There have been several recent events reminding us how tough, and rewarding, life is when the special caring of one’s heart is active. Nancy Reagan’s long, stoic and uncomplaining care for her ailing husband gives us reminders and a role model.

Columnist and commentator Mort Kondracke’s loving tribute to his late wife, “Saving Millie,” doesn’t sugarcoat the difficult challenges one faces. But Mort also reminds us some things in life are worth giving. And what we reap in return is usually unexpected and life-changing. Giving one’s self to another is the ultimate gift.

Ironically, Christopher Reeve contemplated suicide. His wife, Dana, reminded him he was still the man she loved and married, despite paralysis. Chris lived to inspire others for nine years, while working tirelessly to find ways to cure the so-called incurable diseases.

Ronald Reagan, Millie Kondracke and Christopher Reeve will forever be among my heroes. But so too are Nancy Reagan, Mort Kondracke, Dana Reeve and all the family and extended family members who provided real love and caring near the end.

My own mother suffers from recent strokes, a hip dislocation earlier this year, Alzheimer’s, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, osteoporosis and severe hearing loss.

Caring for her can be both joyful and disheartening. My sister, Elizabeth, does most of the important work and recently discovered the pharmacy shorted her by half the monthly dosage of Alzheimer’s medication, at a cost of more than $100 for each vial of medicine.

If my sister had not been there to count the pills, who knows how long this would have persisted?

This is a salute to those among us who care enough to offer their own lives, their own love, their own homes, their own human bonding, to loved ones in critical emotional and physical need. Life is not all joy and birthday parties. But the tough times really do build character and offer their own rewards.

The heart is the most difficult thing to invest, at times. But without that selfless investment of love for those most difficult to love and care for, do we really experience the joy of love?

No matter how fantastic the discoveries of modern science, technology and medicine, we all still face mortality. We will all die. Many of us will suffer greatly en-route.

Who will love us and care for us if we have never truly loved and cared for others?

John E. Carey writes commentary in Arlington, Va.

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