A new year means a new emphasis on resolutions, life goals, and marking things off that bucket list. As caregivers, we may find ourselves abandoning our own dreams to help an ill relative tackle their own bucket list. Is there a better way to achieve fulfillment? One doctor believes so, and I tend to agree.
My father always wanted to visit his homeland of Belfast, Northern Ireland one more time before he died, but he never made it. A fear of flying, and the expense, kept him from going before Alzheimer’s wormed its way into his mind. My mother loved The Bucket List movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, but never professed having her own list. There was a year-and-a-half of decent health before her cancer returned, and I wish we could have spent that time traveling and engaging in activities that would have brought her joy. After quitting my job to take care of my mother, I found myself mired in what seemed to be a fruitless, never-ending job search, and with family finances quickly dwindling, traveling was out of the question.
Caregiving is disruptive by nature, forcing many of us to quit a job, move, or shake up our household to accommodate a loved one needing assistance. Life goals, resolutions, and bucket list items often get kicked to the curb. As a caregiver, I often felt like I was lucky to just be surviving; thriving was out of the question.
I recently read an article titled, “Kicking the bucket list mentality,” in Aging Today by Marc E. Agronin, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist. Agronin suggests a retooling of the bucket list concept that focuses more on aging with a purpose. Instead of focusing on what we can do as we age, we may be better off focusing on what we can be. A tropical cruise or trip to Europe offers instant gratification, but taking up a hobby like painting or performing volunteer work may offer deeper engagement and more sustained satisfaction. Agronin uses a real-life example involving patients to illustrate that waiting to do a grand item on a bucket list can have consequences. An older couple who had planned for years to ride motorcycles together across Florida encountered terrible weather and a rough ride, resulting in the need for medical attention. It’s not that people should stop taking dream vacations; just be aware that the caregiving life may take them down a different path.
It can be difficult to maintain some semblance of a life while managing the overwhelming duties of being a family caregiver. You may have to put that dream of a Paris trip on hold, but you may find time to take a virtual tour of the Louvre or learn some French with the help of an app. I’m working on my dad’s family history so that when I’m able make that trip to my father’s homeland, it will have a greater purpose than just sightseeing.
When I was caring for my mother during the last month of her life, sometimes the only beauty I saw was a ray of sun hitting the sun catcher in the kitchen window just the right way, the massive wingspan of a crow flying overhead or a family of deer tiptoeing through the brush. Though I could have easily overlooked these humble moments of beauty, I found myself aching for them. To kick the bucket list mentality, we need to take advantage of moments of splendor in the here and now, the only moments we are guaranteed to have.
Photo credit: MMAARRSS/Morguefile
Joy Johnston is an Atlanta-based digital journalist who began The Memories Project blog in 2012 after her father died of Alzheimer’s. Her essays have appeared in best-selling anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.