A caregiver once asked me, “Did you ever make mistakes?”
“Do you have the rest of the day free?” I responded, not really in jest.
Yes, I am almost synonymous with mistakes. Here’s a colossal one I made after my mother began to need help getting dressed.
One day, I looked into her closet and decided that she would no longer wear half the clothes hanging on one side of her closet. Her wardrobe would now be made up of elasticized pull-up pants and blouses that opened up in the front with buttons from top to bottom so I could easily help her get dressed. I had replaced fashion with my own convenience.
I folded all of her favorite lavender- and blue-flowered dresses and blouses and packed them neatly in a box, which I planned to give to our neighbor for her family in the Philippines. I left the box in her bedroom for later delivery.
The next morning, the box was empty and all of the dresses and blouses were back on their hangers and neatly hanging in her closet. How did she do this in the dark? How did she know? Was she observing me as I took each of her clothes off its hanger?
I felt smaller than an inch tall. How could I have done this? How could I have treated my mother with such disrespect by taking control of her wardrobe? How would I feel if someone came into my closet and decided for me that I should get rid of certain clothes? How dare I vaporize her when she is still very much here?
I wanted to roll back the last 24 hours. I couldn’t undo what I had done, but I knew I would never do it again and would honor what she had taught me. Even in her state of dementia, and in her silence, she was still capable of teaching me about human dignity. It was a very humbling moment.
There must be something valuable in mistakes if they are able to teach us some of life’s most valuable lessons. So what does this tell us about mistakes? Webster’s Dictionary defines “mistake” as “an idea, answer, act, etc. that is wrong; error or blunder.” Mr. Roget has limitless words in his Thesaurus, all connoting failure.
Counter to dictionary definitions, once we begin to question our mistakes and use them to benefit our loved ones and ourselves, we have redefined the word “mistake” and turned it into a learning opportunity. Learning through mistakes becomes so personal — a more direct impact is made upon us than through book learning. Once we begin to see mistakes as learning tools, caregiving becomes less of a stress and guilt-ridden experience.
A retired Air Force captain who was caring for his wife once said, “I’m the damn fool if I keep making the same mistake over and over. I’ll do laundry at night after she’s asleep or have her help me hang the clothes.” This was a result of a conversation we’d had:
“Damn!” he complained, “she made extra work for me. I was doing laundry and the phone rang. I went into the house to answer the phone and when I came out, my wife had stopped both washer and dryer and had hung all the dirty and clean clothes on the line. I had to start all over. I was so mad.”
“Have you considered,” I told him, “that your wife was trying to be a functional wife and that was the best she could have done to help you?”
That’s when he swore in more ways than one that he would not make the same mistake twice.
Had I put my mother’s clothes away a second time, I would have been making a mistake. But taking that first mistake and learning from it to become a more sensitive and compassionate caregiver made all the difference.
Judy W. shared the following story with a humorous slant:
“I was assisting Mom in the bathroom. She was sitting down and I was right by her, inches away. I turned my head for half a minute, to reach for something, and she was suddenly on the hard tile floor, with a bleeding scalp. She’d fallen, and on the way down hit her head on the corner of a cupboard. She didn’t seem more than mildly dazed from it. Just seemed to be wondering why she was on the floor.
“But scalp wounds really bleed. They look scary even when they’re small. I looked for something to use to put pressure on the wound. I grabbed the closest thing — a Depends!
“Oh, no, flashed through my head, is this the way she is going to leave me? With a Depends on her head?
“It was not super serious, just a couple stitches needed. But, it could have been worse. So, lessons learned:
- Make sure Mom is protected from falling at all times.
- Keep some Depends handy, for a variety of uses!”
Had Judy hammered herself with guilt and punished herself with “I should have known better,” she would have kept that accident as a guilt-ridden mishap. Once Judy changed her behavior as a result of that “mistake,” it was turned into a learning experience, and once she shared it with others, it became a learning tool for others, as well.
Red, who was his mother Isobel’s caregiver for more than 10 years, said he allowed himself a dozen mistakes a day.
“They really weren’t mistakes,” he explained. “I learned from each of them, so how can I call them mistakes?
“Anyway, I always made more than a dozen. After awhile, what I learned was to stop counting,” he said.
“Once, I had forgotten the right code words to get a doctor’s appointment. I should have said, ‘She’s gasping for air and has trouble breathing, or there’s dark blood in her stool and her head is hanging on the side.’ These code words would have gotten us an immediate appointment instead of having to wait two weeks.
“While she was hospitalized, I didn’t call adult day care weekly to remind them that Isobel was coming back, so we lost our place in the day care line, permanently.
“I was always learning.”
Once we begin to question and reflect on what we consider to be mistakes, learning happens. Perfection doesn’t exist, so we do the best we can. It is this imperfection that makes us human, and when we share this with others through laughter, tears or insights, mistakes are transformed into valuable lessons beyond ourselves.
At the last conference I attended in Hawai‘i, someone asked me, “Will you be my caregiver when that day comes?”
“Sure,” I said, “but you will need to allow me a dozen mistakes a day.”
THE PERFECT CAREGIVER
I am not perfect
The blunders, mistakes I make
Are my perfections.
— Frances H. Kakugawa
Frances Kakugawa is a columnist for The Hawai‘i Herald, sharing caregiving advice and thoughts in a monthly column called “Dear Frances.”