Giver or Taker?


I liked myself during Mom’s 80’s; I had humor… I was appropriately (and proportionately) kind… I could admonish a stern “hurry up” and expect the requested outcome… I could be bossy on an as-needed basis to get her in the car, always knowing she’d smile once comfortably seated… I could laugh at/with Mom when ketchup from her McDonald’s McDouble dribbled down her McChin, or when she penciled her brow at a questionable angle… At Walmart, in search of her beloved  Lee Riders, I could push her on the rollator, legs up, and she’d wheeeee all the way to the boys section at the back of the store… I could amuse her through lengthy waits at the doctor office with the “little TV” on my iphone… whether hurrying her along (maximum speed Mom), or admonishing her obsessive need for the presence of Purse, Mom could always take a joke and rarely took things personally.

These were the antics of the aging parent I thought Mom would always be… This was the person I knew how to react to… The Ying and Yang of Us… We were a comfortable caregiving combo - a willing giver and a grateful recipient.  

Her 90’s brought subtle but certain shifts that pleased neither of us; her needs increased while my patience did not. When she complained of pain (especially new ones), I ho-hummed them away and pushed Tylenol for my relief… When showers became optional (her word), I insisted she take one, equating her hesitation with teenage defiance… When it took five (full) minutes to write one check, I’d harangue her to just do it… When the buttons to her dungarees made us late, I’d loudly exclaim her need for stretch pants…

Soon, the days came when Mom didn’t get dressed at all… or make her bed… or proclaim her politics… or fret over the absence of Purse… or make her coffee and muffin… or take her meds… or read the morning Globe… or claim her sweepstakes winnings… or do her “paperwork”… or care very much about anything at all. Our conversations became perfunctory, often with me knocking on Mom’s mental door to see if she was in there, not due to absence, but to apathy… Her joie de vivre was gone, and we were just co-muddling through the days.

Feeling the shift, and seeking words to understand it, I Googled Caregiver vs. Caretaker and there it was: “Caregiver… a person, typically either a professional or a close relative, who looks after a child, elderly person, invalid, etc.; a carer. Caretaker… one who takes care of a thing, place, or person; one put in charge of anything.” (

I was still a carer, but without our daily social interaction and a meaningful exchange of conversation, Mom had become something I had to care for, instead of someone. Subtle and unintended, the shift was palpable and I felt it long before I understood it. 

It’s been three months since Mom passed. My vision in the rear view mirror is almost perfect now, and I can see things I would have done differently if I’d Googled sooner… not monumental things, but actions and activities that might have kept me in the emotionally connected caregiver state; I would have hugged Mom more often… I would have massaged her hands… I would have joined her on the couch while she watched the news… I would have asked more questions… I would have given her more of the only thing she wanted in her last few years – my presence and my time.  

During her final days in hospice, I let the nursing home staff be Mom’s caretaker, and I was again able to return to the giving side of things; I lay next to Mom in bed and told happy versions of our family story… I read to her from her father’s journal… I sang her Joni Mitchel songs… I played her favorite folk and swing music on my iphone… I stroked her hair and kissed her forehead… I told her I loved her – a lot. Mostly, I spent as much time with her as I could, and was as present as any one person can be with another. In the end, I could feel my return to caregiving.

Emily Gaffney7 Comments