Let them go under before you go after them…

As a teen I was only marginally more athletic than I am now (which is almost none at all). Still, I liked to swim and felt I could do so quite naturally. I never cared for speed swimming, just swimming for pleasure and survival.

One summer I took the American Red Cross Senior Lifesaving and Water Safety class. It was a heck of a lot of work but pretty fun, too. One day we were instructed on approaching a drowning victim as they are struggling: “There are times,” the instructor said, “when it’s just best to let the victim go under. If you go in after them while they’re still struggling, unless you’re incredibly strong, there’s a good chance they’ll take you down with them.”

“But,” she continued, “if you let them sink under they may be too tired to resist as much, and you may have a better chance to help them.”

Of course, they also gave ways to help disarm victims so you could help them. But, as long as they were going to fight you, you were always at increased risk.

When I was slightly younger, I was in the Boy Scouts of America. One summer my dad (now deceased) and I went on a fifty-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. In preparation we went on many short hikes in the Shenandoah National Park. While these were long and arduous treks, they were amazing in their beauty.

Prior to our hikes we were given careful preparatory instructions: “Keep at least ten paces away from the hiker in front of you. If you are too close behind and they get into a snake den or take a fall off a ledge, you won’t be able to stop yourself, and you won’t be able to help them.”

Both of these examples contain wisdom that caregivers (and co-dependents) desperately need to take to heart: You cannot save a loved one if you yourself are not safe. I know: that’s easier said than done. But, it has to be done, it has to be intentional, and it has to be a choice we make.

There are a million reasons that we can call to heart to ignore the warnings that we must protect ourselves. But, we imperil ourselves and our loved ones if we fail to heed this wisdom. I have sat beside many wives (and husbands) who stayed at their husbands (and wives) bedsides while they were sick. They stayed so long with no respite that they deeply endangered their own physical and emotional health.

Guilt is a great thing when it serves as an alarm that we need to pay attention to something. But when it drives us to endanger ourselves, and as a result our loved ones, guilt becomes an illness, an enemy.

Occasionally folks write ElderHope out of a pool of guilt over feeling that they are not doing enough to care for their loved one. But like the first two stories above demonstrate, often the best thing we can do is stand back, rest, step away, until the situation is again safe for us to step forward. Only then can we be effective in caring for those we love.

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