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Caregiving Reality

Frailty

Photo Credit: Bob Travis

If I say the word “Frailty” what comes to your mind? Maybe it is the image of an old person stooped over a walker, with thin wrists and bony knuckles clutching at the handles. That is a picture of frailty. We know how easily a stumble can happen, and how suddenly a fall comes–then the broken bone. A broken bone can bring the shattering of the rest of that person’s life. The elderly are frail, and life is fragile.

We commonly think that frailty is limited to an elderly person, but that is not true. We are all frail, and that is something we would do well to remember. Personal confession: I recently had a painful reminder of this truth. Consider this post a reminder for you.

I am still in my mid-thirties and have managed to maintain a healthy, fit, and strong body which allows me to pursue an active lifestyle. Someone meeting me for the first time would probably think I embody the opposite of frailty. But how painful it is to learn the lesson of how weak and untrustworthy our bodies truly are!

Through a series of minor events at the end of May I ended up developing a severe muscle spasm in my back. Perhaps you have had one of those occasions where life was going along just fine and then you were flat on your back. This muscle spasm was the worst I have ever experienced in my life. I went from being able to lift objects that weighed several hundred pounds to being unable to lift myself. Moving caused excruciating pain. In the space of a day–just like that–I was rendered helpless. I couldn’t even use the bathroom by myself.

Thankfully, though my injury was painful it was not serious. With some pain medication, a bit of prescribed muscle relaxants, some therapy, and a bit of stretching I was able to quickly recover. I couldn’t work out in the yard for a few days, but soon enough I was back to my normal physical activity. This was a story with a happy ending, but the episode was a stark reminder for me of how frail we all are. Last year I hiked one of the high peaks in the Adirondacks with my wife, and did it without difficulty. We’re going back for more this summer. Every week I take bike rides and lift hundreds of pounds of weights. I’m healthy. I can do things without even thinking about it. And yet somehow in the space of hours I can go from being able to climb a mountain to being unable to climb out of bed.

The lesson is that our own bodies can betray us at any moment. This human frailty ought to teach us to be humble. It doesn’t matter if you are fifteen, twenty-give, thirty-five, fifty-five, or seventy-five–we are all frail. You may think relying on other people is something only the elderly must do–but watch out! It doesn’t take much to make any one of us dependent on help from others. We shouldn’t assume that we have the guarantee of going through life with the ability to live independently when accident or ailment can render us utterly dependent at any age.

My brief stint as a complete cripple has made me a little more grateful for the health I have, and a little more mindful of how easily I might lose it. If you are a caregiver, remember that it is not just the person in your care who is frail, you also live in a fragile body. Know your limits, accept help, and remember that as today you are helping someone else, the day will come when you also will need help. It is part of being human, being fragile, and if we accept the state of our existence well then we will have a little better humility for it and a little more peace living in it.

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