Do you have a person in your life who is a role model? Who gives you what I call ‘validating reality reminders’? Not that splash of cold water in the face that wakes you up leaving you startled and shaken, but more like one that leaves you feeling clear-headed, reassured and confident.

Well for me, that person is my Aunt Bonnie, my dad’s older sister. She is the voice of sanity in our family - literally. Mental illness runs on both sides of my family; runs amok actually. It’s everywhere in my family tree – nuts are everywhere. But back to my point: my dear, dear Aunt Bonnie is the sane voice among us.

My Aunt Bonnie who just turned 90 years old, lives on her own in the same house she’s lived in for over 45 years. She’s been married 21 years longer than I’ve been alive. 68 years. Her husband, Dick is in a care home.

She golfs nine holes three times a week, every week. Until recently she golfed 18 holes each time, but her doctor told her to slow down. She grumbles about the fact she has to use a cart. At 90, I would use a cart too. Hell at 65, I would use a cart. She golfs come hell or high water. Seriously, she’s out there even when the greens are flooded or frozen. The only time she won’t go golfing is when it snows. ‘Too difficult to see the ball’ she says.

She is a woman of strong constitution and even stronger opinions. This is only outmatched by her enormous compassion for people going through struggles. She’s open about mental illness in our family and sees no shame in at all. It is what is. ‘An affliction,’ she calls it. She herself experiences depression and sees a counselor when she needs to. Yes, my aunt, at 90 sees a therapist on an as needed basis. Strength is knowing when to ask for help.

My aunt shoots straight from the hip. No tip-toeing on eggshells trying to please everyone or anyone for that matter. She tells it like it is, without telling people off. And reminds me that the most powerful kind of humor is that which has humanity and humility at its heart.

Most recently I asked her for help about being a caregiver to my 81 year old mom. My mom’s in a care home and is aging quickly since my dad died four years ago. She also struggles with anxiety and depression (part of the bipolar disorder she’s had since I was a child). Don’t get me wrong though, my mom is a fighter and incredibly resilient. I don’t know anyone who be this anxious for so long and survive. She’s like a hummingbird on cocaine.

My aunt has been a caregiver to her husband who has dementia for many years and intermittently to her daughter who struggles with bipolar disorder and from time to time, to her grandkids, who also have psychiatric illnesses.

I’ve just begun my caregiving journey with my mom. She’s an only child and so am I. She has only me. I do what I can, but I live over 2 ½ hours away. I call often and visit as much as possible. But it’s not the equivalent as living in the same town.

In our last phone call, I told my aunt of my feelings of guilt; the struggles I have to adequately care for my mom, to help make her happy.

Aunt Bonnie knows my mom’s temperament and her illnesses well and she knows mine. I have bipolar disorder and anxiety (yup – the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree). She knows the history of our family. She knows the difficulties my mom faced with my dad, and the challenges they overcame. Most importantly she has an uncanny objectivity I don’t have as the daughter of my father and mother.

When I ask her questions about my parents, I trust her answers. I trust her ‘validating reality reminders’ about my life and my family. Her words ring true and loud for me and give me a sense of rightness with the world that I am unable to give myself.

So from a conversation a few months ago, here are the gems my aunt offered me about not only how to care for my mom, but more importantly, how to take care of myself, so I can be a better daughter to my mom. I hope they ring true for you too.

The 9 Commandments of Care Giving (Aunt Bonnie style):

1. “Be thankful for the good days. Put up with the bad days.”

2. “Arguing is a waste of time.”

3. “Don’t try to make your mother happy. It will kill you.”

4. “No matter what you do or how often you visit, it will never be enough. That is the nature of anxiety and depression.”

5. “Remember, you call the shots.”

6. “Keep visits pleasant. If you can’t: lie.” (Her words - seriously.)

7. “Ignore their bitching. You’re the mother now.”

8. “A 2 hour visit is more than enough otherwise it will tire them out and you.”

9. “To be of any use to others, you must take care of yourself.”

Her wisdom has given me permission to live life and let go of guilt. She has taught me to set boundaries and reasonable expectations so I can care for my mom in healthy ways. If only I can be as wise as her when I am 90.

 © 2012 Victoria Maxwell

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