Each Day a Gift: Caregiver New Year’s Resolutions to Celebrate Time at the End of Life

end of life caregiver new year's resolutionsEarly in 2016, I was talking to a woman serving as caretaker for her aging father. She could see him slowing, and wasn’t sure if he would live to see 2017 come around, as it must. The year would move forward and bring with it what it would.

Time was the one thing she couldn’t stop, but that didn’t mean she was going to be a servant to it. No, she told me, she was going to make the most of it. She was going to make sure that 2016 didn’t pass unnoticed. She felt—she knew, as we sometimes do—that this was going to be the last year with her dad, and she wanted to make it count.

That can be inspirational for any caregiver as we move into the new year. We’ve already discussed resolutions on how to take care of yourself and how to help active aging loved ones explore life more, but now we have to talk about what happens when there is only so much life left to explore. While we never know when that last day might come, we know that it will, and that we should cherish the time we have, whether a month, a season, or years.

While we know it can be difficult to maintain that spirit throughout a year, here are some resolutions that can help you create closeness, joy, and memories you’ll carry for the rest of your life.

10 Resolutions for a Year of Memories

  1. I resolve to make sure all affairs are in order. There is a certain funeral home sadness that greets crucial end-of-life paperwork, but that makes it all the more important to get it in order as soon as possible. Every day you don’t will leave it hanging over everyone’s head. It may seem like you’re accepting grief by filling out forms and indulging in the bureaucracy of death but, really, you’re accepting life. You’re giving yourself a chance to sort out the paperwork on the desk, put it in a folder, and close that cabinet door.
  2. I resolve to create great holidays. This is a fun one because you can ask exactly which days mean the most to you. I knew a man who threw himself one last over-the-top St. Patrick’s Day party, the kind he used to throw. This isn’t sad—it can be inspirational, and really a blast. You can even “make up” a holiday. Make a holiday of the day they got back from the war, or their anniversary, or even just a day they remember well. Because what is a holiday but a remembrance and a celebration? You can have them whenever you want.
  3. I resolve to see family. Most people want to see family members when they feel their time is near, especially ones they haven’t in a long time. For some, it’s about setting affairs in order; for others, it is just to laugh. Your loved one may have an estranged relative with whom they want to make things right. If possible, resolve to make these meetings happen. While regret isn’t always a bad thing, and shouldn’t be avoided, resolving or minimizing regrets is a great way to bring peace.
  4. I resolve to help write an autobiography. We’ve talked about the power of writing an autobiography: it’s a chance for your loved one to remember their lives, to tell their stories, and to pass down their legacy. Every life is an epic, and getting yours down on paper helps you look back on its success and failures, its joys and sorrows, and the wild mystery that is being alive to this world. And it’s a gift to those who still live, and who want to remember.
  5. I resolve to stage a reunion with friends. One older man we talked to said how much he loved “going to the pub and telling a few lies.” So his sons arranged for old friends, people he grew up with 70 years ago, to fly in. They surprised him at his local pub and the men spent hours catching up, helping each other remember (and exaggerate) stories from their youths. Getting the gang back together is a way to tie in youth and aging, and remember that they didn’t happen to two distinct people, but to one person, whole and indivisible.
  6. I resolve to see old sights. Nostalgia is the most human of all our emotions, as it ties into our possibly unique knowledge that time passes and can never come back. It is sweet and painful and nearly everyone indulges in it. That’s why, if you can, it is wonderful to take your loved one to places they once knew that meant something to them, like the house they grew up in or their grade school or the park where they had their first kiss, by the swingset. We’re visual creatures, and sight triggers memories. It can be a bonding experience, and a source of great joy.
  7. I resolve to see new sights. Of course, if you can travel and see something new, something on the list, you should. But, remarkably, virtual reality “tours” are the next big thing, and they can allow people to have an immersive, 3D, interactive experience with nearly any locale in the world. Your loved one might not be able to travel the vast savannahs of the Serengeti, but they can do the next best thing, in ways unimaginable when they (or even you) were growing up.
  8. I resolve not to push things. We have a lot of suggestions, but they are just that. The year is not a failure if you don’t do all of these, or even any of them. Don’t feel like you have to force activities, or that not making a firework show out of Arbor Day is disrespectful. It’s not. Go with what you both can do, and what you both want to do. Don’t feel that making the most out of the day means skydiving. It just means loving, and making sure that the time has meaning.
  9. I resolve to be clear-eyed. Life is often about balancing cynicism and naiveté, but both often involve lies. You can be clear-eyed about the chances of death, about this being the last Easter, without being maudlin or desperate. Accepting that death is part of life, and accepting that it doesn’t erase meaning from life, instead adding sacred weight to it, is how to make the most out of this year.
  10. I resolve, above all, to cherish the time. You don’t know if you’re going to get another year, or if your time together might end in a day. Every death comes too soon, even when the person is ready. You always want one more moment, which is why you should cherish and celebrate the time you have. That doesn’t mean being falsely happy and cheerful all the time. It means recognizing that the struggles, the sadness, the frustration—even the exhaustion—they are born of love, as surely as the joy and laughter are. Recognizing that can help you find peace this year.

Saying goodbye is never easy. You never feel you have enough time, and you are never truly ready. That’s why you may have trouble accepting that this might be the last year: doing so seems to welcome it. But that’s not the case. It’s about accepting reality, and pledging to honor the time you have, giving this year even more meaning and joy. And, while saying goodbye will be mournfully difficult, you’ll know that you made what led up to it a source of happiness for everyone.

No matter what, your loved one will echo in your life forever. Pledge, this year, to send out even more joyful sounds to resonate well past 2017.

At Institute on Aging, we know that the challenges caregivers face can seem overwhelming. We’re here to help. Connect with us today to learn more about our programs.

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