BY DAVID PIEPLOW – Contributing Writer

A parable is told of a farmer who owned an old mule. One day the mule fell into the farmer’s well. The farmer heard the mule “braying” or whatever mules do when they fall into wells. After carefully assessing the situation, the farmer sympathized with his mule but decided that neither the mule nor the well was worth the trouble of saving. So he called his neighbors and told them what had happened and asked if they would come and help him haul dirt to bury the old mule in the well and put him out of his misery. Initially, the old mule was hysterical! He wasn’t ready to die.

So the farmer and his neighbors began shoveling dirt down into that well. As the dirt hit his back, a thought struck that old wise mule. It suddenly dawned on him that every time a shovel load of dirt landed on his back, he should simply shake it off and step up! And so he did, blow after blow.
“Shake it off and step up…shake it off and step up…shake it off and step up!”

He kept repeating those words to himself over and over again for what seemed like most of a day. Those words became a battle cry encouraging the mule. No matter how painful the blows of dirt became or distressing the situation seemed, the old mule fought “panic and fatigue” and just kept right on shaking it off and stepping up!

It wasn’t long before that old mule, battered and exhausted, made one final step triumphantly over the wall of the well. The dirt that was supposed to bury him, actually blessed him. All because of the way he chose to handle his adversity.

But what happens when we are faced with the most common adversity of all…aging? What happens when we fall into wells of sickness, accidents, hospitals, and so many doctors? How can we help our senior family members find a new normal in their new season of life?

My Mother-in-Law is truly an amazing woman. There isn’t anything she cannot do. A few years ago, she climbed onto her roof and cleaned out the gutters. That same year, she planted, weeded, cultivated, and harvested her one acre plus garden, cared for a rather large grove of fruit trees, and gathered eggs from her brood of hens. Every January, she would fly down to South Texas to be with family and enjoy the warm weather. This past January, my remarkable Mother-in-Law, who just turned ninety years young, entered into a new season of life. While in Texas, she broke her hip. She could no longer live by herself, let alone climb any roof. After two operations, came an extended time in rehab, then assisted living. Today, my plucky Mother-in-Law is enjoying her new season of life in an absolutely gorgeous one bedroom apartment in an upscale assisted living home. No more wheel chair, no more walkers, no more cane, and even no more pain!

The seven month journey to my Mother-in-Law’s new season of life would not have been possible without the prayers and support of family. Coordinating that family support was and continues to be today, the chief caretaker, my Sister-in-Law. I wanted to find out how she managed to “shake off” all the difficulties of her Mother’s accident and “step up” into the position of Chief Caregiver. Maybe her experience could help all of us find a new normal for our senior family members when they enter into a new season of life. So I called her and asked a few questions.

“What was the hardest part of suddenly being vaulted into the position of chief caretaker?”
“I had to learn how to be a caregiver, find my support system and enlist an army of people, beginning with a really helpful cousin, to face this huge undertaking. I had to make BIG decisions fast, making sure all the fine details were completed. And I had to remain calm, focusing on the day to day problems not on my emotions. I was lucky to have great help.”

“What has your experience in caring for your Mother taught you?”
“In everything I’ve done during the past seven months, I have tried to live by this one basic principal, ‘If all of this was happening to me, how would I want to be treated?’ I’ve also had to thoroughly listen to my Mother, seeking to meet her needs as well as trying to give back her independence as much as possible. I have always treated her with respect even when we were in total disagreement. Oh, one more; dealing with Mom takes a lot of humor.”

“How has this new normal changed your life? What sacrifices have you had to make?”
“My life is now a set of priorities and goals. I don’t get to do as much sewing or going out with my friends. I genuinely budget my time, rearranging my schedule to care for Mom. My first priority is to my family; grandchildren, children, husband. But everyone knows of my commitment to being my Mother’s primary caregiver.”

“We’re entering the season of traditional holiday family celebrations. What are some of the changes that will happen in the next few months?”

“The first major change that happened was the regular Bible Study group that met at Mom’s house. Now they gather at my Mother’s assisted living home in a beautiful room with coffee and pastries, and even new members from the home. The annual October wiener roast is coming up and I’m trying to find a new place so Mom can go and continue that tradition in her life. Obviously, she cannot host Thanksgiving or Christmas, but someone will step up and volunteer to host the family.”
“Is there anything else you would like to add?”

“Just a few more points. I’ve had to learn not to ignore an issue or problem and I can’t worry about it. Prayer has been so important.”
If your life has changed and what you were used to no longer exists, it’s time to find a new normal for you and your senior family member. Change is never easy but accepting change, working through the challenges of change, and learning to live in the midst of change is vital for growth and happiness. When I face change, like my Sister-in-Law, I pray a lot. And I usually begin with this prayer attributed to Dr. Reinhold Neibuhr in 1937…

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
May all the dirt that comes our way and seeks to bury us become our blessings as we (the second verse of the Serenity Prayer)…

“Live one day at a time; enjoy one moment at a time and accept hardships as the pathway to peace.”