caregivingI’ve been a volunteer caregiver for about 25 years now and know well that it is undoubtedly the most difficult and underappreciated job on the planet. However, in caring for my own father, I found that it is also a privilege and a sacred trust, sharing the most meaningful moments of your loved one’s life. But amid the cleaning, meal planning and cooking, and arranging medications and doctor visits, exhaustion can consume you, making time pass by without you being able to fully appreciate precious final years — possibly even days.

I am most grateful for the time we had to just sit and talk over dinner, watch TV, or discuss current events and politics. Over the dinner table, the greatest blessings were stories of my parents’ early life growing up with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, about how they met and fell in love, and handled the challenges of their careers and young parenthood. Even if I’d heard the stories many times before, I was so thankful for the repetition so I could remember them later.

I am so fortunate that I was able to reduce my work hours significantly during this time, as I fully realize many caregivers must juggle work and family obligations in addition to caregiving responsibilities. One of the first things I did to celebrate my retirement was to go on a cruise with my parents, husband and daughter. Yes, it took some work to manage the wheelchairs, walkers and extra baggage — and it was expensive — but the experience was priceless. We saw the Panama Canal, and Central and South America, but what I remember most was our daily walks on the promenade deck, marveling at all the shades of blue on the open ocean, and enjoying a fine-dining experience every night with lovely, leisurely and stimulating dinner conversations.

I arranged to take my mom and dad, a WWII veteran, to the 2015 Pearl Harbor commemoration on Dec. 7. The honor and privilege of sitting among those aging heroes is one I will never forget or take for granted. My father has always been my hero, but it filled my heart with joy to witness him being accorded such respect and gratitude by people who did not have the pleasure of really knowing him. After the early morning program, we had lunch together and I learned more about my parents’ wartime experiences and my dad’s years of service in the Navy and National Guard.

I guess what I’m saying is that the love that we share with friends and family is the only thing that really matters in the end. Even in my volunteer caregiving experience, I found the greatest blessings in those quiet moments when stories of a precious life unfold. Take time to sit and talk, hold hands, share hugs and listen with your heart wide open. The treasures you find will rejuvenate and inspire you for the rest of your life.