Elephants and eldercare? Caregivers and elephants?
Got your attention?
I thought I would write about the unseen, yet apparent, bond that often develops between living intelligent beings when they experience life over time, and the journey toward the otherside. The awareness that ‘this side’ of death involves a complex cooperation between closely living beings such as in the caregiving relationship between the caregiver, the person who is the focus of care, and the other family members. This is how the dynamic of caregiving seems to me to be; it is the need for one to allow themselves to give much care to another in need, and the corresponding allowing of that care to be accepted by both the care recipient and the recipients extended family of loved ones. In truth, the act of giving care is a deep experience shared by all.
This bond of care can be shared by human caregivers and their cared for person, whether they be related by blood, friendship, love, marriage or the quid pro quo of a business relationship.
So, what do elephants and humans have in common?
Did you know that elephants are known to develop strong, intimate bonds between friends and family members? There have been reports of elephants forming lifelong friendships with eachother, and they mourn the death of their loved ones. Elephants have been known to linger near loved ones at end of life. They have been observed grieving over spots where their friends and family members faded and eventually, died. They have been spotted returning to death locations and gently using their mighty trunks to respectfully fondle remains of dearly departed friends or relatives.
You might say that is interesting elephant trivia, but what does that have to do with human caregivers? Well, it all goes back to that unseen bond I mentioned earlier.
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I believe many people, even caregivers themselves, under appreciate the unseen bond between caregivers and their charge. Also, I think many people, including caregivers, underestimate that people with whom we have more than casual contact often influence the behavior of the people with whom we are living or caring for so intimately. Caregivers can free up family members to sort out who will lead into the future. Caregivers can inadvertently facilitate the awareness in others of just how much a senior family member means to the group and how their passing will forever change many things. Caregivers effect the the lives of other humans with whom they share a home or this type of experience.
The importance of elderly matriarch elephants to elephant societies is legendary: They are the leaders of their herd and the “social glue” for maintaining group cohesion. The evidence is overwhelming that higher animal species have the same emotions humans do. The only animal species that modify their behavior due to familial bonds to accommodate the needs of an aging member of the family are Cetaceans (whales) and Pachyderms (elephants).
Whales have been seen to buoy up an ailing member of the pod (an extended family) to keep it from sinking. Elephants have the closest family ties of all animals, the eldest surviving female, the matriarch of a herd, might be the great, great, great grandmother to the youngest; and the others in varying relationships, are mothers, grandmothers, children, sisters, aunts and cousins. While the older always take care of and shelter the younger they also shelter and accommodate the oldest.
When the matriarch is dying of old age, and the herd is in an area where food and water are abundant, the rest of the herd will stay with her, comfort her with their trunks, caressing her, talking to her, vocalizing over her, never leaving her side. If in an area where resources are more scarce, while some are foraging, there will always be a group around her comforting her and expressing their love.
The herd will remain with her body, mourning, for several days, and even years later will still return to fondle her bones with their trunks. Eventually one of the matriarch’s daughters will be chosen as the new leader to follow. While humans are not so decidedly matriarchal, human families do, even if it is unspoken, accept a new leader in the family and carry on with living. What’s more, there is an entire industry humans have developed for grave maintenance, and graveside visiting is even as a family ritual for many people. I wonder if eons ago we humans learned how to grieve and pay respects from elephants?
It could be argued that the elephants have some humans beat in this regard of devoted elder care. Nevertheless, this is why I believe caregivers, whether by blood, love or commerce, have much in common with elephants. They are (usually) lovingly care for their elder until the end. I find that kind of loyalty and devotion to be not enough acknowledged, let alone heralded.
So, to all you caregivers, hats off and thank you for paying it forward. May you be blessed with compassionate care when your time comes.
And keep in mind…
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Author: Dr. Cathleen V Carr