The Caregiver Benefits of Silence and Solitude

This morning, I have no intention of getting dressed.  I have a cold and sore throat, but I’m not complaining, because I’m tucked up in a cosy robe, reading in a blissfully quiet house.  An hour ago, I settled on the sofa with my coffee and “The Guardian” newspaper open on my laptop.  I began to read an article by Sara Maitland called “Why Do We Have Such a Problem With Being Alone?”  Maitland is a fascinating woman and someone I instinctively like.  In her former life, she was a great hostess of interesting dinner parties and friend to many, a self-confessed ‘chatterbox’.  Now, she lives alone in a remote moor in southwest Scotland.  The closest grocery store is 20 miles away.

Maitland questions why, in our society, we mistrust, fear or condemn those who would choose solitude as a lifestyle.  Her article is riveting for anyone who has ever had isolation thrust upon them, or has wished for and chosen solitude as a preferred state of being.

Caregivers know a lot about solitude, isolation, being alone, call it what you will.  Silence and solitude can be intolerable, especially for anyone with mental illness.  Even healthy people who are not used to being alone may feel anxious and desperate for company when alone.  Some may argue that our society, with its constant chatter of sound-bites, mini narratives and inspirational quotes has made us immune to the benefits of solitude – we have lost the knack of enjoying our own company.

Such a state is a double blow for caregivers who feel a burden of care for their loved one.  Mystics and religious scholars write about what it means to be human and how, sometimes, we can find that meaning in silence and solitude.  Hans Reinders is a Christian scholar whose academic specialty is cognitive disability.  He quotes a mother of a young man with severe disabilities:

For many, many years, I was confined to the house,  alone and without the support of friends or relatives.  My husband was at work all day and I was alone with Oliver and the other five children.  This enforced seclusion was difficult for me, I had a restless, seeking spirit.  Through Oliver, I was held still.  I was forced to embrace a silence and solitude where I was “forced to prepare the way of the Lord.”  Sorrow opened my heart and I “died.”  I underwent this “death” unaware that it was a trial by fire from which I would rise renewed – more powerfully, more consciously alive. (Hans Reinders, “Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology and Ethics”, 2008)

I know what that mother is talking about – making peace with solitude and with oneself is a trying, but ultimately rewarding process.  That mother’s son Oliver and my son Nicholas were the catalysts in helping us to understand this life lesson.  What I am talking about here is banishing the sense that the caregiver will constantly strive to be somewhere other than at peace and at home, giving care to someone she loves.  I think I am trying to say that the capability to be happy in solitude is an important element of the capability to give good care.

Sara Maitland has written several books about her chosen lifestyle and its meanings.  Here is what
Kathleen Jamie wrote in her Review of Maitland’s “A Book of Silence”:

But what is silence? Well, that’s the rub. It’s more difficult to define than you might at first imagine, and much of the book is an exploration of different kinds and uses of silences, and different silent places: deserts, islands. Silence, it might be said, is that which the modern world is seeking to banish. The world, and human lives, have never been so noise-filled. It’s not just talk, of course, but machinery and communications and entertainment. It’s hard sometimes to imagine that the planet, without the internal combustion engine, is actually pretty quiet. Is it an absence or a presence? A liberation or a captivity? Silencing is what the oppressed suffer, and silence – or solitude, the two seem synonymous – is what the desert fathers sought. 

It’s funny that I usually write about the benefits of support networks, of the benefits of sociability for caregivers and their loved ones.  But as caregivers, what are the tools we need to derive benefit from sociability? We need to connect in ways that reflect and respond to our authentic experience with matters of love, life and death.  Silence and solitude help us do that.