Sunday, October 21, 2018

King Lear--A Story of Adult Children Caregivers

Now, maybe you’re thinking that Shakespeare didn’t write a play about family caregivers, and that I, duh, missed the point of possibly his greatest play. But I’ll debate you on that.

This afternoon I went to my local theater to see this magnificent literary work as a live feed from London. The movie theater audience watched the play as it was being performed on stage—live—in London. The lead role—King Lear—played by the great actor Ian McKellan.

During the curtain speech to the audience--to the London audience and the audiences watching the live feed around the world-- it was suggested that the play is the play and that we were likely to see politicians we know, family members, friends, public figures represented.

That’s the thing with Shakespeare isn’t it—what we mean when we say his work is universal…the issues and perspectives and personalities are universal.

So, as I watched this powerful story played out on stage and screen I kept thinking, “That’s exactly what happens to adult children as family caregivers.” And I think that if you have ever been in that caregiving role, or if you are a parent or grandparent being cared for by adult children, you’ll recognize these dynamics as well. Sometimes the actor’s lines felt like they were written just yesterday by someone’s sister or someone’s daughter-in-law.

The story of King Lear, you may remember from ages ago, is about the aging (and possibly dementing) King, and his three daughters Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. As the play opens he is asking them to declare how much they love him. (Like a really bad Thanksgiving dinner table scene).

They each profess to love their father to the moon and back, but youngest daughter Cordelia, calls out her sisters on their insincerity—and sort of says, “Dad, I love you and you know that, isn’t that enough?” But Lear gets pissed and divides his Kingdom between the older sisters, who—within minutes—are scheming to NOT have to take care of the old man.

Later, when there is an agreement that Dad will stay 100 days with each daughter for his care, the daughters can’t wait to hand him over to the other: “You take him now.” “No, you can take him sooner.” “He’s a mess when he’s here and it disrupts our whole household.” “Well, I don’t want him here.” And on and on.

And they call him old, and tell him he’s crazy, and they resent his illness and the messes he makes. They are ungrateful for sure, and from that comes one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."

Now, in real life as a caregiver, no one gets his eyes poked out, and not many people get stabbed as they do in King Lear, but we know that sibling relationships do take a hard beating when care of a parent is involved.

So, thank you to Bill Shakespeare and to Ian McKellan for this powerful verbal and visual reminder that caregiving stress is as old as time.

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