To Hospice Caregivers: You Don’t Have to be Perfect

People say it all the time . . . That’s perfect!

  • How’d the apple pie she made taste? It was perfect!
  • Did you have a good time on the date? Everything went perfectly!
  • Did you like that new restaurant? What a perfect place!

Not long ago, during a hospice team meeting, we reviewed a family’s struggle to care for a dying loved one. While hospice isn’t present 24/7 in the home, we are always on-call to answer questions from the patient’s caregivers . . . their sons, daughters, spouses, parents and friends. Most concerns can be answered on the phone, others may need a visit from hospice staff. This particular family kept calling, early and often. They wanted to be sure medications were properly given. They were troubled when their loved seemed too drowsy or didn’t eat as much as expected. Several family members debated about giving too much or too little of a particular medication.

None of their worries, and none of their debates, created serious problems for the hospice patient; she likely never knew how many calls were made to clarify decisions.

Our hospice doctor listened to the nurses and social worker’s describe the family’s quest for doing everything right. At one point, the doctor said, “Isn’t there some catchphrase about ‘the perfect is not as good as the good’?” Then the doctor grinned. “No, that’s not quite it. Maybe it goes, ‘Good is better than perfect’ . . . no, that’s not it either . . .”

After giving up on recalling the exact words (the good doctor was far from perfect in his memory!), the hospice team continued to chat about how family’s feel when caring for a parent, grandparent, child, spouse or dear friend. Too often caregivers do seek the impossible: being perfect.

Later, I searched for the phrase the doctor imperfectly remembered:

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Doesn’t perfect mean without equal? Perfect doesn’t hang around with oddities, flaws or self-doubt. It’s the absence of mistakes. Any mistakes.

I’ve observed red-tailed hawks in my backyard soar effortlessly through trees thick with summer growth and land on a single, flimsy branch. I’ve watched our cats—right now Milo rules the neighborhood—stalking mice or squirrels. He freezes into a position, sublime and still. In South Dakota I witnessed a herd of pronghorn antelope never break stride as they effortlessly floated over a fence. Then they glided across a meadow and vanished from sight. Had I dreamed them? Every movement of the hawk, cat, and antelopes appeared so . . . perfect.

But nothing is perfect. Is it?

All who care for a hospice patient will fall short of their self-imposed expectations. Oops is part of being human. Caregivers will have doubts; they will check and double-check a dosage and still not be 100% sure. In the quest to care for a loved one, try to let go of perfection. Be the good but not perfect daughter to the father, the good but not perfect husband to the wife and the good but not perfect grandchild to the grandmother.

By background, I’m a United Methodist pastor. Years ago, when preaching on a weekly basis, one of my frequent sources for insight were the books of writer-physician Dr. Lewis Thomas (who died in 1993). His essays, with musings on biology, medicine, and foolish humans were a delight. More than a few times, I paraphrased his view that, “The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.”

Humans make mistakes. And learn.

We blunder. And can keep going.

We forget. And then remember.

We are so, so, so hard on ourselves.

Sometimes our willingness to forgive is openly shared with everyone else, but not with “me.” Please, don’t burden yourself with perfection as you care for another.

I believe that trying to be good, rather than seeking the never attainable “perfect,” can give caregivers more time for reassuring hugs, expressions of gratitude, and to share memories.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. What a wonderful article! I often find that families strive to be perfect for their loved ones and worry over every little decision. The result is a stressed out family that isn’t able to create as many wonderful last memories that they will treasure for years to come. No one has ever said “I wish we had spent more time making tiny decisions.” They say, “I wish we had spent less time worrying and more time together!”

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