Courtesy of Steve Jobs, A Caregiver’s Commencement Speech

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What can a caregiver learn from a commencement speech?

(Particularly when that speech was delivered by a technology icon to thousands of young adults, graduating from one of the world's most celebrated institutions of higher education).

The obvious answer may seem to be "nothing."

After all, the majority of caregivers are many years removed from their last graduation. Life has the unfortunate ability to dull the messages of hope and promise infused in commencement speeches. As time passes, life's inevitable losses add up, and youthful optimism gives way under the daunting assault of reality.

But, the recent death of Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple, has caused many to recall the powerful messages contained in his 2005 address to a group of Stanford graduates—messages which transcend age brackets and demographics, aiming at the essence of human existence.

Even people caring for an elderly loved one can benefit from being reminded of some of these lessons—even though they came from the mouth of a man barely old enough to join AARP.

In his address, Jobs discusses three main concepts of great import to recent college graduates; death, love and loss, and the connectedness of life.

Now, trying to educate a caregiver about love, loss, and death would be insultingly presumptuous to say the least. If you're caring for an elderly person, then you are already intimately familiar with the fragility of life and the crushing reality of loss.

No, for a caregiver, the most relevant element of Jobs' speech is undoubtedly his message about "connecting the dots." During his address, Jobs discusses the winding, bramble-covered path that led him to his current position. In one of the most poignant statements of the entire address, he says, "you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards."

This point is as true for caregivers as it is for business moguls—maybe even more so.

Caring for an elderly person is a task rife with pain and difficulty and, when you're in the weeds, it can be impossible to see how things are ever going to work out.

It is during these times—when a dementia-stricken elderly parent is hitting and screaming at you while you're changing your umpteenth adult diaper—that knowing the dots in your life will eventually connect is most important.

They may not connect in the way you originally envisioned on your graduation day. Your picture may have awkward lines, painful smudges, and obvious eraser marks, but it is yours. Learning to appreciate that picture, despite its flaws, can be a freeing revelation for any caregiver.

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4 Comments

What is the author talking about? I don't get it. I don't really think that in the future I'll find some "meaning" to the years spent in caregiving a person who has always been against me and whose values I detest. What is the author trying to do? Make some sense out of this irrational and unlucky situation?
Thanks, Anne-Marie. I sat in my car listening to the Jobs speech yesterday, thinking of the unique person I was created to be and how I need to get back to being that person. Yes, it may be hard to do right now with helping care for my mom, but your pointing the connect the dots part of the speech is a hopeful statement for me. That's for me. I hear MaggieSue's pain and anger, and I in no way mean to denigrate it or ignore it or seem Pollyannish. I just wanted to affirm that for me in my situation, it's a hopeful quote that made me tear up.
Steve Jobs was a remarkable person. His 2005 commencement speech was remarkable.

But pulling a few sentences out of context and trying to make them fit a caregiving situation seems almost disrespectful. It seems like a marketing ploy.

Maggiesue, hearing or reading the entire short speech might make a lot more sense to you than this article does. Jobs explains why he dropped out of college and how good that move turned out to be. (Maybe if you dropped out of caregiving that would be good too. It is worth a thought.) He talks about imagining that this were the last day of your life. Would you still want to do what you are doing? If the answer is no for many days in a row, maybe that is a sign that you should change what you are doing. Some things in our lives that seem really awful at the time (in his case, being fired from the company he started) turn out to have been for the best, but you can't tell that until you are well past the event.

It is a brilliant commencement speech. It is not intended as advice on whether and how to raise children or caregive aging parents. It isn't about marriage or politics or religion. It is profound within it own limited sphere. It isn't necessary (or appropriate, in my opinion) to pull it out of context and make something different of it than it was.