My family’s life turned upside down shortly before Thanksgiving 2011. Dad had a major stroke and too much time passed before he was correctly diagnosed, meaning he missed the window for getting treatments that might have diminished the effects of the stroke. That was mistake No. 1. Dad, an extremely active 80 year old, suddenly faced life in a wheelchair, which for him was a death sentence.
The dream home my parents built wasn’t designed for someone in a wheelchair. That was mistake No. 2. Dad was moved to an assisted living facility until endless bouts of urinary tract infections led to a permanent catheter and a nursing home. Mom’s daily routine became waiting on him from sun up to sun down. Afterward she would go to a dark house and work until bedtime making sure the animals were fed and the bills were paid. In a matter of months, Dad’s physical and mental decline began to take a toll on her.
Mistake No. 3 was not realizing how Mom had sacrificed her own health to take care of Dad. She delayed bunion surgery because of his stroke and walking became torturous for her. One night, limping to the bathroom, she fell and broke her hip. Mistake No. 4 was not insisting that Mom get help so that she could rest and take care of herself. (My sister, the only one of the family who lives near my parents, was battling breast cancer. My brother and I live hours away.)
Dad died the week mom fell. It sounds like a country western song, doesn’t it? But looking back now I see there were things we could have done … things I wish I would have known.
Recently I attended a “Caring for the Caregiver” class sponsored by Norton Healthcare. Nancy Orr-Rainey, a geriatric researcher, author and nurse, was the speaker and she was fantastic. First, she asked the attendees what they were having the most problems with in their lives as caregivers.
One woman asked, “How do you keep from getting so mad, especially when your loved one develops dementia?” Nancy says quit arguing over things that don’t make sense. She says arguing only keeps the crazy talk alive. Instead, she suggests apologizing for the disagreement and switching gears to something your loved one remembers fondly. Nancy says those with Alzheimer’s or dementia may not remember daily details, but they do know when they’re happy. And yesteryear makes them happy.
Another idea is to find some place or someone to help the caregiver get a break. That could be a senior day out program or a sitter. Nancy says more and more adult day centers are opening, and many of them are qualified to dispense medicines and/or provide therapy if necessary.
Someone then asked, “What if they won’t go to adult day care?” Nancy jokingly said too bad while adding, “If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your loved ones. Go with them to the adult day center in the beginning and often you’ll find that they like the new routine.”
Nancy says it’s also important to keep all family members in the loop about what’s going on with the failing health of a loved one. Otherwise they don’t understand how serious the situation has become and may not realize how important it is for them to join the caregiving team. Additionally, she recommends researching all the resources available to help caregivers. There are Veterans Affairs programs, Medicare and Medicaid, YMCA programs and more. What you can’t do is allow the burden to fall to one person in the family.
That reminded me of the announcement they make before an airplane takes off about using oxygen in an emergency: Put your mask on first and then put the mask on your children. When the roles of parents and children are reversed, it’s the same way — You’ve got to take care of yourself in order to take care of others.
The “Caring for the Caregiver” class I attended is part of Norton Audubon Hospital’s Wellness for Life series. It’s a popular class and therefore usually offered once a year.
Check the Wellness for Life Web page for updates about class offerings.