Archive for March, 2013

The Gift of Wisdom

“Age before beauty?” Or something like that.

I’m neither beautiful nor old, but I’m wise enough now to appreciate how much my mother taught me after she suffered a stroke. Before then, she was just “Mom.” That should’ve been enough, right? But that mother/daughter angst grew with every birthday I celebrated, so by the time I turned 40, Mom was more a nuisance than anything. Sure, I loved her–I always loved her–but it wasn’t until I thought she was dead that I realized I needed her in my life more than I could have imagined.

In October, 2002, I stood just outside her apartment, waiting for a cop to bust down her door. From the hallway, I knew something was terribly wrong. She hadn’t answered her phone at all that day, and from the crack beneath her door, I could tell it was pitch black in there save the light from a TV, and the smell of urine blasted into the hall. She was dead, I was sure of it, and my heart and soul were filled with a deep sorrow for having squandered the meaningful relationship we could have had if only I’d let her into my life a little more.

In  my memoir, I reflect on our final journey together, the one where I was cast as my mother’s caregiver for nineteen months before she died from lung cancer. It was a life-changing journey, one where I finally appreciated her for the imperfect woman she was and not the perfect mother I’d always expected her to be. She exuberated strength and acceptance of her dreadful condition then. But she’d always been a strong woman whose faith carried her through a rough life that was chock-full of challenges; I’d just never appreciated it before then.

Although her stroke virtually muted her memory and voice, she imparted a special wisdom I absorbed throughout those nineteen months. She became my teacher in the classroom of hospitals and nursing homes, where I spent so much time with her then. She taught me the true meaning of resilience and wisdom, virtues that can only come about as part of the aging process.

And so I leave you with these “Papal Pearls of Wisdom” on this Good Friday.

  • “It’s beautiful to be old. … The quality of a society, I’d say of a civilization, is judged by how well it treats its elderly.”  —Benedict XVI (served from 2005 to 2013), speaking to a group of elderly residents of Rome in November 2012
  • “It is within the family that the elderly ought to find their first field of action. Their wisdom and experience are a treasure to the young married fold who, in the difficulties of early married life, can find in aged parents agreeable counselors and confidants, while the children will find in the example and affectionate care of their grandparents something which will compensate for the absences of the parents, which, for various reasons, are so frequent today.” —John Paul II (1978-2005), in a May 1982 message
  • “Elderly people help us to see human affairs with greater wisdom, because life’s vicissitudes have brought them knowledge and maturity. They are the guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society.” —John Paul II, Letter to the Elderly, Oct. 1, 1999
  • “While speaking of older people, I would also say a word to the young, to invite them to remain close to the elderly. … I urge you to do this with great love and generosity. Older people can give you much more than you can imagine.” —John Paul II, Letter to the Elderly, Oct. 1, 1999
  • “Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.” —Paul VI ( 1963-1978)
  • “The older the fiddler, the sweeter the tune.” —Paul VI
  • “We have arrived at the start of our 82nd year. Will we arrive at the end of it? We are not excessively concerned.”  —John XXIII (1958-1963), in an address at a celebration of his 81st birthday in November 1962
  • “When the body gets worn out, the soul gets in shape.” —John XXIII

Taking Care

I’m sure most of us have heard or read about caregiver burnout and how to avoid it, or at least alleviate it. You know, things like take time out for yourself to exercise. Eat healthfully. Get plenty of sleep. Join a support group. Maintain a social life.

Good advice, all, but realistic? Maybe for others, but not for me.

During the nineteen months between my mother’s stroke and death, I barely had enough time to navigate the strange, new world of Mom’s debilitating stroke and aftercare, let alone remember to nurture myself. That took planning, and planning was more work, and Lord knows I didn’t need more of that in my life.

I worked during the day, my husband worked at night, and my children were young and needed my full attention during my parenting shift. My sister lived two hours away, and after our mom’s initial stroke emergency, she only came to visit every two months or so, and I had no other family, let alone friends, to pitch in and provide respite. I’d accrued plenty of vacation days at my job, but those days  morphed into “Mom Days” when I would call my mother’s doctors or Legal Aid, or visit various government offices to sort through her social security and Medicaid affairs, to name a few. In between, I spent my spare time in my mother’s room wherever she was, visiting with and caring for her, wishing I could do more for her.

I’ve talked to other caregivers. I’ve read memoirs written by caregivers.  And my journey with my mother inspired me to write my own memoir. There is rarely any spare time to pamper ourselves; getting through the routine of the day is difficult enough. And that, my friends, is the reality.

So what’s a caregiver to do? Here’s a short list of things I did, or wished I’d done:

  • Gently greet the new day. It may help to set your alarm a little early so you’re not rushed out of a relaxed state. Stretch. Start writing in a journal. Read a book that inspires you. Meditate. Take a long, warm bath instead of a quick shower.
  • Take up a hobby or start (or finish) a craft project. I like to knit. I know others prefer to crochet. Sometimes, I lose myself in whatever thoughts are vying for my attention. Sometimes, I pray. Avoid a craft that may cause stress. (For me, that would be sewing.)
  • Learn to play a musical instrument, or if you already know how to play something, pick it back up.
  • Watch movies. When my mom was in a nursing home, I’d always bring plenty of videos for us to watch together. (“Grumpy Old Men” was our favorite, and Mom and I both laughed until we cried.”) Never watched so many movies in my life, and it definitely provided an escape for a little while.
  • Learn to say “No” to the things you don’t want or have time to do, and reserve “Yes” for the things you enjoy.
  • Seek out friends or family who are positive and avoid toxic energy whenever you can.

You’re the person holding everything together, so caring for yourself needs to be your number one priority. By tuning in to your own needs, hopefully you can recognize the positive impact you are having on your loved one’s life and appreciate your selflessness. You’re doing the very, very best you can, and you should be proud of yourself.

What are some of the things you do to relieve caregiver burnout?

We Can Do Better

Aging with Dignity Logo

Aging with Dignity Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my country, I’m afraid to grow old. When I turned 50 earlier this year, I defined my new age as the “winter of my life.” Old age does not run in my family–my dad died when he was 32, my mom, 68–and I figure if I see 70, I’ll be lucky.

Or not.

My mother was on Medicare when she suffered her stroke. The brain bleed event rendered her physically disabled, but almost worse, mentally impaired. She lacked cognition. Judgment. Short-term memory, and what one doctor considered “remarkable,” extensive long-term memory damage as well. As such, Mom required 24-hour acute nursing supervision the rest of her life.

When she ran out of Medicare dollars, my mother automatically qualified for Medicaid. You know, the “social program” many politicians and a large segment of society consider a “drain” on our country’s economy. Before my mother was discharged from the hospital three weeks after her stroke, the staff social worker told me that transferring Mom to a swanky assisted living facility was not an option because she lacked private insurance.

Moving my mother in with me wasn’t an option, either. My family and I were renters, without the funds or ability to make our home ADA compliant. We also couldn’t provide my mother with the requisite around-the-clock supervision she needed. There was only one nursing home with an available bed, and after my sister and I toured that facility, I recorded my observations in my memoir:

Right beyond the lobby, we were assaulted with every stereotype associated with nursing homes: Residents moaning from their beds or roaming the halls like zombies without a nurse or aide in sight. A stainless steel food cart filled with trays and dirty dishes from breakfast a few hours earlier. A resident languishing in the hallway, slumped over in a wheelchair in a soiled gown, snoring.  And the urine. God, it was so thick, I couldn’t smell anything else. I shuddered to think of the bed sores that must have been brewing under all those Depends.

While our country is quick to cast aside the aged and the infirm, as well as their caregivers, other countries are doing it better. An article I read this morning demonstrates this. In “The Nursing Home is the Last Resort: ‘Lessons from Abroad’ on Caring for an Aging population, I learned families in Norway receive money to help caregivers bring their aging parents home with them, and nursing homes seem to be the last resort. And in the Netherlands, the government provides funds for the elderly to assess their needs and enable them to live independently as long as possible.

I eventually came up with a short-term solution before I found a suitable long-term care facility, where my mother lived the rest of her life. However,  it would have been such a relief to have had a better alternative. Because Mom’s sudden stroke debilitated her instantly, I was shell-shocked, mentally and emotionally, and I had no idea what I was doing. I’m sure I’m not the only caregiver who has felt this way.

What are your experiences in this particular caregiving journey? How did you cope?