Caregiving Lessons Learned from Hurricane Betty
I continue to contemplate the caregiving lessons that I learned from Hurricane Betty.
I can hear you thinking I’m off my rocker because the hurricane we’re all worried about is Hurricane Isaac. And if you go do a quick Google search using hurricane, storm and Betty as your keywords, you’ll find that Hurricane Betty was on August 27, 1972 and it was the strongest hurricane of the season with 105-mph winds. However, it stayed out to sea and didn’t do any damage.
But that’s not the one I’m talking about. The Hurricane Betty I’m referring to happened in late-August through September 2005, right in between Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike. Haven’t heard about that one? Well, Hurricane Betty is the name I gave to the period of time when my mother – Betty – engulfed my life with health issues until we finally received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease for her and she was placed in a nursing home.
Up until that time, I was living in a town seven hours away from my parents and could only gauge what was going on from phone conversations. But Mom called one day in tears and I knew I had to step in. That’s when all heck broke loose, thus causing me in retrospect to call this period of time “Hurricane Betty.”
So in retrospect, what caregiving lessons did I learn? Here goes:
- Verify everything. By the time I stepped in, Mom and Dad had been fighting like cats and dogs so they had stopped truly listening to each other (and Mom had been diagnosed the previous year with mild cognitive impairment, so her memory was like Swiss cheese). What they each were telling me was true from their perspective, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I finally realized how bad things had gotten when I went to a doctor’s appointment with Mom for her Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). She agreed to let me join her in the examination room and grudgingly agreed to let Dad join us, as well. Before the doctor entered, a nurse came in to take Mom’s vital signs. I could see the astonished look on the nurse’s face as she reported that Mom’s blood pressure was 80/40. And I could see that this figure didn’t register as being dangerous to either my mother or father. That’s when I knew that I was going to have to really take control and be at the center of everything. I also learned to verify everything with the powers that be, as opposed to taking my mom’s – or my dad’s – word.
- Know that you’re going to lose control. After that doctor’s appointment, I asked Mom to move in with me until we could get a spot at a retirement community. She agreed and after a few days, we sent Dad driving back to their home in West Texas. I took over almost everything in Mom’s life – her medications, preparing all of her meals, even feeding and walking her dog, while also keeping my own life going –which at the time included a new job, freelance writing and graduate school. I was definitely in Type A mode, trying to keep all of these balls in the air. Needless to say, some things – like regularly cleaning the house – ended up moving down on my to-do list. Which brings me to the next lesson on my list…
- Ask for help. In times like this (and throughout the caregiving experience), it’s very easy to think that you can handle it all, but trust me, it’s much better to just seek out assistance. People do want to help but they often don’t know how. In my case, I talked to my new employer and she agreed to let me work from home so I could be available for Mom. I also talked to my professors who gave me slack in turning in assignments. I asked one of my neighbors to come sit with Mom while I went grocery shopping; it turns out that they had a wonderful visit. Another friend came and sat with Mom while I went to one of my classes. Others provided assistance in numerous ways, both large and small.
One month (and three emergency room visits for breathing issues) later, Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and placed in a nursing home due to her need for skilled nursing care. While she’s no longer alive, the lessons that I learned during that initial month of caring for her have also helped me in caring for Dad (who doesn’t have dementia) and just generally dealing with life in all its complexities. So while difficult to withstand, Hurricane Betty did offer some unexpected – and helpful – life lessons. I hope your experiences with Alzheimer’s have a similar silver lining.