A colleague from work called me recently about some projects which we were working on. During our conversation, she seemed a little distracted, and soon I discovered why: she had just received word that her mother had been diagnosed with dementia.
Our phone conversation caused me to flash back to the feelings I had when I first found out that Mom had Alzheimer’s disease. At that point in 2005, I had thought Mom’s major health issues were her advanced stage of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) as well as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). After seeing Mom’s mental deterioration and uncharacteristic behaviors which triggered a series of events leading to the decision to place my very independent mother in a secure unit at a nursing home, I had the “deer caught in the headlights” look for quite a while.
I felt as if my world was spinning out of control and no one could adequately prepare me for dealing with the new world of caregiving I was now entering.
In the April 2007 issue of O Magazine, Martha Beck writes about how to get past panic and stress in an article titled. "The Panic Button." Her suggestions describe how to survive an onslaught when your world is turned upside down. Her suggestions (and my comments related to caregiving) follow:
1. Go Ahead and Freak Out – In her column, Martha points to a study by Dr. Peter Levine that found that people, unlike animals, try to subdue physical “emergency” reactions caused by a crisis. Dr. Levine found that people who go on and have these emergency reactions often are able to cope better with the crisis and often exhibit fewer symptoms of the trauma afterwards than people who control everything and appear to remain steady.
Although my own tendency is to try to remain calm in stressful times (thanks to being trained to work on tight newspaper deadlines), Mom’s diagnosis felt like a huge crisis that consumed my whole world. And yes, the situation did overcome me physically; at various times during September 2005, I found myself shaking uncontrollably and one time had to pull my car off the road so I could just sob loudly for a long period of time. After that release of pent up reactions, I was able to better focus on dealing with Mom’s issues and making the necessary decisions.
2. Release Your Expectations – Martha notes that in a time of crisis, you need to realize that the situation will be resolved at some future point, but until that happens, you have to accommodate the situation. Thus, you have to change schedules and let go of expectations.
In my case, I had just started a graduate assistant job on September 1, 2005 and was a full-time student (taking three classes). As Mom’s situation began to unfold, I got in touch with the professor who is my doctoral chair to explain the crisis I was experiencing. He then contacted the professor I was working for (who at that point, I hadn’t met) as well as the departmental chairman. I also contacted my course instructors to explain Mom’s situation and then kept them regularly informed of issues that arose during that fall. Fortunately, everyone cut me slack so I could have time to deal with Mom’s issues and still continue with my doctoral studies (albeit at a slower pace).