How often have you asked yourself, "Am I doing this right? What can I do to make this better?"
The problem with coping with an elder in declining health is that they aren't going to get well. They are, in all probability, going to get worse. That is one reason I'm so devoted to the hospice concept. The idea behind hospice care is that no one needs to die in pain. Their aim is to find an area of contentment for the patient as well as the family.
Our culture has an ingrained attitude, some of it from the huge medical advancements of the last decades, that to allow death is somehow to admit failure. Death is part of the life cycle. No amount of scientific advancement is going to change that. We, as a culture, must learn when enough is enough. When trying to cure is trying to play God. When never giving up on more treatment is putting the patient through unnecessary pain and misery, because we, the family, don't want to let go.
On a recent Good Morning America broadcast, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor talked about her husband and his Alzheimer's disease. She's a wise woman. The core of her interview was that "contentment is success."
My dad spent ten years in a demented hell because brain surgery, mean to correct complications from a World War II brain injury, went horribly wrong. He went into surgery Dad. He came out a miserable man with a voice in his head we came to call Herman. The helplessness we, his family, felt was nearly overwhelming. His mental misery, his self-knowledge that he wasn't mentally the person he was before the surgery, was devastating to watch.
If he didn't know how he'd been damaged, it wouldn't have been so hard. But he did. And often the anxiety was so bad that nothing we did could help him. However, I did find ways to, at least sometimes, tame the tigers in his brain.
I was able to get into his head and find what most frustrated him. Was he expecting to hear from the mayor? Then, my friends, he heard from the mayor. He'd get a letter in the mail (written by me) from our then mayor, asking his advice on some city problem. Was he into music so much he wanted to conduct Lawrence Welk's band? Well, he then received a conductor's baton and could conduct as he watched Welk on TV.
Often, these efforts on my part would make Dad, for the moment, content. What a gift that was! When I left him sitting in his room at Rosewood with a content smile on his face, I knew the feeling of success.
Could I make Dad well? Unfortunately, no. But on the occasions I could help make him content - when I could add to his quality of life with no worry about the quantity of his life, then I felt the rush of success. Even if it just lasted moments, it still felt good.
O'Connor's point is one I strongly recommend caregivers consider. If you can't cure your loved one, then work toward contentment. You won't succeed all the time. In fact, with Alzheimer's in the picture, you often won't succeed. And you can't go on a guilt trip over it. You can only do what you can do. But, when you accept the fact that medicine cannot cure your loved one, you are then freed to look for ways to help him or her find contentment. And you will, for at least that moment, know in your heart that you are a success.
Published On: March 10, 2009