6 Years Later, Caregiving Lessons Learned From My Parents
Yesterday was a little bittersweet here in the Martin household. We were celebrating getting about five inches of rain over the previous days, which is important since much of our state is in a drought. But we were left with cloud cover pretty much all day, which kind of described my mood as well. Why? Well, Sunday, Sept. 29 marked the sixth anniversary of Mom’s death due to Alzheimer’s disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). That knowledge itself would have made Sunday an introspective time, but I had more to think on since I’ve assumed caregiving duties for my elderly father, who currently lives with me. He increasingly is facing health challenges (although, fortunately, not dementia).
So in thinking back to Mom’s final days and combining them with my current caregiving challenges, here are my musings that may be of help to other caregivers:
- Sometimes life offers caregivers reasons to refocus - and we need to take them! My father suffered a series of health issues this summer and I found my stress level going through the roof because I couldn’t get ahead of the curve and get things under control as far as my dad’s health, my own work as well as my graduate school assignments. About that time, two things happened that allowed me to be a voyeur in someone else’s grieving process. The first was following NPR’s Scott Simon as he tweeted about his time at his mom’s hospital bed during her final days. Secondly, I saw a Facebook post from a friend whose husband lost his long battle against cancer. When combined, these two stories served as a reminder to me to relax and respect the ride that we as caregivers are on. Yes, some days are more difficult than others, but taking time to enjoy the relationship you have with a loved one is really important, especially when the end of life is approaching.
- When you’re caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, you’re going through the mourning process twice. Yesterday in a note asking friends to support my participation in the upcoming Walk to End Alzheimer’s, I wrote, “…I have to tell you that we had already lost Mom several years before as Alzheimer's took over her mind. So the loss of Mom's body, while terribly sad, was almost a relief. We already had lost Mom's fierce intellect, her compassion and her strong sense of independence. Instead, we had watched Mom think she was in a busy airport concourse when in reality she was by the nurse's station. We heard her talking about going back to the hotel room when she was actually heading back to her room in the nursing home. We calmed her when she talked about almost being a ‘crispy critter’ due to a fire in the nursing home courtyard (which, in actuality, was a report of a fire in West Texas that she had seen on the news). I kept a calm demeanor when Mom told me that I wasn't her daughter; that, instead, I was her niece.” Therefore, Dad started losing Mom in 2002 while I would put the point where I lost her as 2005. However, her physical body didn’t die until 2007.
- They never leave you. With all of that said, I can tell you that ever since Mom’s death in 2007 I have a recurring dream about her. In that dream, I keep telling people I interact with that Mom is still alive, despite dying from Alzheimer’s disease and being cremated. I find myself wondering in the dream how this is possible. And most of the time Mom shows up in my dreams. When she does, it’s Mom at her mental and physical best, not the person who was gasping for air and totally lost in the world around her.
Caregiving for a loved one is one of the hardest – and most important – opportunities we’re given during our lives. I hope you’ll make the most of it by spending quality time with your loved one, even during the trying times. It’s those memories you’ll turn to in the future.