I tend to over complicate and over think the simple. For me, keeping it simple is an important way I preserve my energy and prevent burnout and fatigue. When we care for a disabled or aging loved one it can be challenging to take a break. I quickly become overwhelmed thinking of all the details involved in my mom’s routines, preference, medications, and daily living. Thus, when I think about writing it down into one document to share with her care team, I get overwhelmed. For me, keeping it simple involves a simple acronym: NICE. Breaking down respite planning into Needs, Information, Care Planning, and Enjoy helps me to remember the essential parts of planning for a break while at the same time keeping it simple.
“People tell you to keep your ‘courage’ up. But the time for courage is when she was sick, when I took care of her and saw her suffering, her sadness, and when I had to conceal my tears. Constantly one had to make a decision, put on a mask and that was courage.” -Roland Barthes
It can be overwhelming and even a little scary to leave your loved ones in the hands of complete strangers. Even leaving a person with PSP (or any debilitating illness), in the hands of family or loved ones who do not provide daily care can be somewhat nerve-wracking. But, without breaks caregivers are at risk for burnout, increased stress, and fatigue. In fact, when caregivers were studied it was determined that they experience a 23% higher level of stress hormones than non caregivers.
Negative Impact of Stress on the Caregiver
Stress negatively impacts our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For example, WebMD notes that increased stress is linked to higher incidents of alcohol use and abuse, sleep disturbances, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Even though we can feel guilty leaving our loved one in someone else’s care, it is critical to take breaks when we are able to. Without these breaks not only are we at risk for the above-mentioned health impacts but also, caregiver burnout can lead to increased impatience with our loved one.
Taking a Break from Caregiving
Respite care is an invaluable resource which caregivers can utilize for a break. While some people find that twenty-four hour or week-long respite care in a facility is the best choice for a loved one- even finding one afternoon a week can be enough to reduce some of the fatigue and stress associated with being a caregiver. There are several options for respite care. First, family and friends are often willing to provide a few hours of care. Second, Medicaid, Medicare, and other insurances will usually cover a few hours of in-home care time. The ARCH National Respite Network offers a comprehensive list of resources for finding for, paying for, and utilizing respite.
Once an alternative care provider is in place, the challenge becomes walking away. When you are the primary or even secondary caregiver, it can be very challenging to let go and give yourself the time away. I still remember the feelings of powerlessness I felt whenever I had to arrange for someone else to provide care for Mom. I constantly wondered how it was going? Was Mom happy? Was she getting her needs met? After Mom asked for and went to the nursing home, my sister and I called the facility way more often than we needed to.
The first morning Mom was in the nursing home I had extreme difficulty letting go, I didn’t know if they were helping her in the way she preferred, I was anxious about her inability to communicate her preferences, I was scared that the staff wouldn’t be patient or nice to her. Eventually, I made a binder of Mom’s preferences and needs that she can use to communicate with people on the days where she is not able to clearly talk. The binder combined with other assisted communication devices and the fact that they now know her has helped me to let go. When Mom was home, talking with and explaining her care to new caregivers allowed me to feel more confident in their ability to assist her.
One of the things that helped me to let go and take breaks was the knowledge that the person taking care of mom knew her routines and preferences. During the years of in-home care, my Dad would leave notes for the aides, and we would call at times. I talked about creating a worksheet and document about Mom’s needs, but, time was never on my side. The following is a worksheet that I wish I had developed for us to use when we left Mom in someone’s care: Caregiving Break- Worksheet (PDF Printable Version).
“’So what’s the point, then, if we can’t be happy? Why are we doing any of this?’ ‘Oh, there’s definitely happiness,’ Jack said, turning his back on the ocean and looking at her. ‘But it’s just about moments, not ever-afters.” He grinned. “Like when you’re right in the middle of the ocean with your friends, with no one trying to kill you in any kind of horrifying way. You have to appreciate these moments when they happen, ’cause obviously we don’t get many of them.’” -James Riley
I recently had the opportunity to reflect on the idea of “happy ever after” as it applies to my families’ future. At times during this experience, it has been easy to get lost in the hopeless, living one crisis to another. In my reflection on this I wrote, “For months, I had been in a state of survival. Living one crisis to the next and waiting for the damn phone to ring for the next one. From medication reactions to aides getting lost and Mom having to be trapped for hours without any assistance to falls that brought Kate and I to the ER…from suctioning food out of mom’s throat after a really bad choking incident to learning how to humbly with grace help my mom to use the toilet…watching someone die of this horrendously cruel illness has been the single most hardest thing that we have ever done.” In all of this suffering, it can be hard to find time to breath let alone hope or optimism for the future.
As I reflected further on the past several years of crisis, I found myself writing, “Every step of this journey, has been one thing after another and those things have been huge, time-consuming, painful, and have resulted in all of us having memories which we would prefer not to. But, in all of this suffering, there is joy. After almost losing Mom last weekend, I saw her on Wednesday and she spoke seven words in a row to me- something I did not think that I would ever hear from her again. That was a good day. This entire process has taught me valuable life lessons- for example, to be there for Mom I have given up a significant portion of my income. I would rather be living paycheck to paycheck and be there for Mom than have all the wealth in the world. But, anyway when that notice came as a family we were trying to figure out how to continue providing care for Mom with my illness getting worse, Dad’s financial situation which we all knew was not good, my brother’s grief related poor choices which were leading him down the wrong life path, plus our usual life stuff- Kate being the mom of a toddler, Emily living in NYC and dealing with guilt of not being closer, etc. That notice changed everything for me- I stopped surviving and starting focusing on other things.” From this low point in the journey, I made a conscious choice to prioritize. I found myself with two mantras which have served me well: 1. Not my monkey and 2. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Not my Monkey
Managing mom dying has taken considerable resources. We are lucky. There are five of us. For the first year, I wanted to be an active participant with all of it. From applying for benefits to funeral planning every part of it, I wanted to be involved in and helping with. But, we didn’t need five people on all of the tasks. Since my existential crisis and loss of faith, I have separate my monkeys from everyone else’s monkeys. For example, we recently had a situation that needed copious amounts of emails and phone calls. In this situation, there was not much I could offer to it. Rather than calling into conference calls and being an active part, I allowed my sisters to take the lead and had them merely CC me on the emails. In this way, I knew what was going on, but I freed up the time that I would otherwise have had to spend on the phone or participating actively. While they managed that, I spent time with Mom at the nursing home and helped with developing a new plan for eating. In another example, I am the weekday nursing home person. I am available during the week, so I visit on weekdays. On the weekend, I stay home and manage my own life. Sometimes I miss out on seeing extended family or visiting with my brother, but, I am able to have time at home to rest, work, grocery shop, etc. when I otherwise would not.
This is a Marathon Not a Sprint
We have limited time with Mom. In knowing that she is dying, it is tempting to spend every resource and every ounce of energy being with her. But, if I give ALL of my resources right now, I won’t have any for next month or next week. So, I have to prioritize and allow myself the ability to say “no.” Back when Mom was at home, I didn’t have many choices. The times and days I said I would be there she and Dad were counting on me. If I didn’t go then, Dad had to call out of work, or we would have had to deal with the agency and beg them to find someone to step in. Mom’s days were always harder with the agency, and there was enormous pressure to make sure that no matter what I was there. Now, even though Mom has skilled nursing care at the nursing home, I still feel these pressures. When I tell Mom I am going to be there; I show up. No matter what. But, it is on me to manage when I am going to show up and what I tell her. It is also on me to recognize and forgive myself when I can’t. It is a constant readjustment of boundaries, schedules, and knowing that if I have nothing left over, then I am no good to anyone.
I can’t describe it accurately, but after losing my faith over the summer, I regained it. From that low point, I found a calm core inside of myself which I had thought I had lost- the “everything happens for a reason, and it will all work out” core. I like you try my best to find optimism in these dark places, and I must believe that 1.) everything happens for a reason, and 2.) suffering has meaning (a great life lesson from Viktor Frankl and “Man’s Search for Meaning”
I do believe we get a happy ever after- we just have to redefine it. Happy every after in a new chapter without this most recent crisis lingering over our heads. Happy every after to enjoy those seven words in a row. Happy every after to make meaning from all of this. I don’t know yet- my higher power did not consult me and ask me for my permission for any of this, and the universe often provides these lessons in retrospect, so the jury is still out on the exact ending. But, I do think we get a happy ever after just not the one we would choose if we were asked.
For today, Dad can spend time with Mom after work, and they can enjoy each other’s company. For today, I can sit on mom’s bed with her, Red Sox playing in the background, and help her to remove her toenail polish and trim her toenails- lost in the comfort of being with my Mom. Ultimately, all we have is today.
In the words of the Beatles, “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” We are blessed, as, despite everything, the one thing I know without a doubt is that love remains.