Taking a Break from Caring

“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.

Walking Away

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.

Resource

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). 

Caregiving Break- Worksheet

 

Mom is Stuck, the Phone, and Friendly’s

“There is no such thing as a good call at 7 AM. It’s been my experience that all calls between the hours of 11 PM and 9 AM are disaster calls” -Janet Evanovich

I was standing outside of Friendly’s restaurant in Greenfield MA when I got the Facebook message: “Mom is stuck.” I had no idea what “mom is stuck” meant…is mom stuck in her wheelchair, stuck on an idea, stuck in a rut? So, even though I was supposed to be on a date with my partner who admittedly I had been neglecting recently- a dying mom will do that, I called my sister. Standing outside of Friendly’s, the car full of Christmas decorations, in the cold December evening I learned what “stuck” meant.

Apparently, since Dad had been home mom had been unable to move, talk, or do anything. Kate and I both hoped that the stuck would be temporary, but we prepared ourselves for not just in case. Dad had called Hospice and apparently this was okay as long as she was breathing normally which she was. So, with nothing else to be done, I went and had Friendly’s. I ordered a turkey Supermelt with French fries, and we split a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup sundae for dessert. It was absolutely delicious, and I didn’t cry inside the restaurant once. But, the focus of the conservation was on Mom and stuck. I wondered out loud if this was it, was this her new norm? Would she come back? If not what would we do? I remained focused on Mom being stuck for the remainder of the evening and while I did not cry inside of Friendly’s once I did cry before I went into Friendly’s, driving home on 91, and once when we got home. PSP sucks like that- I don’t want my entire life to be wrapped up in PSP, and I know it takes a toll on every single relationship I have. I know my partner wanted us to be ordinary 30-somethings getting ready for Christmas, going out for dinner, talking about work, school, and our holiday plans, but again I drove and cried, and I was so focused on what “stuck” might look like.

As was our new normal, I messaged Kate a lot that night as we sat by and waited on standby and when the next morning Mom woke up “unstuck” we celebrated this small victory over PSP. As the months wore on, the “mom is stuck” message would be repeated. In fact, “Mom is stuck” just became a normal part of the interactions between Kate, Dad, Luke, and I. We all learned that stuck would happen and that she would unstick, and maybe someday she would not unstick. But, all that we could and can do is what we had done since she started falling- wait and see and take it one day at a time, that powerless feeling that is just a part of PSP.

Everything in my life over the past two years has been impacted and shaped by the backdrop of “Mom is dying.” This dinner at Friendly’s and “Mom is stuck” was not unlike any other outing I have taken since her diagnosis. My phone remains on all the time, and I wait.

I wait for the message from Kate, the call from Dad, when she was home it was the calls from RAVNAH and now the occasional call from the nursing home. The phone and I have a complicated relationship. For example, when I am relaxing at home or even in bed with my phone in another room when the phone rings or pings both my partner and I go running. I want the phone to be somewhere else, and I want not to have to jump whenever I hear it, yet, I can’t not. Especially when Mom was home, we were on constant alert, with constant anxiety, and I was tethered to my phone. The phone is often the bearer of some new horror of life-changing/interrupting thing that just can’t wait. So, I manage the phone in between normal everyday life- just because my mom is dying does not mean the world stops (even on those days I wish it did).

Chocolate is Breakfast

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” -Charles M. Schulz

Mom had a new aide who I happened to call one morning because I needed to let mom know, something. The new aide was wondering about EVERYTHING. Having never been to the house before he had not worked with Mom prior, and at this point, mom was beginning to struggle with communications. The aide was a bit perplexed. He was said, “I offered your mom breakfast, but she didn’t seem to want any, but she ate chocolate.” My reply was, “chocolate is breakfast.” And it was.

Every morning since her diagnosis, Mom has chocolate with her coffee. In recent months, as the swallowing has gotten worse and as her ability to use her body has changed we have to help her more and more but, for years chocolate was breakfast, and I had been fairly certain that Chocolate would be breakfast until she died.

Chocolate for breakfast has also been a guiding post. As Mom has progressed, her morning (and Chocolate routine) have constantly been revised. In the first year of PSP, Mom would sit in the kitchen with her coffee and chocolates. These times I would visit with her, update her about the week and as she progressed from walker to wheelchair and decreased vision and verbal communication I would read her snippets from the mail or news. In the second year of PSP, I would always say to her, “I gotta’ peel your chocolate for you.” So, when she was still at home, in the morning after we came out of the bathroom, I put her coffee in her mug and stirred in the thickener, and then I added the correct amount of cream. During those days, I would bring her coffee and a handful of peeled chocolates to the living room. As she began to work on her coffee, I would peel a handful of Hersey’s kisses and place them on the lid where she could reach them.

In the nursing home, I became obsessed with peeling chocolates for mom. I put five in a small cup and make small “single serve” cups of peeled chocolates. I make her these cups of peeled chocolate whenever my hands need something to do. So, by the time I left for the day I had created a row of soldier cups holding their five peeled kisses waiting for my mom. Then Mom started having aspiration, and it was just not safe for her to eat alone.

So, now, when I am there after lunch, I open her nightstand drawer and locate the Chocolate kisses I know she has there, and I peel a few. Two for mom, one for me. Chocolate is no longer breakfast, but, when I open the drawer and pull out the kisses Mom’s eyebrows raise in her new happy look. I place a tissue on her table, and I place the peeled chocolate on it.

I am not sure what the next chocolate routine will be. I am sure that as it changes, I will look back and miss the old ones (as I always do). But, I also know that as long as she is able to swallow, Mom will always have some form of Chocolate at some point during the day- even if we have to puree it. Chocolate for breakfast (or after lunch) is one small pleasure that Mom gets and it is not one that one of us would ever deny her.

kiss