Minding Our Elders®

Writer on Caregiver and Elder Support

By Carol Bradley Bursack

A Caregiver's Journey

You’ve got kids and they’re growing up. You’ve got a job and you’re moving up. You and your spouse have smoothed out the wrinkles of early marriage. Sailing along pretty well, right? Bang! Dad has a stroke. Mom, while trying to help Dad, falls and breaks her hip. And you have to cope. What happened to your life?

Welcome to our world. The world of the caregiver. Your son, Jon, is in football and is getting his first letter at tomorrow’s breakfast. You’re daughter, Meg, has a concert tomorrow night. Woops! Mom fell again and this time split her head open and needs stitches. Dad’s blood pressure is soaring from the scare. So, Jon gets his football letter while you’re filling out papers in the ER. Meg plays her first solo while you’re consoling Dad about Mom. You're left with guilt.

Then, there’s work. Yesterday, you juggled work projects to go to your kid's events. The one's you missed because you were up all night with Mom and Dad. Now you face a full day’s work. You doze off in your cubical only to be awakened by your supervisor’s obviously fake cough. There goes the promotion!

What do you do? Well, you keep on caregiving, but you also step back and say, “I need to take care of myself, too. ”You need to detach from Mom and Dad’s problems and get some outside help, whether everything is done as well as you do it or not. You need to trust others to take care of your elders, occasionally.

So, you check references. You make sure the businesses and/or facilities you use are as good as you can find. Then give yourself some space. You need to make time for your children – guilt free – the way your parents would want you to, if they could still understand the concept. You need to find some down time to exercise, meditate or just vegetate. You need to nurture your marriage. You need to nurture your spirit. If all of this takes away from the time you spend with Mom and Dad, so be it. Everyone has to make compromises. Even our elders.

My dad had brain surgery because of a WWII injury. The end result was instant dementia. I became his office manager, his mother, his magician, making everything he thought was real, well, real. This was exhausting. I made academic degrees for his wall, wrote letters from dignitaries and presented him with awards. I was obsessed with making his life as livable as it could be. Commendable. But I wasn’t accepting that he would have bad days no matter what I did. That I couldn’t bring back the dad I had. That I couldn’t fix his life.

After years of this, while caring for several other elders and, eventually, working full time, I finally broke. Dad was complaining because I didn’t stay long enough when I visited. Finally, I said through tears, “Dad, I am doing everything I can!” And somewhere, in the far reaches of his damaged brain, there was recognition. The self-centeredness moved aside just a bit and let t my real dad peek through. He settled down and said “Yes, I know. I’m sorry.” From then on it got a little easier.

My mother had been a wonderful, funny woman, but in her last years, she was in severe pain and suffered from minor dementia. One day, after she was very nasty to me over something she didn’t understand, I’d had it. This had happened before, and the nurses told me to just not visit the following day. They said that they would learn, but I didn’t believe them.

However, that time was too much. I didn't call or visit the next day. And, voila! When I returned the day after, Mom was charming. From that small experiment I found I could set limits. I had begun to learn self-care.

Gradually, I learned to stand up for myself a little more. I also learned to talk to friends and tell my story at a support group. I listened to others tell their stories. I learned to detach a bit and even take a day off when I had to. It was a matter of survival.

Self-care is far easier to talk about than to do, but caregivers must practice self-care. Because what happens to Jon and Meg, to Mom and Dad, if your health collapses? Health problems, including depression, are rampant among caregivers, and thirty percent of our caregivers die before the people they are caring for. Thirty percent! Don’t be a statistic. Practice self-care. Everyone will be better off, including your elders.