How does one negotiate change in a family system that no longer works? I want you to know about a close relative of mine, who is the sole caregiver of her 90-plus-year-old mother, who now suffers from dementia.
The living arrangement worked for many years. The mother, a single parent, worked throughout her active years and later retired but with only a social security check as income each month. Her daughter became a teacher in the public schools, never married, and eventually built a home on family land for herself and her mom to enjoy.
Family gatherings in their home were much looked forward to, with both mom and daughter excellent keepers of the family cooking traditions. I guess, myself included, we thought it would always be this way.
But then the mom’s memory for her special recipes began to fade until eventually the daughter had to pick up the slack for dishes her mom was known for – the baked chicken and dressing, the fresh cocoanut cake, the sweet potato pudding… and on and on.
The one brother who lives nearby stops by to visit. The second brother, living hundreds of miles away, calls every day. However, I believe neither has a clue about what really happens behind the scenes – the bed that usually needs fresh linens each morning, the constant vigilance to make sure their mom doesn’t unlock a door and walk out into the night or worse yet fall down the basement stairs, care to make sure the family cats are not fed birdseed instead of their own dry food.
A home health aide does come 25 hours a week to provide some relief for my cousin to get to the grocery and run errands. But the bottom line of making sure the correct meds are in proper supply and taken at the prescribed times, the running of the home, and meal preparation fall to my cousin.
I have a feeling I am describing a lifestyle that many of you are only too familiar with.
I remember how it used to be when our mom was residing with me in our home in Ohio. I treasured the moments of solitude, usually late at night, to carve out a bit of alone time. The respite breaks provided by my brother kept me sane during that year and a half.
Which brings me to offer a suggestion for your gift giving at this special time of year. A gift of time might just be the best gift you could offer to a caregiver friend.
How about taking that friend’s mother or father out for ice cream or a lunch once in a while if the elders are able. For my friend who resides locally in a nursing home, once a month on the average we head out on foot, with her in her wheelchair, up the street to a pizza parlor for lunch – even when the weather is less than perfect. (I just ask for a couple of blankets and out we go!) The best part of this is not having to ask nursing home aides to lift her into the car.
And for the cousin out of state, a couple of times a year I make the trip and stay a few nights with her mom, making it possible for the cousin to leave town for a day or so. Will her older brothers catch on – maybe so and maybe not. What matters is knowing I am helping out a little and also enjoying one-on-one time with a precious aunt.
As you know, caregiver health can break down from stress. The relief you may be able to offer, if only for a few hours a month, will be most surely appreciated. And for a caregiver just the realization that he or she is being kept in regard can do wonders for the spirit.