Sleeping through the night and waking up when you damn well please.
Sleeping through the night and waking up when you damn well please.
A moment from the past. Is it any wonder that caring for my parents in their later years, and writing a book about it, was the natural thing to do? Many thanks to the Florida School System for eventually teaching me the difference between “to,” “too,” and “two.”
Truth be told, I’ve had a thing for purses since the age of four. Back then I used to carry candy, crayons, and a picture of my cat, Mooney. Later, my handbag contained the usual keys, a wallet, a makeup pouch, a cell phone, and a damp washcloth in a plastic bag, (oh, wait, that was my mother). When I became a caregiver though, the contents of this over-the-shoulder life support system quickly expanded with my new reality. Now I carried:
Hastily jotted sticky notes, which sometimes stuck to my butt as I ran errands. One evening, I spent an entire hour grocery shopping with a sign attached to my pants that read “Fleets enema.” Trust me, that’s a back-story you don’t want to hear.
A dozen to-do lists. Actually, it’s pretty normal for me to juggle multiple lists, partly because there’s something so damned satisfying in being able to line through something.
A pound of change in a baggie for the parking meter at my mother’s rehab center. Twenty minutes for a quarter, which is about what my time was worth.
A key ring to make a janitor jealous. It held twelve keys, including my office, house, and car; my parents’ houses and their safe deposit box, along with an assortment of scan thingies from Stein Mart and TJ Maxx for retail therapy.
My cell phone. Instead of salivating like Pavlov’s dogs every time it rang, my body’s response was a spray of adrenaline up my spine that wore me out. To keep my sanity, I would change ring tones every few weeks.
Tweezers, for pulling inch long chin hairs that literally sprang out of nowhere. What’s with that? And of course, I never noticed them until glancing in my car mirror while sitting in traffic. Who can pluck while everyone’s watching??
A pocket calendar with laughably small squares. Does anyone’s life actually fits in those one-inch boxes??
A brochure for an assisted living facility. I picked one up for my mother, but secretly wondered if it might be better for me, instead.
A relaxation CD from a friend. Great stuff, if I only had time to listen. It’s kind of like a lottery ticket. You have to play to win.
Mooshed up Kleenex for those times I was so exhausted and a stranger would say or do something kind. I’m not a crier, but that would always bring me to hot, messy, nose-running tears.
My parents’ healthcare forms including: HIPPA letters, durable powers of attorney; healthcare surrogate documents; and living wills. I didn’t think it the least bit odd to also carry their DNR’s (Do Not Resuscitate), as well. It is always about being prepared.
A list of my parents’ doctors. Unfortunately, my dad was doing a great job of alienating most of them, so the list was constantly changing. One physician told him he had an anger problem and suggested counseling. When my dad actually called to schedule a session, he got a voicemail recording, and left a string of four letter words that I can never, ever repeat.
Last, but not least, I rarely went anywhere without a twisted sense of humor; because, as we caregivers know, despite all our preparation and planning for the unexpected challenges of this role, sometimes laughter can save us when nothing else will.
So, in the spirit of sharing, tell us what’s in your purse today?
One night, I got caught sleeping at the office in a queen-sized bed that stood where my desk should have been. All my teeth started falling out in one long strand. There were terrorists at the mall. I tried to escape but couldn’t pick my car out of the 1000 other grey Camry’s in the parking lot. My contact lenses were all fogged up, so I couldn’t see the numbers on my cell phone to dial for help. Frustrating? Yes. Bizarre? Not so much.
Welcome to Caregiving 101, where our dream life can make more sense than real life.
During the six years spent caring for my parents, I sometimes felt like a high-wire act in a crazy three-ring circus. Maintaining a full time job, living two hours away from my folks, dealing with a broken medical system, healthcare emergencies, fractured family dynamics, and a father who was sliding into dementia yet struggling to maintain control, there were times when I questioned my sanity and the ability to keep going. What often saved me was a sense of humor that could politely be described as “dark.”
There was the miserable rain-soaked day when I drove to Orlando to register my mother’s last will and testament. Exhausted and choking on the words, “My mom has died.” I asked a security guard at the courthouse for directions to the Probate Division. He took that opportunity to rifle through my brief case and purse, proudly confiscating a pair of tweezers. TWEEZERS. At that point, I simply burst out laughing and told him, “Good job. What a relief to know that the chin hairs of Orange County are safe for another day.”
Even my book’s tongue-in-cheek title came out of an anxiety-laden visit one weekend to check on each of my parents – my mom in rehab following her mastectomy and my father at home, recovering from a fall. Driving with my head out the car window like a dog on a road trip, I had to find some way to calm down. A stop for coffee helped a little and got me to my dad’s house fifteen minutes later than my, always punctual, 9 AM. Sitting at the kitchen table in an old flannel robe, and checking his watch, he tisked, “Well, well, the dutiful daughter is finally here.” At that point I had three choices. The first was to start crying; the second was to get angry; and the third was to laugh, kiss the top of his head and say “Thanks, Daddeo, you’ve given me the perfect title for a book.” Choosing option number three turned out to be life-changing.
Maybe we should start taking laughter a little more seriously. Research shows that it allows our bodies to relax during stressful times; releases endorphins, a natural pain fighter; lowers blood pressure, and boosts our immune system. It speaks to resilience in the face of great turmoil; protects us from being crushed by our feelings; makes it easier to step back and regain perspective during moments of anger; and sometimes it can be a powerful way to soothe a broken heart. All that and you don’t even need a doctor’s prescription – just a willingness to embrace the sheer absurdity that life tosses you, when least expected.
As caregivers, we have to find respite from the mental, emotional and physical strains of this journey. Embracing the words of Linda Ellerbee, an American journalist, seems like the right place to start.
“In this world, a good time to laugh is any time you can.”
What do you think? Is there a time you could have cried, but chose to laugh instead?
Well, maybe once after I came back from summer vacation, and told my classmates that Lloyd Bridges, from the TV show Sea Hunt, had invited me to spend the summer with him on his boat, the Argonaut. I was eight.
When my third grade crush, Michael Dots, doubted my story, I ran out of class and on to the playground where I promptly tripped and fell. If you’re wondering what was more humiliating – lying there by the tetherball pole with sand up my skirt or having my credibility questioned, it was definitely the latter. Because even as a kid, being someone people could trust was important to me.
It still is. And that’s why you’re reading this embarrassing childhood tale. To demonstrate my willingness to share honest, salty sweet stories and advice in The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide, which illustrate the darkness, the light, the exhaustion and the humor to be found in loving and caring for aging parents.
In this day and age, growing old with grace and dignity is fraught with challenges, as is family caregiving. When we’re not afraid to acknowledge that, we can then begin an honest, openhearted dialogue that can change things for the better.
Stay with me. There’s so much more to come.