Resistance Is Futile

Addie was not just any cat. I’m quite sure she was a gift from my father – a man who believed a house was not a home unless it included a feline or two. 

I was still thinking about my dad as I pulled into my driveway after work one evening. It was the five-year anniversary of his passing and my mind had been flooded with memories all day. Glancing at my front porch, there seemed to be a piece of crumpled newspaper lodged under the plant stand there. Getting closer, I saw it was actually a small black and white cat with eyes the size of Oreo mini’s.

My first thought was, “Oh, frick.” All my life, this was how I came to own pets. As if a cosmic “down” arrow hung over every place I ever lived and said, “Come here and you will be spoiled and adored.”

This time was different though. Well-intentioned friends had been urging me to get a pet for awhile, but after the six year roller coaster ride of caring for my parents and processing the grief that followed, I felt fractured by love and loss. I’d also decided to write a book about all I’d learned to help other adult children doing the same. In my mind, this meant shelving any kind of caregiver role for the foreseeable future.

Since neighborhood cats often strolled by, I took that as a sign that this furry little visitor was no different.  Hearing my half-hearted “shooing” sounds, she ran and hid under my car, and I went inside to cook dinner, figuring that was the end of it.

Of course, the next day, there sat the cat at the front door with a look on its face that said, “Let’s try this again, shall we?” I stood there still resisting the inevitable, but decided it wouldn’t hurt to feed her before she moved on. Yeah, I know.

Since nothing in the house resembled pet food, I opted to make oatmeal, adding extra water until it resembled the gruel in a scene from Oliver Twist. The cat attacked the bowl with gusto, making growling sounds to let me know that sharing was not an option. After finishing every last bite, she followed me into my room, hopped up on the bed, and stretched out on her back, purring loudly. Is there anything more irresistible? Laughing and shaking my head, I reached down to stroke her soft white belly and suddenly caught a familiar whiff of my dad’s favorite pipe tobacco. At that very moment, we both looked over at the same corner of the room and then looked back at each other. Five minutes later, I was heading to the grocery store for a litter box and kibble. Addie Jacob – Addie, a name I’d always liked, and Jacob, my father’s middle name, was curled up in the sheets, sound asleep.

The rest of the story? Turns out she would need her rest. Becoming my writing “mews” was going to be a full time job.

 NOTE: Addie J is no longer with me, but the gift of her presence is one I still carry in my heart.

How About A Mini Break?

Over time, it seems that some of our most profound lessons come from being there for people in ways we never imagined. During six years of helping my parents, every day taught me something new about myself, my family, my friends, or just human nature, in general. Of course, the fact that it wasn’t always pretty would be an understatement.

I discovered that being brave can mean just getting up in the morning; that being stubborn is actually a strength when you’re dealing with a flawed medical system; and that feeling resentful sometimes is perfectly normal because, guess what – we’re only human.

The responsibilities of caregivers are so profound, yet we often hold ourselves up to impossible standards while ignoring the valuable gifts that each of us bring to the table. So, how about taking a break from the holiday hustle to spend a few minutes exploring a prompt I gave my writer’s group for caregivers earlier this year; one that turned into a much-needed affirmation for all of them.

Jot down two or three words that describe you best. Here’s a link if you need help coming up with some traits: Consider how each of these qualities has shaped your experience of providing care, and write a sentence or two about each one.

Below are a few examples from my own list, and if you’re open to it, please share what you’ve written.

Wishing everyone moments of peace this holiday season.

Humorous: Finding the funny during tough times has often saved me and the people I love, when nothing else could. That was never more clear to me than when I spent a morning planning my mom’s funeral with her help, and a little Barbara Streisand music.

Outspoken: Pretty much what you “see” is what you get with me. A mouthy straight-talker, I believe that caregiving is hard work, even when performed with great love, and we need to speak openly about the challenges as well as the joys.

Self-Care Through Journaling

My cup runneth over with friends who have recently become authors! Well, today I’m delighted to talk with Elizabeth Miller of Happy Healthy Caregiver about her new book, “Just for You: A Daily Self Care Journal. You are going to want it!

Elizabeth, your book has such a warm and welcoming energy to it, and that polka dot cover just makes me smile. Would you share an overview of what the book is about?

I’d love to! Thank you for spotlighting my book on your blog. The Just for You: a Daily Self Care Journal blends 365 days of writing prompts with monthly ‘fun’ activity pages. Each page includes a complimenting illustration just begging to be colored. This journal encourages writers to personalize the pages by adding splashes of color and creativity. The daily lined pages allow for one or multiple years of responses – it just depends on how much the writer wants to share about the prompt.

So, it’s multi-functional! You can get in some coloring time and some writing time combined! Share some of the other goodness this book offers.

Ultimately this is a creative tool to boost and inspire the recipient to live their best life by focusing on integrating health and happiness into each day. My sincere hope is that this journal guides the writer on a journey of self-discovery while intentionally exploring the seasons of life. With that said, wouldn’t it be amazing to have a completed journal from your grandma, aunt or mother, too? What a family treasure for future generations!

Also, I love your idea of using the book in writing groups where everyone could have fun discovering and sharing the journal prompts and amplifying the importance of self-care. I hope they’d invite me to attend!

Yes, using the book’s prompts in a writing group setting was the first thing I thought of after seeing some of the questions, and what a great idea to work through the journal with an older family member to create a keepsake for everyone to enjoy.  Will you tell us a little bit about how this book came about?

I have a few books in me but this one felt like the easiest and most fun one to start writing. My overall mission through the work I do and the resources I create with Happy Healthy Caregiver is to help family caregivers integrate self-care into their busy lives. I often say that waiting for a girl’s night out or weekend away is not the self-care solution. Rather, self-care is the tiny intentional activities we do for ourselves in the nooks and crannies of our crazy days. This mindset is what I believe will truly help energize all of us physically and mentally. While the book is aligned with the work I do with family caregivers through Happy Healthy Caregiver, it’s really a book for everyone.

Wow, I love your definition of self care. “…the tiny intentional activities we do for ourselves in the nooks and crannies of our crazy days.” Can you share some of the prompts readers and writers will find in the journal? 

I had a lot of fun creating and compiling the questions. You can click here for a sneak-peek video tour of the book, and below are some additional examples of the 365 daily  prompts:

Listing the things you’re ridiculously good at is such a great question. Ok, we’re in, Elizabeth. Where can folks buy a journal for themselves or as a gift for someone they care about?

The best place to purchase is from the Happy Healthy Caregiver website. When you purchase your copies there, you receive free shipping and signed copies.

You can also hear how my guests have responded to prompts during the Caregiver Spotlight episodes of the Happy Healthy Caregiver podcast. Check out this example from a show I did with Susanne White, who cared for her mom during a four year period: 

How cool! Well, thanks, Elizabeth, for taking part in this interview, and for all you do as an advocate for caregivers. Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m going to hit your book and start writing!!

You Might Be a Caregiver If…

As most of you know, every month, I am privileged to facilitate a writer’s group specifically for caregivers. One of our members, Terry, wrote a piece that goes to straight to the heart of what it’s like to be on this journey, and she has graciously allowed me to share it with you.

You might be a caregiver if:

You experience a slight increase in your heart rate when you recognize the caller id is your loved one’s assisted living facility/nursing home/rehabilitation center

You quickly dart your eyes to your spouse and wordless communication this is ‘one of those’ calls before the caller can complete one of the following phrases: ‘unwitnessed fall’, ‘EMS is on route’, ‘being transported to the Emergency Room

You remind the nurse to be sure your loved one is sent with a jacket even though you know that won’t be enough to keep them warm once they arrive

You can put together a bag of essential items for an extended ER visit in less than five minutes

You can quickly review your planned activities and begin cancelling/postponing them on your way out the door

You have your driver’s license out of your wallet as you walk into the ER lobby

You have a prepared speech for the ER staff (preferred arm to use for a blood draw, needs extra blankets, list of artificial joints/pacemaker/etc.)

You can recite their list of prescription medications, drug allergies and reactions, date of last visit to the ER

You already have a Health Care Surrogate document on file at the hospital

You know which tests they are going to perform before the doctor begins placing the orders

You know you won’t be leaving for at least four hours

You know where every bathroom is in the ER area

You have spent at least two birthdays/anniversaries/holidays in the ER or hospital with a loved one

You have postponed, cancelled or returned early from a vacation (or simply skipped planning one)

You would do it all again, without hesitation, if needed

To caretakers everywhere, keep your chin up and your sense of humor handy. You are very special people and the best advocates for your loved ones. Remember to take care of yourself too.

I had no idea when I wrote this story that my role as caregiver would end eight days later. My mom had a second fall on December 13th and broke her hip. She was transferred to the Sun City Hospice House so they could help manage the increased pain. Once they administered the pain medication, she finally relaxed and went to sleep. She never woke up again and she died peacefully on December 15th with me, my husband, Paul, my cousin, John and his wife, Mary by her side.


The Wisdom of a Caregiver


With permission from members of my writer’s group for caregivers, I’ll be sharing some of their work with you from time to time. This powerful piece, by Anne Lawrence, is a response to four questions posed at our last meeting. What would your answers be?

Q What do you wish you’d known or were told before taking on the role of caregiver?

Q What has been the hardest part of caregiving?

Q What has been the most rewarding part of caregiving?

Q Please share some advice for someone who’s new to this journey.


Some Advice

“I’m so tired,” said Dick, as I tucked him into bed this morning at 9:30am. He had been up for three hours, but he needed a nap. For the past few weeks, he’s been failing, faster now than the slow fail to which I’ve been witness for almost seventeen years. It’s not cancer, which even when it’s slow is faster than this. “This” is what obituaries call “complications of diabetes,” the decades-long, inexorable march to death. It’s a quiet suffering. There are no pink, purple, or red ribbons, no television marathons, no lawyers promising you compensation. Because unlike mesothelioma, which can be proved to be someone else’s misdoing, the suffering associated with diabetes is, in the eyes of many of the healthy, your own damn fault.

I don’t blame Dick for his diabetes. I’ve watched him follow the doctor’s orders for thirty years, taking his medication, watching his diet, exercising. What the doctors don’t tell you is even when you are doing your best, the disease is damaging you. And there is no escape; no surgery to remove the mass, no chemo or radiation to kill the cells. There is nothing to be done except “manage” the disease. So we are managing.

“Maybe the owl is on his way,” Dick says to me, kidding of course, but is he really? He’s told me that after he dies, he’s going to come visit me as an owl. For quite a few months, there has been an owl appearing at intervals around our house, just sitting on the fence looking into our windows or swooping past me as I water the flowers. Dick decided that it’s my father, who died in 1985 and, to my knowledge, has never visited me before. But Dick claims the owl has a little mustache like my dad’s.

“You can’t come back as an owl if my father is an owl,” I say. “How will I know who’s who?”

“You’ll know,” he tells me with a sly smile. Many people would probably find this owl business morbid, macabre, or just plain weird. But we find it comforting and even fun. Dick wants to be cremated but he doesn’t want me to have a big honking urn on the fireplace mantel. “Just put a bit of me in a little owl and he can sit next to my golden chicken,” he said. Dick’s golden chicken is a gift from my sister. Along with a golden color, the chicken has Swarovski crystals and three tiny golden eggs. It’s only about two inches high and sits on our coffee table right in front of his chair. It symbolizes the financial windfall we were told was coming by the psychic my sister and I visit each year. “Your husband is sitting on a golden chicken,” the psychic told me. “He’s going to bring you lots of money.” The money never arrived, but the chicken did. So now Dick wants a little owl to match it. How am I going to find an owl that’s also an urn, I thought. But one enquiry in Google [owl cremation urn] brought him right up: A tiny owl that opens for about half a teaspoon of remains. I bought one right away, worried that I wouldn’t be able to find it again when the time (when is the time?) comes. Then, never to be outdone, my sister found an owl necklace with room for about a quarter teaspoon remains. We got three because, in addition to me, my sister and niece also want a piece of UD, as he’s called around here, Uncle Dick.

So some advice I’d give people who are caregivers for the very sick: Don’t be afraid to talk about the end. If you’re not afraid, the one you care for won’t be either. Embrace it, talk about it, laugh about it, cry about it. It’s difficult, of course, but I must believe it’s less heart-wrenching than pretending.

Dick and I were pulling into the driveway the other day from a particularly difficult doctor’s appointment and there was the owl, sitting on our neighbor’s air conditioner, watching us enter the garage. “Hi, Dad,” I said. “How’s it goin’?” Dick laughed and went into the house. About ten minutes later he was watching a western on TV. An owl flew over the Indian guide and the western settler. “Sign of death,” the Indian said. Dick and I looked at each other and howled.

So that’s something else I’d say to caregivers: You’re allowed to laugh.

Anne Lawrence

November 23, 2015

Family Caregiver’s Month


November is National Family Caregiver’s Month. So, why the picture of cactus? Well, I’m a little prickly about the fact that the contributions of caregivers are officially recognized only one month out of twelve. With almost 66 million people in the United States providing care to an ill, disabled or aging family member, it should be year-round.

Since releasing my book a few short months ago, I’ve been privileged to hear the stories of so many people who are caring for moms and dads, children, siblings, spouses and life partners. And regardless of our differences, the common thread that runs through every experience is the capacity for resilience, that ability to cope with stress and adversity that sometimes seems in short supply.

It’s a word I recently asked my caregiver’s writing group to consider. What did the term mean to them? What strengthened their resiliency? What weakened it? How did they find it in themselves or others?

As always, everyone wrote from a different perspective. One person described how resilience is a living, changing thing, and that helping others to be strong enhances your own ability to cope. Another takes her lead from the weeping willow – a tree that survives the years through its ability to bend and move with the wind. For me, it could be found by looking at my tiny sparrow of a mom, 90 years old, and realizing that her body told a tale of resilience more eloquently than words ever could. Despite surgeries, disease, and heartache, she practiced gratitude every single day.

So, my question to you, dear readers, is, “What helps you deal with the difficult challenges of caregiving? Is it the support of other people? Is it strong faith? Is it a beloved family pet you can pour your heart out to? Or maybe its releasing your stress and anxiety on paper.

Leave a comment here, and you’ll be entered into a drawing on November 30th to win an autographed copy of The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving: A Practical Memoir.*

Take good care. You are all, quite simply, amazing.

*Sorry. U.S. deliveries only.