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How to turn around a bad day

You know those days: You get in your car and hear a new noise (after just paying a hefty repair bill); you drive past your chiropractor’s new place five times before calling to have them describe their location; the pharmacy can’t find your new prescription, and your favorite coffee shop is closed due to illness.

These are what some people label “First World Problems”—They’re pesky, irritating, but not life threatening. They are just the type of issues that can take up precious space in one’s brain, derailing an otherwise sweet day.

Caregivers have to not only juggle their own “bad days,” but many have to learn how to recognize when their loved one is having tough time. This is not easy from a practical standpoint, let alone an emotional one. We see someone suffering and we want to “fix” their issue.

My grandpa Floyd hated to see us cry. He would swoop us up, make funny faces, wipe our tears and say, “It’s all right. No need to cry.” But sometimes a person just needs to cry, and this includes someone with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, or someone in pain.

I wrote in The Unexpected Caregiver, “Through music, we can acknowledge that it’s okay for them [the person to whom we’re giving care] to feel sad, recognize why they’re feeling sad and then help them move through the sadness.”

Give it a try: if you are having a tough day, put on a sad song to match your mood, and then with each new song, pick up the tempo. Music can be your ticket to turning around a bad day for you or your loved one.

Big Adventures and Unexpected Challenges

My mother was fixated on the idea of all her children being as Norwegian as possible. She claimed she was 100% Norwegian. She repeatedly told her kids that even though they had some Czech and Swedish from Dad, it was the Norwegian part that counted

She was not always an easy woman to be with, but I realized early on that the way to my mother’s good side was to fall in love with all things Norwegian. I went to St. Olaf College and by the end of my junior year, I was off to study in Norway. From then on, Norwegian was an integral part of my life—
from teaching the language to leading tours to the country. And now I live in Norway. Mom’s got to be dancing in heaven!

After 30 years, I reconnected with my college sweetheart. It didn’t take us long to figure out that we wanted to be together. Trouble was, I had a busy and active life in the States and he lived in Norway. He was a well-established American expat with two grown daughters. He enjoyed his career and wasn’t looking to start anew in the States. For me to take the leap and move to Norway seemed a cinch, a no brainer.

It was also a bit unbalancing. Even though my work has always been mobile, I still have a support system in Minnesota. Skype, email and other social media make it easier to live abroad, but there’s no substitute for hanging out in a kitchen and chatting about this and that with one’s friends.

I needed to find Support (the first letter in my SANE Method™) so I hopped on a bus and joined a  local dance class. I started opening up to Norwegian friends and made time to develop new expat friends. I sought out support. It’s the first step I take whenever I’m embarking on something new or difficult. I can’t do life alone. Even when, by all outward appearances, everything looks divine, I need support.

I chose this big adventure, and I know some of you make a choice to have your mom or dad come live with you so you can be their caregivers. We make choices for all the right reasons, but we also have to give ourselves a break and reach out when we need help. It’s the only way we can tackle big adventures, live and thrive through the unexpected challenges of our lives.

This blog first appeared as an article in my regular column in Southern Minnesota Girlfriends magazine, Spring 2018.

Here’s how I took a moment for myself today

I needed something different this morning. The pressure of the mushrooming to-do list almost stopped me, but instead, I played a game with myself. I picked up Roger Housden’s “Ten Poems to Change Your Life” and randomly opened to “Ode to my Socks” by Pablo Neruda, translation by Stephen Mitchell (pdf link below). I’m familiar with this one, but as with most poetry, something new awakened in me this morning.

Pablo Neruda has the capacity to celebrate the things right in front of us. I have had an affinity with this poem in the past because my feet are covered in papery-thin skin. I have my dad’s feet; we’re identical feet twins. Socks are important to me and I wear good socks—especially hiking or working in the woods.

But that’s not what this poem is about. Neruda reminded me to slow down and take a moment. Breathe in what is around me and celebrate it. Stop for one moment, shut off my critical mind-chatter telling me to “get going,” and appreciate the everyday, normal things. Like socks.

So I sat on the porch, closed my eyes and listened—a variety of bird voices, an airplane far above, the buzz of a bee circling me, cow bells in the distance, the rustle of the birch leaves—just for a moment.

I thought of my S.A.N.E. Method™  for caregivers, “This is Appreciation—to take time for oneself, even if just a moment.” (And believe me, I fought a little with myself over taking this time. We have a list, after all! It needs to be accomplished!) But the gift I received from this moment was just like an inexpensive trip to the spa. I feel more settled, grateful and have a renewed sense of energy.

Today I took a moment for Appreciation; this is what I want family caregivers to do. Find some small amount of time and instead of falling into the habit of another glass of wine (if that’s your thing) or one more episode of your favorite sitcom (believe me, I enjoy getting lost in the familiar characters, too), do something that shakes you up, something you don’t normally do. Or something that you simply want to try. What you gain from your moment will be different from what I found, but I trust you will receive a bit of mind rest. And that could make all the difference in your day.

Ode to My Socks

Why it’s important to hold a family meeting

I’ve been involved in several family caregiver meetings, including one with my own family when my Grandpa Gus needed care. My goals were simple: Air emotions and make a plan. I opened the meeting by having us go around the table and check in. After each person was able to express feelings, we made sure everyone was clear about grandpa’s diagnosis and what he needed for care. We then allocated the tasks among us. Even though the tasks didn’t end up being accomplished exactly as assigned, it helped to have everybody aware of how much needed to be done. Here are some of the things you and your siblings may be called upon to do:

  • Help with activities of daily living (bathing, eating, getting up, using the bathroom, dressing);
  • Drive to and from (whether to doctor or social activity)
  • Organize medication
  • Financial help
  • Assist with housing (from housekeeping to finding a new living situation)
  • Manage insurance and health care
  • Shop, do laundry, cut grass, etc.
  • Use technology to make life simpler (but more challenging for you to re set, explain, update your parent’s devices)
  • Advocate for your parents
  • Understand any disease, so that you can be a better caregiver
  • Support each other and yourself

I remember facilitating a family caregiving meeting for five adult children and a number of support people. The primary caregiver was tired and wanted her siblings to understand that, by keeping their father on life support, they were not only going against his wishes, but also extending her role to the point of exhaustion. When two of her siblings said that she didn’t need to be at the hospital all the time, she was furious. “Who’s going to catch the mistakes?” she raged. “Who’s going to hold dad’s hand? Who’s going to catch the doctor when he comes by if I’m not there?”

Her need was to be heard and understood, especially when she felt the rest of the family was going against their father’s final wishes. But her siblings needed her to understand that while she had taken on the primary role, it wasn’t an exclusive one. Just as she needed to be there, they also needed to be able to help out and be involved in their own unique ways.

It’s worth noting that even if you’re prepared to play the primary role, it may not always be what’s needed. I could not have taken care of my mother full-time and it was not the right spot for me to play lead with my sister’s care. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Examine the family dynamics and choose the best person for each role. Get in touch if you need help.

It’s never too early, but it can suddenly become too late

After a trip to Minnesota to see family and friends in need of care, I am reminded of the importance of telling others what you want. It’s hard to imagine NOT being able to speak for oneself, but I’ve witnessed a sister and a friend struggle to do just that.

This blog, albeit a bit longer than normal, appeared as an article in Girlfriend’s Magazine earlier this year. Read, enjoy, and then put your wishes to paper:

I had an exchange student from Norway in 2010-11. Henrik and I hit it off immediately. When he asked why I had chosen to have an exchange student, I jokingly replied, “I’m grooming you to take care of me if that day comes.”

Of course I was kidding with Henrik, but sharing my wishes has never been a joke. My Health Care Directive provides a good, basic overview, but like an excellent meal, I want my care team to pay special attention to ingredients that are unique to my tastes. If you find it challenging to write down your potential needs, may I recommend writing a letter? I think of letter writing as creating a recipe book for my care. The following is just one example of what such a letter can contain.

Dear Henrik,

You asked that I let you know how to take care of your “host mamma,” because, after all, you will be one of my caregivers. (You do remember that we made a pinky-swear about this, right?) Ideally I will hold on to my faculties and you won’t need any of the information contained in these letters. But if the day comes when I need you to care for me, these letters will provide insight. (Of course I expect you to train the others on my care team.)

We had tons of fun when you lived with me. We sailed into the wee hours and slept until 10 on Saturdays. You know I love active, full days, but I’ve also grown to cherish my quieter days. Some days will even be sad. Let me have those times, mixed with spells of uproarious laughter and spontaneous kitchen dancing. I like to process my feeling and alone time is important. However, if I’m alone for more than three days, it’s time to get me out (or bring people in).

I may complain when you tell me you’re taking me out, but please persist. If I remain disconnected from others for too long, my depression can easily pull me into a very dark place. Take me to a coffee shop. We can talk, read, or simply people watch. Take me to a bookstore, even if you don’t think I can read. Let me wonder and sit amongst the books. Take me to a movie or on a drive with a stop for ice cream and people watching.

If you invite friends for dinner, don’t get so caught up in the conversation and forget about me. I could easily get lost in the rapid-fire conversations if I have dementia. Include me by simply putting your arm around me. Nod and say, “Isn’t that right, Kari.” It will be your job to help me feel connected, even if I’m not contributing. Don’t worry if I can no longer form sentences. If I’m smiling, then I’m enjoying myself.

This letter writing is a two-way street, Henrik. If you have specific questions or wonder about a specific ingredient in my overall care, please ask. And remember, you’re not to do this all by yourself. You must also take care of you.

Love you!

Your host mamma

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