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Spilled milk is just that

November is designated as National Caregiver month. I’m pretty sure caregivers feel like they need more than one month of recognition for the variety of jobs they take on day in and day out. I’ve spent my fall immersed in two different caregiver situations, both where husbands are caring for their wives. The three stories below are meant to help you remember that letting go is always important when giving care, and especially during the holiday season.

Situation One: A gallon of milk

My friend with Parkinson’s disease is too weak to lift and poor from a gallon jug of milk. Seems like a relatively simple solution: buy a smaller size container. But it’s not that easy. Sure there are numerous ways to solve this, but what one needs to take into account is the relationship of the couple. For many of you, we’re talking about your parents. They’ve lived together and operated as a unit for how-ever-many years. Their long-standing habit of buying milk in a gallon size container is too difficult to break. You may suggest a whole slew of alternatives on one visit, and then return for a second visit only to find the gallon-size container of milk. So the milk gets spilled all over the counter; it’s only milk. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to convince your dad that it makes more sense to buy in smaller containers. Heck, it may even be your mother who is making the buying decision and your dad simply wants to allow her that choice. Let it go.

Situation Two: Two right feet

Your mom comes out of her room and is shuffling a bit. You notice her shoes and see that she’s wearing two shoes that look similar, but are actually two different shoes. And she’s wearing the right shoe on her left foot. This is not a big deal in and of itself, but you may feel embarrassed for her. You’re going out and this once well-dressed woman is wearing one flat shoe and one with a heel. Your dad doesn’t notice the difference. But this one isn’t just about vanity; there is a safety issue to address. If one shoe has a heel and the other is a rubber soul, she could risk a fall. Can you get rid of one of the pairs of shoes? Can you talk with your dad and suggest he help her pick out a matching pair? Seems like reasonable requests. Have the conversation, but when Mom comes out with two mis-matched shoes the next day, let it go.

Scenario Three: Dementia and decision making

“It’s up to her,” said my friend. He was referring to whether or not his wife should have a three-step eye surgery that would return her eyesight to one eye. My friend is mixing up the details of the eye surgery with her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), saying, “There’s no cure, you know.” She’s right, but we’re not talking about AD, we’re talking about an eye procedure that would enable her to read again. You can try to talk with your mother, and maybe in the past it would’ve been a beneficial conversation. No longer. When a brain disease, such as Alzheimer’s, clouds her thinking there is no rationalizing. What makes this situation even more difficult is your dad. He is clinging to the past: Mom has always made her own decisions. Except now she can’t. She is unable. Her brain is not working in a way that allows her to digest facts and make rational decisions.

At some point, you have to let go of convincing either of your parents to change. Not easy, but necessary for your health. Find a trusted friend or a caregiver support group and vent, rant, scream, and cry. Let it out and then let it go.

Make a list and hand it out!

Recently I made up a Caregiver To-Do list and to my surprise, audiences ate it up. It’s a simple notepad where you get to write down what you need help with. And then give it away when people ask, “What can I do for you?”

Let me know if you think this would more easily allow you ask for help.

Or tell me where you struggle in asking for help. People want to lend a hand, they just need to know what you need.

 

 

For the love of food

If we didn’t take seconds when my Grandma Jo offered, her classic response was, “Fine, I guess I won’t make this meal again.” She consistently told us we were too skinny. And at times, if we didn’t want to try something, she would shame us by saying, “Good, more for the rest of us.” The family all knew that food was love when it came to Grandma Jo.

It was almost the opposite with my other grandmother. Grandma Gladys didn’t like to eat. She had nearly rotten teeth! She liked saltines with butter, pie at the local post office cafeteria, and considered a glass of milk to be dinner. As a little girl, I preferred the ease of enjoying decadent butter (we used margarine growing up) on salty crackers to fighting for Grandma Jo’s love by overeating.

Meal times in senior housing are daily events. Sometimes the food is good, but most often, adult children hear regular complaints about institutional food—there’s too much, it’s over cooked, it’s underdone, it’s too fancy, etc. Years ago I asked a group of elder care specialists what they would want if they lived in senior housing. Good coffee was the answer; Starbucks on every floor! I see mealtimes in senior housing from both sides. As a manager, it’s challenging (and costly) to have both flexible eating times and a wide variety. Obviously it’s much easier to “feed the masses” in restricted time frames with a set menu.

For some, mealtimes are the only time they leave their room or apartment. It’s community time, time for sharing during a meal. Most people agree that it’s much more enjoyable to make food for two versus one. But what if you’re caring for someone who can’t express their food wishes? I often wonder about my friend with YOAD (Young Onset Alzheimer’s). One time when I was with him, I asked, “Do you want a Peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” and his eyes lit up and he shook his head and said, “yes,” while grinning.

If food is love, then while we care for someone, we need to remember their history of likes and dislikes. For some folks, Cheerios can be dinner, once in a while. Not every meal is a success. Sometimes I burn a meal and resort to a can of soup or a simple salad. That’s okay, too.

One of the hardest things to give up is food—both for your loved one and for you. In the last days of my mom’s life, she was not interested in food. My sister tried desperately to get her to eat, until the Hospice nurse said, “She really doesn’t need to eat….” There are times when not eating, but rather sitting with a loved one, is filling enough.

This piece originally appeared in Girlfriend’s Magazine earlier this summer.

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.

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