Decades ago, we smiled, danced, and sang along with the popular song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It was a nice idea. But is it really possible to be happy all the time? What about when the nursing home you had trusted gets slack in caring for your loved one? Or the home health care nurse isn’t as pleasant with your mother as you once thought she would be? The list goes on and on for caregivers. At any given point things can fall apart.
The good news is that we don’t have to be happy about that or about any similar circumstances . Things go awry sometimes, so we don’t have to beat up on ourselves because we are not happy about it. There are times we just have to cry. Yet, it is possible to be joyful all the time.
You see, happiness is based on circumstances – on what is or is not happening. But joy is based on the realization that despite all that is going on, God is still in control. And in His own time and in His own way, He will put things back as they should be. Your sense of joy and peace can be restored. Think of what it looks like when a mother or father quietly goes around the house straightening a mess that has been made. That is what joy is – envisioning what it will look like when things are made right again. It will happen; so that is what will help you smile. And because of that, don’t try to be happy – be joyful!
You never signed up for this, did you? The day may come when you feel stuck with all that being a caregiver requires of you. Surely you had other plans – like your own life, right? But some things just seem to fall into our laps. We may even check the mirror periodically to see whether there is a blinking light on our forehead that says, “I’ll do everything!”
Telling someone else honestly that it’s tough, or that you don’t understand why things are happening the way they are, or even that you don’t know why you have to be the caregiver are all ways of admitting the anger you may feel. Actually, it’s healthy to acknowledge your anger and frustration – as long as you are not directing it toward the person(s) in your care. Also make sure that it’s not destructive to anyone else, yourself included.
I often tell friends or acquaintances who are grieving to call me and scream into the phone if they need to. Admitting pain and anger rather than pretending everything is okay allows you to move on. After you’ve found a healthy way to admit the anger and release it, (notice I’m not including my phone number on the internet), take a deep breath and pray for the strength to go on. You are still very much needed.
During a brief period of lucidity in my mother’s journey through Alzheimer’s, she told my sister, “I think my brain is shrinking.” She had also once asked me if I could tell that her mind was going fast. Interestingly enough, our mother had battled depression and mood swings a great portion of her life, so we were accustomed to wondering what frame of mind she would be in at any given point. After the Alzheimer’s set in, however, we couldn’t believe that we would wish for the earlier days.
An excerpt from the book I wrote about the experience says: “My friend Beverly has been referring to Mom as ‘the new Blanche’ for some time now. When people ask me how Mom is, I say that she lives in another country and speaks another language. I find that when I talk to her and she responds, the answers I give her are like those given to a small child who alone knows what they are talking about. So, I respond with comments such as, ‘Oh, okay. For real? Uh-huh, I see. Was that today?’ This encourages the speaker to continue, but the listener has no clue of the speaker’s train of thought.”
Rather than being condescending, responses such as these are simply a way to take the pressure off a loved one to carry on meaningful conversations when they no longer can. And it takes the pressure off the caregiver to expect them to communicate as they did before, or to even understand what they are talking about. Just travel with them and appreciate who they are today; it will help you both enjoy your time together.
Some caregivers may be keeping promises to parents or spouses that they would never “put them away.” That’s a noble intent, and it’s a blessing when you can fulfill such a promise. However, in spite of our best efforts to stop by my Mom’s more often, stay longer, do more of what was needed, etc., the day came when our family accepted that we could no longer care for our mother on our own. It was unsafe to leave her alone, and no one was in a position to leave their jobs or move her in with them. We would have to partner with some type of nursing facility for her care.
We relied on help from Mom’s doctor to tell her that we had to find a placement for her right away so that she was safe. We did our research, met with directors, and had tearful tours of several facilities that had an Alzheimer’s unit. The one we selected arranged for Mom to come in for lunch; she thought it was social, but it was actually an assessment. We let her see another facility the same day so that she was a part of the decision-making process. Thankfully, she also selected the first one.
When the time came to move her in, we felt pretty much felt like parents on the first day of school. We were reluctant to walk away and leave her with strangers. Yet, we chose to not feel guilty for having to place her. We were not turning our backs on her, but became regular visitors who got involved in the center’s activities as well. Everyone’s situation is different; so not everyone will need to or be able to partner with an assisted living facility for the care of a loved one. But if that day comes for you, think about my mother’s words, “I’m not happy about it, but I accept it.” In time I learned to let go of the emotion and accept it as well.
I found that simple statement at the end of a journal entry in the book about my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s – You learn as you go. Yet we sometimes wish we knew it all upfront, right? And how can we? There are some things that only life’s experience can teach us.
Even after mulling over research or implementing best practices, we find that being a caregiver can be trial and error. (And that’s okay as long as we are not talking about life-threatening errors.) For example, we may learn a better way to talk to those we care for because as they change, we find that we must change also. What worked yesterday may not be working today. We find out how to better care for our loved ones as we peer into their faces and understand that they are more frustrated with the illness than we are.
Learning as you go can be beneficial. It takes off the pressure to get everything right all the time. This teaches us to be patient with ourselves and more patient with our loved ones. Keep learning, keep going – there are more lessons ahead to strengthen you and guide you.
Here in Illinois, we are enjoying temperatures nearing the 60’s. This came after a nearly two-week period last month of freezing weather and repetitive snowstorms. Looking outside now, it’s hard to believe how miserably cold we were or how much snow and ice had recently covered our rooftops, streets, and driveways.
However, one caveat to the sunshine these past few days has been the strong winds that bring with them their own damage and challenges. You can either hide from the wind and miss the sunshine or enjoy a walk in the sunshine and embrace the wind.
When I sat at my mother’s bedside the last day she spent on earth, there actually was a winter storm going on. The greater storm, though, was my internal one as I faced the reality that she would not live to see the next day. Rather than spending that time only crying, I began to minister to her. I cleaned and trimmed her nails, moisturized her skin and face, and cleaned and combed her hair. I also prayed over her, sang hymns, and read scripture to her. I reminded her that I loved her and told her that the family would be okay. It was a conscious decision on my part to ignore the wind and see the sunshine. I knew that she would soon be completely healed from Alzheimer’s, that her “winter” here would be done, and that she would soon know her name again. Losing a loved one is never easy, but we all know that one day our role as caregivers will change. My hope for you is that you will see the sunshine in spite of the wind.
My family was just discussing how scary the world is becoming. Day after day we hear news of senseless crimes that leave a trail of death or disability in their wake. The mother of an acquaintance I met recently through a friend is now grieving the loss of her son to highway gun violence. Needless to say, we are all also traumatized by the pandemic in some form or another.
Caregiving now takes on a new meaning and responsibility for each of us. A friend, acquaintance, or loved one doesn’t have to be terminally ill for you to become a caregiver. Today’s trauma is teaching us that we need to check on others more often. And this may not be as serious as the police welfare check in which people involve the police to ensure another person’s safety.
This is simply caring enough to reach out to others yourself. Think of the many people who have limited contact with others because of the pandemic – especially those in nursing homes. Think of those you know who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or to street or highway violence. How can you care for some of them? A card in the mail, a message via social media, or even an old-fashioned phone call to let someone know you care or that you are praying for them can really help others get back on their feet. This world has made all of us caregivers. We just have to find it in our hearts to take the time to make a small difference to a few people at a time.
🙋Your Turn- Are there 2 people you can care for this week?
An entry I made in the journal I’d kept during my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s related to an unraveling of relationships in our family. Although I hadn’t recorded the actual issues, the implications were that I was irritated at siblings that I felt could be doing more to help care for our mother. Even though we know we can’t change people, it sometimes still hurts that others don’t or won’t pitch in like we feel they should.
But instead of dwelling on what I felt was unfair, I remembered the advice of my youngest brother Jason that we should not let our mother’s illness cause breaks in our relationships with one another. That’s a little easier said than done when there may already be rifts in the family. Loving other family members doesn’t mean we have to like what they do or don’t do. We love them because we are family, and we mend the rifts for the sake of the person we are caring for. We also do it for our own sakes because it gives us one less burden to carry.
I get totally frustrated when my computer monitor is completely black – indicating that the computer may not be working. The frustration is multiplied when there is something I need to get done immediately. When this happened recently, I went through all the checks: everything was plugged in, the power was on, and I replaced the battery in the wireless mouse. Still nothing. It was time for plan B – go dig out the old monitor that I hadn’t yet disposed of and connect it to the computer. And it worked. So at least I’d traced the problem to the new monitor, not the system itself.
After I finished printing what I needed, I decided to try the monitor again before I took it back to the store to complain that I’d been sold a piece of trash. In moving the monitor, my finger touched a small button beneath the screen. I moved it to realize it was the power button; it dawned on me that I had inadvertently turned the monitor off when I’d rearranged things the day before while dusting. All my previous frustration could have been averted if I had simply checked the power on the monitor, not just the power on the computer.
When you become totally frustrated that things don’t seem to be working the way you want them to as a caregiver, or when you think that no matter what you do things will never change, stop and check your power source. Are you drained because you are pushing yourself too much? Have you stopped getting the rest you need? What about your energy level – are you eating what you need to sustain your health, or surviving on caffeine and sugar? Have you given yourself permission to step away from your load of caregiving and recharge? Do what you can reconnect to your power source so that you don’t lose hope.
Valentine’s Day usually focuses on relationships between couples, so anyone who is not a part of a couple may feel slighted. This year, however, let’s shift our focus to the love that exists within families. More specifically, let’s think about and appreciate the love a caregiver shows to someone in the family who may or may not be a spouse. This short video shows us how a sister loves and cares for her brother. https://videos.aarp.org/detail/video/5312257889001/regina-belle-on-caring-for-her-brother