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Archive for the ‘boomer women’ Category

I never thought this day would come–when I’d write about making peace with my mother. My mother was difficult, and that’s an understatement. It’s not that I’ve ever known anything different. When some people read my book, Mothering Mother, they ask how I could have forgiven her, much less taken care of her. The reason is simple: caregiving is more about you–your character,  your journey–than it is about them.

While my mother was demanding,  domineering, rather self-serving, somewhat violent (I grew up in the day when spanking, whipping, and  even slapping your child across the face (which she did more times than I can count) wasn’t all that unusual–mine was just a bit more extreme), but my mother was also funny, bigger than life, and she ironically adored my daddy and me.

I spent  my 20s pretty darn angry–about being adopted, about her  rages, and in general, just one big hot  mess. Eventually, I got tired of being angry. I got tired of carrying such a huge “life isn’t fair” grudge around all the time.

So, in essence, I simultaneously wore it and decided to let go.

Not because she  did or didn’t deserve it, but because I did.

And in full disclosure, there were many times (teen years especially) where I was not the ideal daughter and she had every right to be beyond frustrated/irritated and  at a complete loss as to what to do with me.

We continued to have  our tiffs and rifts. I still had to stand up to her–toe to toe–and she still managed to wield her emotional  knives and sometimes I didn’t see them  coming and  would once again buckle under the hurt. Still, this formidable woman gave me more good than ill. I honed my strength, my courage, and my faith by having it tested again and again. And in time, as I  married, birthed and  raised children, I became aware that  all mother-daughter relationships are fraught with a tangle of emotions, regrets, and misunderstandings. I  have  more compassion for my mother these days and I ask mercy from my own adult daughters. Yet I know  there will be so much I won’t understand and they won’t understand  until it’s time. Until then I will be their whetting stone and they  will sharpen their axes on me just as I, in turn, did to my mother.

I am finally at peace with my mother. Not in some Pollyanna way. I am at peace now because I am somehow able to open wide and embrace all of it–I can remember and absorb the pain and it no longer poisons me.

I remember the day  I opened Jack Canfield’s book, The Success Principles and read his first entry:

I am  100% responsible for my own life.

That day I finished growing up (not that  we are ever done growing).

The angst of a mentally ill birth mother, a alcoholic-addictive father, a cold grandmother saddled with grandchildren to raise, being  abused and  being adopted by the age of four to a mother wrestling with religion and force and hardened old and narrow  ways–all of it burned by some holy fire, no more than ashes.

I am 100% responsible for my own life.

Peace.

Only by loving what is–all that she was, that I was, all that we are and will  forever  be–am I now capable of holding us in that sacred and loose place. I can smile and say with  an open heart and wide arms,

“Oh, we’re  such a mess, aren’t we?”

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Boomers and caregiving: Pass the joy with a side of stress. Rita Wilson spoke on the Today Show this morning  about her bountiful life–a mother in her 90′s, teens at home, being a new grandmother, and writing a new column over at Huffington Post/Huff Post 50 about women 50 and over. Her days (like most boomer’s days) sound like there’s more people to love and care for than any super-hero boomer woman can manage.

Like a very full Lazy-Susan, no matter where we turn there’s someone who needs our care. Celebrities in the news are facing what you and I face–Maria Shriver lost both her parents recently (her dad to Alzheimer’s), not to mention man troubles. Having a circle of friends where you can be honest about the guilt, the resentment, the sorrow, the changes, the disappointments life brings, the feelings of never being able to do enough, give enough, care –that circle of friends can save our sanity  (and maybe keep us off death row–or provide an alibi!) and at times may be our only lifeline when all we thought we knew crumbles.

ABC Nightly News recently called me for a quote to be aired on a caregiving report on the “Most Stressed Woman in America.” I’m not surprised she was a middle-aged caregiver. That’s not a beauty pageant I want to win.

And just as we find ourselves we begin to lose another–our parents are aging and disease is rearing its horns. We barely get two seconds to ourselves before we have to step up and make some of the scariest decisions of our lives. Can my parent still drive, live alone, should I move them in with me, into a care facility, should I trust this doctor, there’s so much I don’t know, how do I manage their care when my heart is breaking? And eventually, how do I begin to say goodbye?

Questions of who am I now, and who will I be without you circle like crows.

Women over 50 are strong and resilient. They know how and when to let loose and have fun. They’re fierce, love their family and friends, juggle far more than a set of china plates. They’ve weathered divorce, head lice, runaway teens, breast cancer, hemorrhoids, death and lost car keys–the big and small tragedies that come and go.

Don ‘t underestimate a boomer caregiver. They’re diplomats, warriors, shamans and alchemists. They hear the tick, tick of the clock and it doesn’t scare them–it motivates them. They’ve got plenty of goals but as they age they get off the kick of having to be crazy-busy all the time–being clear about knowing what you want and no longer wanting it all makes for a good life. Health, family, friends, simple joys like holding hands, waking to your favorite coffee, and taking a walk in the woods–that’s what matters.

I’ve recently joined this tribe and their example of wisdom and moxie is a good road map to follow. As I let go of youth I reach and strong hands surround me. I’ve read it’s not what comes next that scares us–it’s the change–that in between time just before we let go and leap. Free fall. It helps to have my friends cheering me on–and holding the rope.

Boomers and caregiving may come in tandem, but so do boomers and friends.

~Carol O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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Cooking for my elderly mom was a lot like cooking for a fussy toddler. She wanted to eat what she wanted to eat–and that could fluctuate at any given moment. I tried to make her happy, I really did. Caregiving and cooking is a daily challenge, not to mention a battle of the wills. Little Debbie’s and Klondike bars were about the only thing that would make her face light up into a smile. I used to let it get to me, then I figured hey, she’s 92 years old–she has earned the right to eat what she wants! Besides, I should worry (focus is a better word) more about what I’m eating than what she’s eating!

While I didn’t blame her for going for the sweets, (who wouldn’t?) the problem was, I did the ole’ “one for you and one for me.” Before I knew it, I had gained over 30 pounds! It took patience and experimentation, but I finally learned how to cook and eat in a healthy way–and still fit it in with my crazy chaotic caregiving day.

Tips I Learned About Cooking and Caregiving:

  • Get a couple of sizes of Calphalon pans (not the nonstick type–avoid Teflon for health reasons). It’s quick and easy to pan cook your meats such as fish, chicken, pork or beef–for fast cooking and so you can do several things with your chicken breasts, pork chops, etc.
  • Start the day with a good breakfast. Yes, I sound like your mom did when you were a kid, but it’s true! Not only do our elders typically enjoy breakfast food, they tend to be hungry first thing in the morning–and breakfast is an easy clean up meal. Go for eggs or oatmeal, always have some fruit, and even enjoy a slice of bacon (it’s actually not too bad for you!)
  • Consider eating a hearty lunch–or even doing the whole 2 meal plan. I grew up with retired parents and we ate breakfast at 10 and dinner at 4. It worked out great–and clean up was early in the evening.
  • Take that chicken breast you’re cooking for mom, cook some rice in some chicken stock, add a few carrots, a slash of parsley and garlic, ( found my mom got to where she didn’t like spices that much) chop that breast into easily chewed pieces and your mom has a hearty and comforting lunch/dinner.
  • Take the second chicken breast and chop it over a bed of greens (by that, I mean spinach or kale–go for the hearty greens) chop some red peppers, purple onions, boiled egg, some feta or goat cheese and you have one great salad–mix a bit of dijon mustard with a splash of balsamic vinegar and honey, heat it 20 seconds in the microwave and you have a great hot dressing. If it’s winter and chilly, saute it in your pan for a warm dinner and serve with a sweet potato–and you’ve got one nutritionally packed meal.
  • K.I.S.S. Keep it Simple, Sweetheart. Any great chef (such as my hero, Tom Calicchio of Top Chef) will tell you, keep it simple. Use a few fresh, colorful, quality ingredients–and let the flavors wow you.
  • Get mom those 100 calorie snack packs for cookies (if you can stop yourself) and keep her snacks back in her room. If she stops eating her meals and is loading up on the goodies, either remove them or don’t worry about it. When you’re 90, do you still have to follow the food pyramid? Really? I think not…
  • Dinner should be the lightest meal of the day. That’s why God made canned soups. Enjoy tomato soup or black bean soup–and follow it with some Greek yogurt with a drizzle of honey in it. You’ll feel like you had dessert.
  • Take your vitamin D and other supplements–walk 20 minutes a day (2–10 minute walks are great) keep handweights nearby for a bit of strength training. Along with a decent night’s sleep (I know, not always possible!) and you’ve got the basics of a healthy lifestyle.
  • Think about yourself–a lot. Sounds crazy, I know.  But caregiving takes up so much of your time and energy–and that’s okay–but you’re responsible for what goes on between your ears. Buy books to help you with you. Go to the library and check out some health books of CD’s such as Dr. Amen’s Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.
  • Pick one part of your body and just work that out. Do lunges down the hall. Do 10 sit-ups (girlie kind, half way) a day-no more. If you like wearing sleeveless tops in the summer, then lift handweights while the commercials are on. Don’t worry about the rest of the package–you’ll have great arms!
  • Eat only what you love–but learn to love the good stuff. It’s almost cherry season and I have every intention on gorging myself  with fresh cherries. How bad can it be for me? They’re only good (and relatively inexpensive) for a few short weeks, so why not indulge myself in something that I love? My new favorite foods are Fage Greek yogart, goat cheese (I eat it on everything I can think of) and a great Riesling–I only have that once a week, but what a treat! Life is too short to fill my body with processed crapola. In the words of L’Oreal….I am so worth it! (paraphrase :))

It’s easy fall into the zombie mind of caregiving–but along with that comes in tow some baaaaad eating habits. Keep it simple. Learn to love the good stuff. And remember…good food, good family times–does life get any better?

Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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The new show, “Who Do You Think You Are” is a hit. There’s a reason. We want–and need to know where we come from. (www.ancestory.com is a good place to start) Louis Gates Jr. does a great job on the PBS show, “Faces of America” researches celebrities past and revealed Yo Yo Ma’s family tree dating back to the 11th century. You don’t even have to turn on your television to learn about your own history. Your own elders offer you insights you don’t want to miss. That’s why hanging out with your grandparents, great aunts, and uncles and parents, is a smart idea. It’s one of the perks of caregiving–you get to be around the people you’re related to, and you’ll learn stories, songs, recipes, and family legacies that are only revealed naturally–around the kitchen table, long car rides, and late at night.

Being adopted, I feel equally trenched in four families lives. I’m every bit invested in my adoptive family as I am my birth family. Who they are, the amazing feats of courage, their songs, stories, photographs, and ethical inheritance is truly a part of who I am.

I found my birth family 20 years ago, and since then, I’ve discovered that my great, great, (keep going) grandfather was a chaplain in the American Revolutionary war, which makes me eligible for the DAR. I’ve got lawyers, land owners, ministers, mayors, and statesmen in my family. I’ve found amazing stories of an aunt whose baby died at childbirth and she willed herself to die three days later. My grandmother was married 4 times, and fell out of a coconut tree–at the age of 83!

But what’s even more amazing is not that somebody famous or some war hero is lurking in your DNA, it’s the quiet moments, like when my adoptive mother who had only ever said the “nice’ things about her mother finally opened up that she had been critical and hard. It helped me understand her. I heard the heartbreak in her voice, held her hand and understood something profound about who she was, who influenced her, and why she did the things she did. It brought us closer because it wasn’t a bragging point, it was a revelation–to reveal. It brought understanding and connection.

Now “Who Do You Think You Are” brings this ancestoral fasciation to the mainstream view and will open the doors wide to our familial roots.The Temple at Delphi states “Know Thyself.” Louis Gates Jr. reminds us at the end of his show, “Know Thy Past, Know Thyself.”

These moments and opportunities don’t necessarily come through blood tests and genealogical research, it’s on those quiet caregiving days–it’s the gifts our elders give us.

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After a decade of caring for my mother who had Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and heart disease, then brought her into our home the last 2+ years of her life, this is the distilled version of what caregiving taught me. I am profoundly grateful for these lessons.

  1. To stand up for myself, and caregiving will give me plenty of opportunities to do so.
  2. There is a time in life in which you sacrifice for someone you love–and a time to stop sacrificing.  
  3. It takes humor to tackle the big scary things in life, like caregiving, disease, and death.
  4. Caregiving will inevitably bring out the worst–and the best in me.
  5. Caregiving will change me, but it’s up to me to determine how.
  6. I can’t stop death.
  7. I can decide how I will live the next moment of my life. One moment at a time.
  8. My emotions are my body’s barometers. I need to listen to these cues, feel them, use them as a catalyst, but know that no one emotion will last forever.
  9. To pace myself. Burnout is very real and very dangerous.
  10. I can’t meet all the needs of another human being. I can’t take the place of my care partner’s spouse, career, friends, or health.
  11. Caregiving is about integrity. I have to choose what is right–for me–and for all the others in my life. No one person gets to be the “only one ” 
  12. When I start to give too much to caregiving, it means I’m avoiding some aspect of my own life’s journey.
  13. Caregiving  isn’t just about caregiving. It unearths every emotional weak spot I have–not to destroy me–but to give me a chance to look at, and even heal that area.
  14. I have to stop being nice and pleasing people. “They” will never be satisfied or think it’s enough. What’s best for me–truly, deeply best–is best for those around me.
  15. Learning to stand up to relatives, authority figures, to my parent or spouse, and even a disease teaches me to be brave, a quality we need.
  16. Give up perfect. Go for decent. Do more of what I’m good at–and ask for help on the rest.
  17. Don’t isolate myself. Being alone, depressed, and negative is easy. Fighting to stay in the game of life–that’s tough, but worth it.
  18. If or when my care partner needs more care than I can provide, or even dies, that doesn’t mean I’ve failed. It means I’ve done all I could and it’s time for change.
  19. You will go the distance. You will live at hospitals, stay up night after night, weep in the deepest part of your soul, question everything you’re doing…and barely come out alive. Caregiving asks, takes this from you. Through this process, you will transform. You will see who you are–the whole of you. You will survive.
  20. Choose to care-give–then do with heart and guts.

To love makes us brave. To be loved gives us courage.

                                                                                                                                       –Lao Tzo, Chinese Philosopher

Carol O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother

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Dr. Christiane Northrup did a PBS talk on the Wisdom of Menopause in which she reminds me that nothing–not caregiving–not menopause is brought into my life to destroy me. It’s to make me pay attention. To love and accept myself more–not less. Over-caregiving is more common than you think. I’m guilty of it myself–at times. I had to learn that I couldn’t fix my mother–I couldn’t take the place of her beloved husband after Daddy died. I couldn’t stop Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t be her all in all. And I had to stop trying.

Dr. Northrup used the excellent model of breastfeeding to correlate how we should care-give. Being a young mother is another time of extreme care. We physically and emotionally give our all to birth a new life. In order to breast feed, you have to feed yourself. You use up 600-1000 calories a day breastfeeding. What you eat, how you sleep, how stressed you are–all effects your ability to produce milk. If you go for even a few days without eating healthy and sleeping well, your milk production will begin to wane. What a great example. You can’t give out, unless you give in. Your body–and your spirit just won’t do it.

She also mentioned that a doctor friend of hers wrote on his prescription pad to a woman “See your mother ONLY 2 times a week.” Doctor’s orders. Sometimes we need others in authority to give us permission to take better care of ourselves.

I remember one day when my mother shuffled into my kitchen with a scowl on face. She slammed her hand down on the counter and announced,

“I”m not happy!”

She had a “and what are you gonna do about it look on her face.”

I started to smile. Revelation.

I realized in that moment that the only person I could make happy–was me.

We can never fill up another human being. We can’t make up for aging and disease–or for their lack of caring for their lives and health all along. Our best way to give is to know what ways ive best.

How do you know when you’re over-caregiving?

When you have zero time for your own health and relationships. But, but…you argue. If you are getting less than 6 hours sleep, are spending all your time taking care of someone else’s physical and emotional needs, feel like your stress levels are above an 8 almost all the time, then yes, you’re over-caregiving.

How to stop over-caregiving?

Care-give  ala’ carte style. Pick and choose and don’t even try to do it all.

What are you good at?

What does your mom–or dad–or spouse value?

What seems to be working?

What isn’t working?

So, if you’re a great cook and they eat for you, then cook and fill their tummies with homemade soup and decadent brownies.

If they like for you to be at their doctor’s appointments, then build that into your schedule.

If you tend to fight every time you start trying to organize their house–then quit.

But I dont’ have a choice. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.

Then it won’t get done. Be willing to live with it.

For example, I stopped going to re-check appointments. My mom had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as heart disease. I took her in for her six month check-ups, but no follow-ups. I got her meds and created a structure we could live with. I dealt as best as I could with the emergencies that came up.

I also said no to hospitalizations. They wanted to try exploratory surgery. Really? On a 90 year old with all these conditions? I said no. The medical profession looked at me as if I were a bad daughter, but I didn’t care.

Ask yourself: Does it need to get done? Will it improve the quality of life enough to warrant the work/commitment?

Yeah, some things do. But do the minimum in the area you’re not good at or don’t think it will pay off. Or ask someone to help.

If you have to choose–choose to meet your needs first.

What?

Yep, that’s what I said.

You can’t reverse Alzheimer’s once it’s started.

But you can prevent heart disease (the number one killer in the US) in your own heart!. Go for a walk. De-process food your house. Sign up for yoga. Rent all your favorite funny movies and invite a friend over for a laugh fest.

Sounds too simple? It’s because it is simple. Choose health CARE over health-care. Do what you can, but know that you can’t undo another person’s diseases or problems. Love them, make life comfortable, and give up over-caregiving.

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Thanksgiving is the time of year we gather those we love under one roof. Pass the stuffing, hold the sarcastic remarks. If you’ve ever had your mother, your teenagers, and your toddlers all at one table, you know it can get dicey. No iPods at the table, yes you have to eat two bites of broccoli, and thank you, mother–I have gained a few pounds lately–glad you noticed and thought it worth commenting on!  Multigenerational households are petri dishes for family issues. The best way to combat the exhaustion and stress is with a splash of humor.

Your mother might not “get” the challenges of raising a teenager in today’s world of texting and Youtube. She might have a comment or two about your toddler pitching a fit at Target and even state emphatically that you and your siblings never acted out in public (although you distinctly remember a few incidents). You can either laugh it off and not let it get to you, or…take it personal. It’s best to act like a duck and let the water roll off your feathers.

Change the subject or stand your ground, whichever the situation calls for. Remind yourself that you’re a “good enough” parent. You know how to prioritize and you give your heart and time to those you love. That’s good enough.

The only person who can give you that inner resolve to choose to not let your kids or your mom get to you–is you. For me, it took some alone time first thing in the morning and then a few times during the day. I’d sit in the car and give myself a pep talk. I’d walk back to my room to get something, look at myself in the mirror and give myself a smile. When one of those arrows struck me good and hard, I’d go cry, yell, or punch my pillow a couple of times. What was worse was when I didn’t take the high road and I was the one having to go and apologize. It comes with having too much to do and letting the pressure get to you.

Being mom to two generations–one on each side–is exhausting, frustrating, and at times you question yourself. It’s also rewarding. There’s something pretty cool about being the axis at the center of the wheel. Even though I got my fair share of scowls since I was caregiving and raising kids, (my mother had Alzheimer’s) at the same time. It felt like I was the bad guy all the time. I remember one day when I was arguing with my mom (who also had Parkinson’s) that she couldn’t drive in busy traffic, and then turning right around and giving my 15 year-old a driving lesson. We had plenty of tiffs, laughs and hugs, and that’s family life.  

So if you’re sitting down at Thanksgiving tomorrow, say a out loud thanks for being a multi-gen house. Grab hands, say a blessing, and pass the rolls. Your life may be really full and crazy right now, but you know,  that really is a good thing.

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“You’re in a bad mood.” I could see it on my mother’s face the moment she woke up.

As a caregiver, my mother and I took turns being in a bad mood. It’s a miserable existence when two people play off each other’s negativity. My mother had Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and some days, it was just too much for her to work at being happy. Is it work? Is happy all it’s cracked up to be? It’s not about being happy or giddy, it’s more about being okay with where you life is–acceptance–and then being on the look-out for the good that comes with your situation.

My mom wasn’t the only one that could turn into a Gloomy Gus. I had my own issues to contend with–raising three teenage daughters isn’t the world’s easiest job, and it’s easy to let depression seep in the cracks of your life when you’re caregiving and dealing with end-of-life concerns.

It’s usually the head and heart stuff that turns your insides into knots. I’d mull over a past hurt (my mother should have been archeologist, the way she could dig up the past!) or I’d project into the future and create disastrous scenarios. Ridiculous, I know, but our minds are like a team of horses, if you don’t reign it in, it goes anywhere it wants to, which is usually a bad-thought neighborhood.

In time, I learned that if my mom and I were going to live together again, and if she was going to have to do the tango with two formidable diseases, then we had better get our act together.

Here are a few tips I learned to coax either of us out of a bad mood:

  • Lovingly disengage. Just because my mom wanted to declare it the end-of-the world-all-is-lost-day, I didn’t have to raise the flag. I could take one step back and acknowledge that yes, today was a challenging day for her, but the best thing I could do for both of us was to stay on a steady course.
  • Ignore the whining and grumpiness. I’ve learned something about emotions by observing my long and illustrious marriage–sometimes we push someone else’s buttons so they will either get mad, yell or cry–and then we feed off the release of their emotions. I’m not kidding! Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship will attest to this phenomena. So the best thing to do is to click into high gear and simply not go there. After a time of it not working, the emotional fire won’t have any oxygen to keep going.
  • Conversely, if you haven’t had a heart to heart talk lately, then it may be time. But cut to the chase. Ask if they’re scared. Ask if they’re lonely. Tell them you are. At first, they’ll most likely scramble. We’d rather pick at each other than look at the truth, but by you admitting your emotions, they’ll gain permission to consider their own.
  • Put on some music or a funny video! Music is simply amazing when it comes to altering our moods. Within minutes, we breathe differently, our heart rate alters, and we start having different thoughts. Turn on some Bach or Count Basie to drown out a fussy moment. Even if they complain and say turn it down, don’t turn it off.
  • Coax, flirt, play, tease your way out a challenging moment. Remember how to cheer up a toddler? Get their favorite stuffed toy, a cookie and a snuggly blanket? Do you think we ever grow up from needing a few creature comforts? We don’t. With a bit of gentle play, a time of wooing, an offer of a gift, we can cause a shift in someone’s day. Come on girls, you know what I mean here–we’ve been cheering up our guys for years. Guys, there is nothing in the world like flowers and chocolate. It works–for moms and girlfriends. Even for dads. Remember what they like. There’s nothing as wonderful as someone who knows you.

When all else fails, choose to be grateful for even days like this. Gratitude can be broken down into bite-size pieces. Today, a flock a sea birds took off over my house. It sounded like angel’s wings–and took my breath to see such magnificence. they just kept coming, bird after bird, their long necks (egrets and spoonbills) stretched against a blue sky. Whatever happens today, I have my birds to remember.

Not all of your day may go so great, but be on the look out for your birds–for something that startles you and takes your breath.

Helping someone get out of bad mood is an art, part play, and part having a plan. The up-side is that you can’t help lift someone else out of the doldrums without giving yourself a boost at the same time.

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You weren’t born a caregiver, although it might feel like it. This morning, I noticed that a bright orange Crepe Myrtyle leaf lying on the grass. Fall is on its way. Yes, I live in Florida, and yes, it’s still hot–but it feels different than a few weeks ago. The click in the gear has already begun. The seasons are changing. Caregiving is like that leaf. It comes in seasons, and you can’t fight the seasons life gives you no more than I can glue that leaf back on its branch, paint it green and declare it Spring. 

Some people seem to care for someone most of their life–a sibling, their alcoholic parent, their co-dependent spouse. It’s not that we mean to attract it, but for some, caregiving is a recurrent theme. For most, caregiving is something we’ll do more than once in our lifetime. But I do know this: You won’t always be in your caregiving role.

You weren’t always a caregiver, were you? You were a child, a teenager, a young person–in college or with a new job-career. You fell in love. You traveled. You birthed children, raised them. Maybe you got a divorce, remarried, changed careers. Even though caring for others may have been a part of your life many times over, it didn’t completely sideline you.

So why should caregiving sideline you now? Yes. There comes a time, particularly in elder-care, chronic illnesses, or at the end of life, you need to stop everything else and just be with your loved one. There are times when another person’s care is all-consuming–time, emotions, finances…you name it and it takes it all. But that needs to be the rare occasion and for the least amount of time possible. Why? It’s not a healthy way to live. If you’re not careful, you’ll find that you’re living for and maybe even through someone else, and that’s not good if you do it for too long at a time.  

Think of it this way: Humans are capable of running marathons. We can exert great physical and emotional energy and do amazing things–for a short period of time. Our bodies have great reserves (and I believe our spirits do as well). They say we only use 10% of our brains and 20% of our body’s capabilities in everyday life. We have enormous reserves. We have to. When we need to tap into that deep well of energy, thought, and focus, it drains it very quickly.

Stress is like jet fuel–it takes a huge amount, so our stockpile has to stay stocked. Intense caregiving is a lot like a marathon–you really can’t expect your body to run 26 miles a day, every day.

I fought full-time caregving in the beginning. I was a sandwich generation mom. I already had a full-plate life. But my mom needed me–I worried about her falling, not eating, not taking her meds–that other people were having to do my load.

Even after we moved her into our home–I avoided her/caregiving. I’m not proud of that, but I just couldn’t be with her all the time. She got on my nerves, made me nervous, however you want to put it. It took time–I felt judged, watched, consumed by an all-present mother-figure. She certainly had no qualms about stating that she was in charge. It took time, but we learned how to live together again.

Caregiving allowed me to dance around, dip into, and even avoid it for a season, and then the seasons changed. I couldn’t leave my mom with my husband or children (they were teens and quite competent). She was too emotionally volatile and her medications and needs were too intricate to explain. One by one, my activities dwindled. Death was like an intrusive relative who moved in with way too many bags and set up housekeeping.

The last year of my mother’s life was a series of secessions, and from March until June, I did nothing but watch my mother die. Each week got quieter. Each week I gave up a little more of the outside world. At first, I was angry and scared–death is an unwelcome and rude guest. As time went on, I learned how to let my family go on about the business of living–jobs, school, boyfriends, and part-time jobs. I became comfortable with the fact that I was supposed to spend these last months by my mother’s side. Like a circle that kept growing tighter and tighter, I drew close to her.

It felt like she’d never die–only continue dying. The last few weeks were grueling, and now I know the meaning of that word. It’s not that I wanted her to, it was just so painful, so quiet, so intense…

And then it was over. The funeral home people came, took her body, and I walked back in her room, her empty room. I’d never felt so lost, so unhinged, so exhausted and depleted in every way.

Getting used to that space in my life–that caregiving space that was now an empty room with empty hours with empty purpose–it was such a void and it took time and being tender with myself. I’d lost my mom. Who was I now? What was I if I wasn’t a caregiver?

New seasons came. I returned to college. Helped one daughter get married, two off to college. I wrote a book. I now travel and speak and teach. More seasons to come.

If you’re just starting caregiving and wondering where this will take you, how long you’ll be caregiving, try not to jump too far ahead–there’s just too many what if’s out there. If you’re coming to the end of your caregiving journey, hang on–it won’t last forever–and that’s a good and not good thing.

Currently, I’m not a caregiver, but I know that one day, that season will come back into my life. I’ll be out walking one day–I’ll look down, and there will be a crisp autumn leaf reminding me that a change is about to come.

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Have you ever told someone you collect elephant figurines–and then everyone gives you elephants for your birthday, Christmas and just for the heck of it? Suddenly, you’re crawling with elephants. Pink elephants, purple  elephants , glass elephants. You’re now the owner of elephant dishes and elephant t-shirts. That’s what it feels like as a caregiver sometimes. Once you take on that role, it can take over your life.

When I was caregiving my mom, I went through a stage when it was all I could talk about. Caregiving consumed my every thought. I was in constant search of how to relieve my frustration, how to get the help my mom needed, and I embraced this new identity because well, it took up most of my thoughts, time and energy. But then it builds and builds like those darn elephants start cluttering up the place and suddenly, you’re sick of it.

Maybe that’s where you’re at. Maybe you’ve recently become a caregiver, or you’ve been at it for years and years. You bought some books on Alzheimer’s. You go to caregiver meetings. You go online to caregiving forums and chat-rooms. The few friends you have left talk to you about their moms and dads, spouses and all things caregiving. They call you whenever it’s mentioned on television or there’s an article about it in a magazine. You’re inundated. Elephants, elephants, everywhere.

You can’t for the life of you remember life before…your life feels like one of those old-fashioned movies when they used to smear the lens with Vaseline. Fuzzy. You used to…run an ad firm, be an accountant, a pre-school teacher, take ballet, go to France…now you’re excited if you get to go Costco! How did this happen?

Break Out of the Caregiving Rut:

  • Have at least one friend who isn’t actively caregiving. Everyone needs a little variety.  
  • Forbid yourself to talk about caregiving for one hour (wear a rubber-band and snap yourself if you do!)
  • Do at least one non-care related activity a day–even for ten minutes. Knit. Plant a container garden. Take a PhotoShop class online.
  • Get the paper. Read the paper–or a magazine . Shoot for one a week. Expand your mind. Fill your head with something that interests you (other than caregiving).
  • Give yourself venting sessions. Yeah, the pressure builds. Get a timer and set it for 10 minutes. Call a good buddy and let it rip. When the timer goes off, STOP!
  • Ask yourself: is this a toxic relationship? Some folks are just negative, and right now, you’ve got enough going on. Surround yourself with upbeat people. If someone brings out the worst in your, back off the relationship.
  • Back off the caregiving info. Yeah, I know I blog about caregiving but take a break now and then. Go to Jokes.com or some other fun site. I promise you, no new caregiving breakthroughs that are going to revolutionize your life is going to happen today…probably not tomorrow.
  • Observe yourself. Are you over-identifying with your loved one? I know how much you love them, how much you worry…but too much attention isn’t good for anybody. Step back and listen to yourself.
  • Fill your head with…CD’s. I’m an audio book nut. I love to lose myself in someone else’s world. You can get CD’s from the library or from several online sources–one I know of is about $14 a month for unlimited CD’s–like Netflix, you just send them back in the mail and get a new one.
  • Schedule that respite care. I know it freaks you out. They’ll mess up your schedule, not give the meds right, you’ll fret so much it won’t be worth it. You need a break. You need a few days NOT doing this so you can come back renewed. Plan a couple of months ahead. Do a run-through. Have this person (professional or family/friend) come over for a few hours and see how it goes.
  • Break the vicious cycle by doing the opposite. If you’re talking too much, go on a verbal or media fast–turn off the computer and the television and go outside–listen for a change–to the birds, to the frogs at sunset.
  • If you’re going all the time–give yourself a 3 day moratorium. Stay home for 3 straight days. Get the milk and the bread ahead of time and stay put. I promise you, you’ll feel more centered and that chaotic fear will begin to subside.

I know how important caregiving is–I did it–and I gave it my all. But I hope you’ll be your own best friend and always learn and grow–and get back in balance when you get off a bit. 

Yes, caregiving can wear you down–and talking about it all the time can really wear you out–and it doesn’t make you a better caregiver. What do you bring to your relationship? Sometimes we have to discipline our words and our thoughts–and like exercise, it feels so good to hurt a little!

Why can talking about caregiving hurt you? Because we create energy around anything we talk about or think about. No that’s not woo-woo crazy talk, it’s true. Too much thinking about anything wears you out. When you’ve crossed the line, you know because it tires you out, it doesn’t relieve your stress. That’s how you know you have to curtail it a bit. A country preacher I heard one time said, “Maybe it’s time to change your stinkin’ thinkin’…” Well put.

So chuck a few elephants and enjoy the empty space.

~Carol O’Dell

Author, Mothering Mother

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