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I’m heading to France this summer and I’m taking a small photo of my dad standing in front of the Eiffel Tower during World War II. This Memorial Day we honor those who have served in war. We remember what they did. How they defended us. How they stood up for the helpless, the defeated. And now, many who have fought for our country are our elders. Their bodies are failing–and it’s our job to care for them and to give them the honor they deserve. Caregiving is more than meeting someone’s physical needs. It’s about remembering–all they are and have ever been.

Our fathers and grandfathers, brothers and mothers helped to stop Hitler–among others intent on destroying life. That’s amazing–and there are still atrocities going on in the world. People are still not free, and as flawed as we are, we still stand for justice. Maybe our government has mixed motives, but the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces have some pretty high ideals. We don’t want tyrants to take over, to kill and destroy, to obliterate the simple opportunity to live and work, marry and have families, eat and make a life for themselves and those they love.

So this weekend, look someone who has served our country right in the eye–and say thank you.

Ask them what it was like–to be “over there,” to be scared, to liberate a country, to ride in a tank. Give them the chance to tell their stories. Give them the opportunity to talk about it, for their chest to fill with pride. For them to relive their glory days. Get out those albums. Hang a flag. We’re far less patriotic than previous generations, and yet we are the ones reeping the benefits of their valiant efforts. Forget politics. Thank the men and women who protect us–who gave their time and for many, their limbs for something bigger than themselves.

I’m taking that photo of my dad to Paris with me. He was a sharpshooter and he helped to liberate France and Germany. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He stayed two more years to rebuild Paris. He absolutely loved serving our country–and now, he’s gone–but I won’t forget. I’ll tell his stories. I’ll visit Paris and Normandy. I’ll wear his dog tags.

~Carol O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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All of us worry about aging. Perhaps we should worry less–and learn from a pro. So, who’s the oldest person who ever lived?

The oldest woman (that can be documented) is Jeanne Louise Calment. She lived to the age of 122.

Born in Arles, France, February 21, 1875, and left this earth on August 4, 1997. Now, that’s impressive–but what’ more impressive is her mindset, her ability to embrace challenges and change. If anything is the key to longevity–with quality–it’s embracing challenges and changes with a measure of wit and grace.

What attributes do you need to live a long, healthy, and meaningful life? Living past 100 isn’t just about longevity–it’s about quality. Being a caregiver, I got to see “old age” close up. My mom lived to the age of 92 and it was only the last two years that were extremely difficult. ( My mom had Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and heart disease). There isn’t always rhyme or reason why one person makes it well past 100 with a sharp mind and a spry body while another person seems to hit one health problem after another.

Many centenarians have eaten what they wanted, smoked, drank (usually in moderation)–while someone else who tries to follow all the rules finds a not so pleasant diagnosis. Life isn’t fair. That’s a mantra we must embrace–and not in a negative way–but by choosing to love what is kind of way, and knowing the only thing we can change is our attitude.  Life’s a crap shoot, so let’s play some craps.

Highlights of Jeanne’s Louise Calment’s Amazing Life:

  •  Born the year Tolstoy published Anna Karennina
  • Born one year after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.
  • She met Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, her home town, when she was just 14. She wasn’t impressed.
  • In the end Calment was blind and almost deaf, but she kept her spunk and sharp wit to the end.
  • At age 121, she released her two CDs, one in French and another in English titled, Maitresse du Temps (Time’s Mistress). the CD features a rap and other songs. She wrote or contributed to five books.
  • Her husband died of a dessert tainted with spoiled cherries–she was a widow for more than half a century.
  • She outlived her only daughter who died of pneumonia at the age of 36. She raised her grandson who became a medical doctor and  lived him as well (he died in a car accident in 1963).
  • Calment took up fencing at the age of 80, and rode her bike until 100.
  • Calment enjoyed port wine and a diet rich in olive oil–and chocolate–two pounds a day.
  • At the age of 119 she finally agreed to give up sweets and smoking–because she could no longer see to light up.
  • Calment enjoyed a life of relative ease–from a bourgeois family, she always had enough money–not wealthy mind you, but enough.
  • She was active–and enjoyed tennis, bicycling, swimming, roller skating, piano and even opera. In her later years she sold some of her real estate and lived comfortably in a nursing home in Arles until her passing. She was affectionately known in France as “Jeanne D’Arles.”

Calment’s attitude and longevity s attributed to her decision not to worry: “She never did anything special to stay in good health,” said French researcher Jean-Marie Robine.  She once said “ If  you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.”
Calment recommended laughter as a recipe for longevity and jokes that “God must have forgotten about me.” ( L’Oubliee de Dieu?) as her reason for her long life.

For skin care, she recommended olive oil and a dab of make-up.  “All my life I’ve put olive oil on my skin and then just a puff of powder.  I could never wear mascara, I cried too often when I laughed.”

Calment’s Quotes:

“I’ve waited 110 years to be famous, I count on taking advantage of it,” she quipped at her 120th birthday party.

Also on her 120th  birthday, when asked what kind of  future did she expect, she replied “A very short one.”

Getting used to growing media attention with every year that passes, she quips:  “I wait for death… and journalists.”

“When you’re 117, you see if you remember everything!”   She rebuked an interviewer once.

On her 120th birthday, a man in town said, “Until next year, perhaps.”

“I don’t see why not,” she replied. ” You don’t look so bad to me.”

Clement’s Best Quote:

“I’ve never had but one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it.”

I don’t know about you, but aging like this doesn’t sound too bad. It sounds like a good life.

Enjoy life, learn to let go–even of those you love, crack a good joke, eat what you love, and don’t worry about the rest.

***

Mothering Mother is now available as an e-book! (click here to order for your Kindle)

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Caregiving and romance doesn’t seem to go hand-in-hand, but in many ways, it’s the epitome of real love. To care for a spouse, to set aside other aspects of your life and even your marriage to care for an aging or ill parent or child, is about grown up love–the kind that gives, and at times, the kind that sacrifices. Keeping love alive isn’t always easy under the best of life’s busy circumstances, and caregivers even have added stress, but it’s so worth the challenge.

Love Do’s:

Number one goal: Survive. We call ourselves “Team O’Dell.” Some days we felt like a black-ops team whose goal was to get through the dangerous landmines of caregiving and raising teens without committing kamikaze. Wasn’t easy, but I liked the idea of the two of us on a covert mission. However you do it, stay united.

Do keep a bigger vision in focus: Your marriage, your health, your sanity, your humor, your passion–keep that visionary “finish line” ribbon in site. No matter what happens, how long or how hard caregiving gets, the goal is survive–and even thrive.

Do practice good manners. Kisses hello and goodbye, thank you for the hot tea, opening the door for your lady–treat each other like you would on your first date. Why? Because in honoring someone else, we honor ourselves and our relationship. It takes a bit of discipline at first and then it’s easy–and really helps to smooth things over on tough days.

Do compliment each other. Tell your loved one how brave they are. How compassionate they are. How funny they are. Caregivers (for the most part) don’t feel attractive, don’t feel perky or sexy, so remind them they are. Nothing is sexier than someone who knows how to love.  Compliments never get old–not when they’re genuine.

Do look for moments of connection. Forget going on a two-week vacation for now–don’t even torture yourself with the idea. You may not even be able to go on a two hour dinner date, much less a weekend getaway–so grab a kiss in the garage, dance to your favorite song in the kitchen, or better yet–start each day with a shower together! (that was the one place my mother respected my privacy–I think she was part-cat and was afraid to get wet!)

Do celebrate every chance you get. See some gorgeous wildflowers in bloom on the side of the road? Stop and grab a handful. Buy her a mini cupcake and stick a candle in it as a “you survived another week” celebration. Celebrating isnt about fancy gifts, it’s about taking notice.

Do say thank you often. Every day, in fact. Consider a gratitude board where everyone writes what they’re thankful for–a great kitchen or laundry room addition. Use a bit of irony: “I’m thankful I didn’t pull all my hair out today–or I’m thankful I didn’t rip that doctor’s nose off when he trated me so condescendingly.” Not all gratitude has to sound like a Hallmark card.

Do invest in your emotional and relationship bank account. The caregiving years may be a time for withdrawals more than deposits. That’s okay. Know that your relationship is strong enough to go on auto-pilot for awhile.

Do give mercy cards. Your spouse snapped at you for no reason? Don’t snap back–offer a mercy card instead. Sometimes we need to let something go, look over it, and realize they’re under so much stress that just need someone to cut them some slack.

Do stand up to your spouse when you need to. The other side of mercy is a showdown, and sometimes that’s just what’s needed. If you spouse is being an ass, pull him or her aside privately and tell them the strong truth. Sometimes it’s the cold-water thrown in your face that gets your attention.

Do use the ole’ good cop-bad cop routine if you have to. Let your spouse use you as an excuse if they need to. Sometimes we need to blame someone else–it’s okay–use every tactic you need to. In times of war the rules change. In times of caregiving, the rules change.

Do know and expect that the love and energy you give out will come back to you. Demand it back. Fully expect that your health and your relationship will rebound. We’re actually hardwired with tremendous reserves for time of great stress or need. That’s why we have such amazing brain and muscle reserve. When you need it, it’s there–but be prepared for the adrenaline dump that comes after it.

Do know how to pace yourself and take needed breaks. You can deplete those reserves–and then you have nothing left and your health can be in serious jeopardy. A six week hospital stint, a month of all-nighters–and before you know it, you are completely shot. Have you ever seen some daredevil on television do something so reckless that it’s just plain stupid? Don’t be a daredevil with your health (mental or physical) for anyone else. If you go past that, its dangerous ground. Accept that there’s is a limit to what you can do.

Do consider each other a source of strength. The arms of you spouse or partner should be the safest place on earth. Create a haven for each other.

Do know that caregiving will end–and yes, eventually it will circle back and begin again. So when caregiving comes to an end, grive, reocver and then…live, celebrate, play, work–fill your life in a million meaningful ways. It takes some time to get back to feeling connected with the rest of humanity, but it will come. We’re meant to be fully engaged on this big blue ball–so when you can, while you can, go make memories, do some good out there, learn, explore, give back, kick up your heels and make some noise!

Keeping love alive is crucial but it isn’t going to be easy.

Whether it’s Valentine’s Day or any ole day, you’ve got to have some fight and some passion in your relationship. Being a caregiver isn’t about squelching all the other parts of you–it’s about weaving them in anytime and anyway you can. Be willing to invest and preserve your relationships and be determined that caregiving won’t take you down for the count. Caregiving is yet another thing you can look back on and realize that ironically it made you strong and it’s a part of who the two of you are.

Life is precious and caregiving seasons come and go. When it’s time to play, to travel, to really get out there–do it with all you’ve got!

In the words of my daddy, “Be good and take care of each other.”

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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A friend of mine told me that she confronted her mom about her memory loss and told her she was concerned it might be dementia or Alzheimer’s. Like many caregivers her hope was that she could convince her mom to visit a neurologist. Instead, her mom got furious and now won’t talk to her. My friend is devastated. She wonders if she stepped over the line, if she should have just made up another excuse to get her to the doctor, or if she should have just let it go. Now, there’s nothing but silence.

Being shut out of a loved one’s life really hurts. You question everything you said or did. You feel rejected when all you wanted to do was to help. What do you do now?

There’s no one right answer. Every family is different.

Suggestions for getting past the hurt: 

  • Give it some time–many people come around after their hurt and anger has subsided.
  • After a cooling off period, act like nothing has happened.
  • Try reasoning with them and assure them that avoiding the matter only makes it worse–and it might be a medication interaction or something else, but it’s best to know and be proactive.
  • Pull the “big guns” and insist the two of you go to the doctor–some people respond to a firm hand.
  • Try a bribe–is there something they’ve been wanting to do? For you to take them to see their sister, or take them to play the slots? Use whatever helps them safe face.
  • Send gifts and cards and lure them back. Be the bigger one and realize that you’re their lifeline and they need you right now–and if they want to “feel”  or “look” in charge, then let them.
  • Get someone else who’s on their good side to take them. They may not want to give into you, but they may go with their sister or best friend.
  • Leapfrog over a diagnosis and start dealing with the day-to-day concerns and issues you can do something about.

***

In the meantime, keep a journal. Make a note of any excuse, lie, avoidance, any times of confusion or bizarre findings such as the keys in the freezer, when they got lost coming home from the corner bank, or when they mentioned visiting a long deceased relative. As a caregiver you need to know what you’re dealing with and how often it’s happening.

Realize that a diagnosis isn’t going to do much–not in practical ways.

There’s no cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s and that the meds only work during the early phases of the disease and the medications only work on about half the people taking it, only slows the progression of the disease and typically only helps for about a year. But if your loved one is experiencing paranoia, anger issues, or anxiety, then ask about medications that can help these very real and very frustrating conditions.

If you suspect your loved one has memory loss then they probably do. so start working on practical aides (notes around the house, home monitoring, safety precautions such as a medical alert bracelet, and home help or live-in assistance, just to name a few).

Alzheimer’s and dementia certainly has its challenges, especially emotional ones. As the caregiver you have to be the bigger person. You have to do what’s right and not think about your feelings. Step over the hurt and find a way to reconnect.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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April 8, 9, 2010, I’ll be speaking at Owensboro Community and Technical College in Owensboro, Kentucky. My book, Mothering Mother is their Spring Common Reading Room book recommended for their entire college to read. They’re embracing the message–that when a community cares about caregiving–it makes a big difference.

Caregiving is a community affair. It impacts our society as well as our families. Meeting the needs of one elder can often take a two dozen people–doctors and nurses, rehabilitation therapists, pharmacist’s, the clergy and church members, neighbors, extended family and the list goes on.

But more important, caring for an elder impacts the family. Ask any grandchild who is facing the loss of a grandparent–what it’s like for them and their parents–the worry, exhaustion, grief, and guilt that come in tow. Caregiving can change a family–in good and in challenging ways. Families sacrifice, grapple to find the time and resources needed, and then feel at a loss when there’s nothing more youan do to make things better.

This isn’t an “age” problem. Many teens, college age persons and young adults care give as well. Cancer, mental illness, accidents, and heart disease are just a few of the diseases and circumstances that can enter a person’s life at any age.

And right now, we’re all struggling–financially–to make ends meet. Many families have moved in together and created multi-generational households out of necessity. Loss of jobs and not being able to afford  professional care are just some of the reasons we come under one roof. We pool our resources and do the best we can–we love and give–and hope it’s enough.

I’ll gather with the nursing department, “The Family” psychology class, English classes,give a reading and even do a presentation for the community at the Shephard Center. Many are free and open to the public–so if you live in Kentucky or Southern Indiana –consider stopping by.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my story. When a community listens, people come together, learn, ask questions and begin to prepare. Caregiving is so much easier when we gather our resources and share the load.

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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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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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