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Caregiving and Multi-Tasking: Are You Trying To Do Too Much?

If you’re counting medications, talking on the phone to Medicare, cooking dinner, letting out the cat, answering your mother’s incessant questions—and zipping over to the computer to order your husband’s birthday cake—you’re a multitasking caregiving fool.  Not that you’re a fool, it’s just that I figured out it was foolish for me to think I could pull all that off at the same time—error free.

Why doesn’t multitasking work?  

It boils down to our brain structure. Science, April 16, 2010 edition reports a study in brain imaging  when subjects are given many tasks to complete simultaneously. The study asked subjects to “juggle streams of letters, concurrently performing two pairing tasks” only to find that our brains simply can’t do its best job when given too many jobs.

When we give our brains one task, one part of our two-part hemispheres take on the job—whichever the chore is best suited for. When we give our brains a second job, it’s allocated to the other half. We might be able to manage that, but add a third, and there’s no more hemispheres. We volley back and forth, jump from thought to thought, and eventually one of the balls gets dropped.

Sadly, and particularly in the medical field, “dropping the ball” can lead to dangerous outcomes—wrong dosages, a surgery on the wrong limb, a botched procedure. Even as a family caregiver, the wrong medications or incorrect dosage amounts are a strong possibility.

How do you care-give without multi-tasking?

I won’t lie. It’s not easy.

I was a sandwich generation, multi-generational, multi-tasking mom. Three kids, two dogs, a cat, a traveling husband, and a mom with heart disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. My days and nights blurred like a carosel on crack. I was dealing with teenage drivers, dating, my mom’s list of medications, her in and out hospital stays, a house to manage, my own feelings of womanhood, marriage, and laying down a career in order to be “mom central.” And yes, I dropped the ball. I let exhaustion and frustration lead me to some poor decisions. There were days I would sold a kid to the gypsies, my mom to the circus–and I had big plans of heading south and taking up life as a salty, toothless waitress.

I had my scares–waking up to find my kid had blown curfew. Waking up to find my mom heading out the back door (thank goodness for alarms!), calling poison control because my mom had tried to drink liquid deodorant (drink milk is what the told me–ever try to force an adult to drink anything?) Those wake-up calls scared the crap out of me. I was blowing it–and the consequences were only going to ramp up if I didn’t figure out how to care for those i loved.

The world comes at caregivers pretty hard and fast.

All we can do is prioritize. Let things wait. Decide what’s most important and shut the rest out, especially when it comes to medications, bathing, driving, and other safety issues. So ignore the phone. Answer that email later. Turn off the television. As the world around you begins to calm, you’ll find you really enjoy paying attention to just one thing at a time.

And perhaps there’s even a more important reason. When we’re multitasking we’re not really present. We may be performing a complicated list of chores, but we’re not the daughter, son, or spouse we mean—and need—to be.

~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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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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Like many adult children and sandwich geneartion-ers whose parents don’t want to leave their home, I had to practically force my mom to sell and move in with me. It’s not that I wanted to evict my mother from her own home, it’s because I knew that she was no longer safe. Caregivers everywhere face this difficult decision–but it also means we have to deal with all the stuff–when history collides with clutter.

My mom had Parkinson’s and heart disease–and I was starting to question whether she had some form of dementia. I worried about her falling, her not eating, forgetting to take her meds, getting locked out of the house…and as my mom’s only child and primary caregiver, I knew I had created a community of support and relied on extended family, friends, church members and community resources all that we could.

It was no longer enough. My mom needed continuity, and I was the only one who was willing and able to step up.

My mom agreed–at first. But the day we were to sign the papers and sell her home, she had a panic attack. She thought it was a heart attack and we rushed to the hospital. I had my doubts, but knew we should get it checked out. Then her avoidance tactics escalated. She wanted to back out of the deal. I had to be the strong one. I called the real estate office, arranged for the Durable Power of Attorney papers to be delivered to the hosptial, and signed the papers in the waiting room.

They gave us three days to finish moving out. I pulled up to my mother’s house–the place I had lived from age 12-18–and began the arduous job of packing and sorting. I was alone–me and thousand memories.

Part of me knew this was the beginning of the end. My dad had passed a decade before. My mom was 89 and I knew at best, we had a few years left–and her health issues would only escalate in time.

It’s tough–to deal with saved/recycled aluminum foil and a two dozen pie pans as well as treasured family photos, important documents, and childhood toys. Part of me was angry for being saddled with such a monumental job–why hadn’t she dealt with all this crap before now? But then I thought of my own house and my own stuff–guess I’d better get busy.

Every room, a memory. Every room, a million decisions.

I grieved and bungled my way through the next three days vascillating between overwhelming exhaustion and tender recollections. It felt good to be alone, to feel everything, no matter how hard it was.

I gave myself permission to make mistakes–to keep too much–to throw away the wrong thing.

Who could get this right?

Finally, the house was clear–the movers would come the next day–and mounds of trash sat at the end of the driveway.

I walked the land. I remembered the school bus dropping me off each day and my cat, Charlie, greeting me, the daffodils that popped up every February around the giant oak tree–bright yellow against the bleak sky. I followed the trail down to Daddy’s garage, picked up a stone and placed it in my pocket.

I took photograps and said goodbye to every tree. I saw myself at 14 on the roof sunbathing, walking to the car with a nosegay on my wrist on my way to prom and later kissing my date goodnight under the porch light.  I saw Daddy, could hear the high-pitched squeal of power tools, smell the sweetness of sawdust, and see my own toddlers looking for Easter eggs in the backyard. This house held me, nurtured me, gave me a place to grow up, and now gives me a place to remember.

I sat in my car knowing I’d never be able to come back–driving by just isn’t the same. What would come with my mom–caring for her in my final years–was not something to I could face–not yet.

It was all I could do to turn the key and back away.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available in hardback or on Kindle

www.caroldodell.com

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Maybe you’re not the one doing the day-to-day caregiving–maybe you’re the spouse, partner, the one who would get “best supporting” if there were an Oscar or some other shiny statue given for “Best Caregiving Award.”

Being the sidekick behind or rather beside the caregiver is a VERY important and crucial role. I know because I’m not sure I could have done what I did–care for my mom who had Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease and lived with us–if it hadn’t been for my other caregiving half.

My husband, (my caregiving spouse) had a lot to contend with. He put up with my moods–my many, many spontaneous, combustible moods. He put up with some doozy mother-daughter fights–fights between my mother and me and fights between my daughters and me. (I’m beginning to realize I was at the hub of all the fights!)

He went with the flow, would order pizza if I was too frazzled to cook (the man can’t cook), would run our daughters to wherever they needed to go–or stay with my mom so I could. He did without vacations, built my mom’s apartment onto our house, picked up my mom when she fell, and seemed to do it with a good attitude instead of a “I’m not getting attention” whine that wouldn’t have gotten him anywhere anyway. I had my hands full and he knew it.

So I decided for this blog to turn to ask my husband, Phillip, if he had a friend who said, “My wife’s mom is moving in and needs caregiving–how do  I support her?”  What would he say?

How to Support a Caregiving Spouse:  (by a caregiving spouse)

  • Listen–a lot: If she needs to cry, hold her. If she needs to complain, give her the time and space to vent. Call her throughout the day. Turn off the television when she’s (I’m using the pronoun “she” but it goes either way)  talking.
  • Lighten her load any way you can: Pick up extra chores. Pitch in. Get the kids to help, too. Look for things that need doing–don’t wait to be told.
  • Pay attention to your spouse’s needs: It’s your job to take care of her so she can take care of others. Notice if she’s tired and make her hot tea. Rub her feet, wash her hair, offer to mom-sit, do the little things only you can do.  Consider it family care–not just something your spouse does.

Wow. It didn’t  take him but three seconds to come up with that–because he lived it. He was right beside me all the way. I can honestly say that he was my backbone when I didn’t feel I had one. He wrapped me in his arms day after day after day. He did without sex, sleep, decent meals and even a pleasant wife–many times over. He never complained. He seemed to know what I need and he wouldn’t let me give up even when I wanted to–because he knew deep down, I didn’t want to. He was there when my mom died, and he was there in those dark and lost days after.

Caregiving is hard on a marriage/relationship at times, but it also brings out the best in us. We see what we’re made of–and in the end, we look back at our lives and remember all we’ve been through side-by-side.

Caregiving is one of our journeys. One of many.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available in hardback or on Kindle

www.caroldodell.com

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Now, don’t get upset. I’m not calling you a lousy caregiver, but now that I’ve got your attention, what makes a good–or a lousy caregiver?

So how should we treat those who need a little extra care? How do we show them the respect they deserve? When we get tired, aggravated or frustrated, how do we act? Do we get snippy? Manipulate? Use the silent treatment? Do we bully them into doing what we want? What do we neglect to do when we’re tired? How do we solve conflicts? How do we self-correct?

A big issue for caregivers is separating the need for care from the actual relationship. Who wants to “taken” care of? No one wants to be pitied or felt like a cause.

We have so much to learn from each other. There’s a reason why we care for our mothers, fathers, sister, brothers, children, and close friends. When we come together at a point of need–we see the best–and worst in ourselves. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow, but it’s not always easy! (that’s an understatement!)

When we care for our loved ones, we have to remember that caring isn’t just a list of chores or errands. Caring is about, well, caring. Showing that you care encompasses so much more–spiritually, emotionally, as well as physically.

So who’s a lousy caregiver?

A lousy caregiver chooses not to care. A lousy caregiver can live across the country and never call or come to visit–or they can sleep in the same bed with their spouse and never pay attention to what that person really needs. Most people who avoid caregiving are scared. They say they’re busy, not good at it, feel rejected…but in reality they’re mostly scared. Others, a few, cannot feel or empathize with others. They cannot give freely, make the necessary sacrifices, or understand it’s a priviledge to care for someone you love.

A lousy caregiver thinks it’s all about them. They have what I call “look at what has happened to me–syndrome.” They gripe and complain so much that they don’t think about what their other “person” has endured and survived. Their myopic view of the world does not allow them to see that the world is so much bigger–and more interesting and complex–than they are. They suck the air out of a room and the joy out of your heart–beware!

A lousy caregiver resents caregiving. All of us have those moments–when we wish life were different–we long for freedom, for time, for a five-minute break. That’s not the same. A truly resentful caregiver is bitter, consumed, and sadly, they won’t let go and allow that care person to find better care.

A lousy caregiver uses their care person. Some lousy caregiver are moochers. They move in, take over, and take liberties with the other person’s finances–in general–they’re users and probably always have been. They seem to find people to take advantage of.

A lousy caregiver is verbally manipulative and can even be physically abusive. It’s scary to think about, but they’re out there. They berate people, jerk them around, bully and trick them, and can even hit, slap, or neglect the very person they are to care for. If you know someone who abuses an elder, go to www.elderabuse.gov and find out how you can help and protect this person in need.

If you’re reading this post about caregiving, I doubt you’re a lousy caregiver. You may have lousy moments–we all do–but if you care enough to read a post about caregiving, you’re not the cold-hearted, abusive person I’m speaking of. 

What’s your idea of a “good” caregiver? What do you value?

The good ole’ golden rule teaches us so much. If you were bed-ridden, lost in the confusion of Alzheimer’s, nauseous from cancer, or couldn’t make it up a flight of steps without help, how would you want to be touched, talked to, and cared for?

All of us have lousy caregiving moments. That’s when we have to dig deep and remember in the deepest part of who we are: we’re caregiving because we really do care.

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