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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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It’s so easy to make dozens of resolutions you know you won’t keep. It’s even easier to beat yourself up about not losing those ten (okay fifteen) pounds, not staying on budget, not cleaning your closet, and if you’re a caregiver, mom or daughter–not losing your patience every ten minutes. But all that guilt and regret doesn’t get you closer to your goals. So why not try a little reverse psychology? Why not try an anti-New Year’s resolution list?

 My grandmother used to say that the best way to get me to do something was to tell me that I had to do the opposite. She was my birth grandmother–before I was adopted–which means I was under the age of four and probably my purest self. That means that I need to tap into that inner rebel and get that little imp on my side.

I’m tired to trying to “good.” Trying and good don’t really go together. To  be truly good comes from a natural place–from deeply held beliefs about yourself and the world.  Trying is exhausting and tedious–and it always falls apart.

So I’ve created an anti-New Year’s list.

 My Anti-New Year’s Resolution List:

I will not diet.

Instead, I’ll be sure to start each day with a protein and a good carb–peanut butter, boiled egg, or if I’m rushed–a handful of nuts. I can combine that with a piece of fruit or whole grain bread. Eating a hearty breakfast is the best way to not gorge the rest of the day.  

I will not exercise.

Instead, I’ll play. I’ll ride my bike, play kickball in the street, dance in the kitchen to my iPod, and bounce on my giant ball during the commercials. I’ll race my husband to the mailbox, clean out the gutters and plant a garden. I’ll move because it feels good, not because I think I should. My goal is to play–every day.

I will not keep a perfect house.

I don’t even want to. I used to admire those with shiny kitchen floors and feel inferior to those “other women” who woke up perky and had the toilet swished and the dishwasher unloaded before 7am. Now I consider a “too clean” house a serious waste of the precious time I’m allotted on earth.

Instead, I’m going for the basket method. I allow the magazines to pile up, and I won’t even think about getting rid of them until they reach the top of the basket–at that point, I’ll start ditching. I’ll do the same basket method with toys, shoes, and bathroom toiletries. If it’s in a basket, it’s good enough. I find that I do better when I don’t worry about it. If you show up at my house, I’ll offer you a glass of wine or a cup of hot tea–and I’ll sit with you on the couch or in the backyard, and that for me, is what a home is for–a place where people feel welcome.  

I will not force myself to do anything I really don’t want to do.

I will trust my gut. I have pretty good instincts about most folks. I need to honor that. If I don’t want to go to lunch with that person, I won’t. If I don’t want to get my teeth cleaned that day, I won’t. Life is tough right now, and I need to give myself a break. By allowing little breaks, I won’t have a major meltdown and do something really stupid. By realizing I can say “no,” if I want to, I find that I’m usally glad to say “yes” simply because I have a choice.

I will not beat myself up about not being  or doing “enough.”  

 Everyone has different expectations of me. It’s my job to look at the bigger picture–and prioritize. As a wife, mom, daughter, caregiver, friend, and professional–I’ve found that each person has a myopic view of me. All of us see ourselves as the center of our own universe. They don’t always consider all that I have to do, or what someone else might need me more at that moment.  I don’t need to get upset with them. It’s my job to find the right balance for me–not theirs. I don’t even have to explain or defend myself. What I do have to do is to care for those I love–including myself–the best I can and trust that will be enough even when others don’t think it is.

The more I believe in myself, the more peace I project onto this rag-tag world.

Yeah, I know it sounds like I’m just tricking myself, but it works for me. I’m able to back into self-care and wholeness and it doesn’t feel like a big ordeal. By being defiant and saying “I will not,” I can actually fool myself for a split second and then I’m free to choose something I really believe in.

Are there times when I really have to ante up and do things I don’t want to do but need to do for myself or for someone I love? Sure, lots of times. But if I’ve allowed myself enough lee-way at other times I find that I have the strength and fortitude to follow through when I need to. 

My list of “I will not’s” allows my three-year old self to come out and play.  She’s much more agreeable after she’s had some time to romp free.

 Who knew that embracing your inner rebel could be such a good thing!

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I opened my front door Thanksgiving morning and called “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.”

My 14-year-old cat, FatBoy had been missing 18 hours. I was up late in the night looking for him. He never went far, hanging around our shady front porch, but most eating (thus his name) and sleeping in various windows, beds, and closet corners throughout the house. No answer. No meow. I was in full worry mode. I’m no stranger to death. I know that losing  a pet isn’t like losing a parent or spouse, or child but nothing in me wanted to go through this again. Not today. Not Thanksgiving.

My husband and I took our bikes and began to ride around the neighborhood calling him.

And then I saw him.

My husband threw down his bike and got to FatBoy before I did. His hands went to his heart. He ran half way to me, turned and back to FatBoy, then back to me–not knowing what to do.

And then he held his arms open and I folded into his chest and cried.

We’ve been through so much together. He held me when my adoptive Daddy died, the big teddy-bear hero who gave me a home and made the world right again. I held him when his brother-in-law died in a head-on car crash. Bill swerved the car and spared the life of his wife and daughter. My husband identified the body. I held him at four in the morning when he returned from the morgue and collapsed in my arms. He held me when my mother died after years of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, when exhaustion gave way to release gave way to void. He sat beside me on a sailboat as we helped to scatter a dear friend’s ashes into the sea, feeling our own mortality. We’ve stood side-by-side as we witnessed the death of friends, family, and yes, our beloved pets and remembered their lives in that bitter-sweet time of letting go. I can barely grasp what it would be like to lose him. I can’t even let myself glimpse into that sorrow.

Who would hold me?  Who would I hold?

I’ve learned a thing or two about death. I’ve learned to not stop the pain, the tears. I’ve learned to accept the love, the support.

I stayed with FatBoy while Phillip went back and got a blanket. He was in a garden behind a small white picket fence. I call this particular neighbor’s house the Thomas Kincaid house. His paintings are warm cottages with trees and shade, and dappled sunlight. It was quiet, a little cool. I could sit with him. Be with him. I wasn’t afraid or nervous. It was just him and me.

My husband dug a hole in the backyard and we decided to bury FatBoy under my Buddha statue. I bought the laughing buddha for my birthday last May–did I somehow know? I laid my sweet, chubby, always there for me kitty into the earth and sprinkled the first handful of cool, moist dirt on top. I wanted to do this.I was fully alert and present. It wasn’t like Daddy’s funeral. I was 23, so young, so scared. I turned away when they lowered him into the ground. Today, I don’t need to turn away.

It felt right–for him to die in a garden and be buried in a garden. In the spring he’ll be surrounded by cannas and irises and calla lillies. There’s a windchime in a Live Oak nearby.

Our youngest daughter joined us. She hugged me–full body. We held  on to each other, neither of us in a hurry to let go. Our middle daughter arrived for the day’s festivities. She’s the director of a massage therapy school and could charge for her hugs, they’re so good.  I felt my muscles give way, and then her husband–a former wrestler with a wide chest and strong biceps curl around the two of us. My friend, Laura arrived and ran to me. She has four cats, and we cried and cried.

I’m tired of holding it all in. Tired of trying to be strong. Tired of keeping it all together. Each person, their arms, shoulders, necks and kisses comforted me. I allowed each of them to minister to me, feed me, be my strength.

We all pulled the meal together, sat down at the table and took hands. And I realized that it was good day for a death–I was surrounded by people I loved and who loved me.

The love that surrounds a death is healing. It’s comes in time. You’re ready when you’re ready, when life has brought you here. It will come.

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Caregivers are often told to take care of themselves, and sometimes this advice is a little annoying.

Exactly how am I supposed to take care of me? Not give my mom her pills in the morning? Go to the gym instead?  Not take her to physical therapy? Not help my kids with their homework or fix dinner? Just soak in the bathtub all day? Right…

Yes, the stress builds and you can’t sleep, you’ve gained 40 pounds and you’re pretty sure you’re depressed but you don’t care to go to the trouble it would take to find out. Self care sounds like a fairy tale most days, but don’t think that the self-help movement is some new-age 70s feel good way of thinking. It’s not. In fact, it’s as old as Socrates…

One of my favorite books is Eye Witness to History, edited by John Carey. It’s first hand accounts recorded throughout history, and as a memoirist and writer, I love having a front row seat to the most stunning and scary historical moments man has ever witnessed.

The first account is written by Plato and recounts the death of Socrates. The year was 399 B.C., and for those of you (us) who might be a bit fuzzy about Greek history, Socrates was a philosopher and teacher, (and he’s still widely debated today–both as an individual and for his teachings). He got in a bit of trouble with the Atenian government and was considered a “gadfly”  (a fly who stings the horse into action). He wound up in prison and was proved guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens (political minds, that is) and was  ordered to drink a deadly mix of hemlock poison, which killed him.

On the last day of Socrates life, his friends, including Plato came to visit him and asked,  “Do you wish to leave any directions with us about your children, or anything else. What can we do to serve you?” 

Socrates replied: “Nothing new. If you take care of yourselves , you will serve me and mine and yourselves.” 

So this idea of caring for yourself first is the best way to care for another isn’t new. It just makes sense and that’s why it’s been around for so long. When we “sacrifice” ourselves for too long, we lose ourselves, we deplete who we are. Sometimes it’s needed–giving all you have–but it isn’t a sustainable long-term model.

During the last couple of years of my mom’s life (she had Parkinson’s, heart disease and Alzheimer’s), I can tell you, there wasn’t a whole lot of self-care going on. I had to pull it out–long hours, lifting my mom, hospital stay after hospital stay. I rested when I could–napped in the middle of the day–or any other time for that matter, took long showers. when my family members could take over “mom duty.”

I simplified my life–letting go of work, friends, saying goodbye to many activities–but I held onto a few lifelines. I journaled every day. Not a lot, but when the tears or screams built inside, I’d anchor them onto a page. I slipped  outside to pray and think, allowing nature to nurture me. I returned to take a college class one night a week–up until the last six months of my mom’s life. I got a new puppy to bring us all joy and laughter and remind us that life does indeed go on. Other aspects of my life were put on hold. That’s just part of it–for a season.

Self-care isn’t always a bubble bath and candles. It isn’t impractical nor is it selfish. The only way for a caregiver to do it is to incorporate small amounts of self-care throughout the day. Read a line or two of a poem. Buy your favorite coffee and refuse to get up off that couch and take care of anyone until you drink that first cup. Put a lock on your bedroom door and use it. Take short five-minute walks in your yard. That may be all the self-care you get to, but those few snatched moments here and there add up.  You’ll find a sense of calm comes over you when you’ve honored your own soul.

Take care of you and yours and you will serve me well. Good advice. No wonder Socrates is still remembered today.

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I call it my 3 day cure. When I was caregiving my mom who had Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s–and I was a sandwich generation mom–which for me meant having 2 teenagers and one pre-teen (all girls to boot), stress could sometimes mount to a hair-pulling, screaming and crying at the same time fiasco. I wanted to walk out and slam the front door–and become somebody, anybody else. But that’s just it–you can’t quit–not and be the mom, daughter, human you know yourself to be. But there is something you can do….

I stumbled on this cure out of sheer desperation. It’s not easy, not in our society, and you might not believe that it works but I dare you to try it.

Here’s the cure: Stay home for 3 days. I mean home. I know better than to suggest you get 3 days of respite care. While that’s ideal, it just isn’t always doable. This is. Don’t run to the store. Don’t run to the pharmacy. Don’t take your kids to ballet or your mom to the dentist Reschedule. Shut down.

But, but, but…I hear you say.

Let me assure you, the world will not come to a screeching halt. You will not starve and your children–and mom–will get over hating you. If things are bad enough, and you’re stressed enough, you might be willing to give this a try.

The first day–stay in your p.j.’s all day. Declare it pajama day. My kids loved it. I forbid them to get dressed (school, yes, they have to go to school, but hopefully you either don’t have to drive or you can arrange a substitute). We all hunkered on the couch, watched movies, flipped through magazines and books. Make a pot of veggie soup. Eat what you have in the pantry–(even junk food) I doubt you’ll starve and who cares if you don’t hit all the food groups. Don’t answer emails or hang on the phone. Today you need to disengage. stare out your window and watch the birds and squirrels. Take a morning nap and an afternoon nap. You’ll feel odd, guilty, bored, zombified, and have that nagging feeling that you’re wasting your time. That’s the point.

The second day, ask yourself what you want to do. Remember, it needs to be in or around the house. Do you want to clean? Get out a craft project? Call some friends? Don’t try to spring clean your house, but do a bit of putzing, especially if something is really bugging you. Put on some music and take a walk in your own yard. Visit your plants and trees. Dead-head some flowers, pull a few weeds (not a lot). Today, avoid the junk food and eat some more of that veggie soup you made. Pour yourself a small glass of wine. Drink water. Eat and apple. The point of the second day is to putz and eat simple, but good.

On the third day, take care of your body. Bathe well. Shave your legs, color your hair, pluck your eyebrows, and trim your cuticles. Do your mom’s hair, too. Be girls together. Do your toenails and then hers. Go through your jewelery box, go in your closet and pull out ten old items to donate. Guys need grooming too. Trim those nose hairs, ditch those ratty socks, straighten up your tool room. Sit outside for 30 minutes, in the sun (or partial sun if it’s summer). Breathe deep and feel yourself recalibrating.

Feel these last three days. Feel your own rhythms. Weep is you need the release. Sleep if that’s what you’re craving. Read a few lines of your favorite poem or lyrics from your favorite song. Eat all the veggies and fruits you have in your house. Put on your headphones and dance to some tunes. Allow joy to flow back into you. The point of this day of deep self-care in whatever form you need it.  

After three days of staying home, keeping it simple and giving your body and mind a little time to reboot, you’ll feel remarkably okay with your life. Nothing is fixed, and maybe cure is too strong of a word, but you will feel different. Yes, it all cranks up again, but you have a quiet center now. You realize it’s possible and permissable to check out of the rat race for a few days. You’ll come back to your life, to caregiving, to loving those around you with a new resolve that’s gentle and honest.

You’re also teaching your parent and your children how to care for themselves. We spend so much time being jacked up on caffeine, medicated for physical and emotional illnesses, and then we pop yet another pill in order to sleep at night.

The truth is, our bodies can do all this naturally–if we give it a chance. We don’t need to go to work and school when we’re fighting the flu or so burned out we cry for no reason and bite someone’s head off when what we really need is some down time.

I naturally do this about 3 times a year. I can feel it building, and I know when I need it. I also give myself a media fast about 4 times a year–no tv, phones or computer for 48 hours. It takes a bit of discipline, and honestly I feel so lost in the beginning, and then I remember to sing, to walk, to draw, and to sleep, and to be.

No, you can’t just stop caregiving. You can’t stop being a parent, and you can’t go too long without having to run a gazillion errands and all that it takes to keep your crazy busy life going. But you can put up some healthy boundaries and give yourself the gift of time–and home.

 

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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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My mom had Parkinson’s, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s–and she lived with my family (husband, daughters and me), and I was her full-time caregiver. I remember when I realized my mom was dying., literally dying–and that she would pass away in our home. I wanted to give her a home passing, but I felt sucked into death with her. The atmosphere of our home was somber. I was sleep deprived, zombified, and barreling toward depression. As crazy as it sounds, I told my husband I wanted a puppy.

Yes, I know dogs are work. I know puppies are even ten times more work. Why would a caregiver want something else to take care of? Because I needed to surround myself with new life. I needed a roly poly furry baby body to hold. I needed puppy’s breath (which to me smells like coffee, an aroma I adore) and tiny wimpers. I needed to surround myself with life as we faced the end of my mother’s days.

It wasn’t that I had read or considered studies about stress and the healing powers of pet therapy. It was pure instinct.

I’m often asked for hints to help caregivers and I know it might sound lame, but I deeply believe that the answer, at least part of it, lies in nature. We’re surrounded by this lush world of variety, color, texture, sights, smells, and sounds. The earth is our food–for our bodies and our souls.

My greatest comfort during my most stressful caregiving times was to go outside, stand by the river behind our house, wander in and out of the trees, pick wildflowers (commonly known as weeds), and feel the ground beneath me and the wind brush past me. Nothing brought me back to a place of calm than to simply step outside, take a few minutes, and breathe.

My husband and I went for a bike ride just minutes after I said I needed a puppy, that all of us needed a puppy. We’d only be gone ten minutes–a jaunt around the neighborhood…and there was a sign near the front of our community. “Free puppies.”

Not kidding. There it was. I took it as a sign (ha!) and we turned into the driveway.  It was a wide, flat yard with a doghouse, a trailer for a boat and a few spread out trees. And there was my puppy. A six-week old Alaskan Malamute/German shepherd mix curled in a C under the boat trailer. She was fat, sweet, and I knew she was to be mine.

We came home from that ten minute bike ride with Kismet. That’s her name. It’s means fate.

Our daughter’s eyes lit up, and even my mom, lost in muddled memories so long ago, connected. We were smitten. Kismet made us all laugh, play, and  cuddle. It was exactly what we needed. New life. Hope. Proof that life goes on.

Yes, it  took energy and time to train her, and we all pitched in. And yes, puppies do get up in the middle of night–but hey, I was already up with my mom anyway. She had sundowning and many of her nights resembled a late night brawl in a lively Irish pub. My mom yelled, ate handfuls out fo the frig or pantry, tried to escape, wrecked her room–it was wild. At least I could calm her, get her in bed, and hold my pudgy puppy for a few minutes and take in that musky, earthy puppy breath that only lasts for a few months.

Maybe this sounds like too much work, and don’t think you have to commit to a pet in order to feel joy and connection. 

Simple ways to surround yourself with new life:

  • Get flowers at the grocery store each week. Start collecting African violets–get some feed solution,  and set yourself up a window of violets in pinks, lavenders, deep purples and blues. If one dies, toss it!
  • Get some stick-on bird feeders that attach to your windows. They’re so cool and you can get them at a local bird or pet store, hardware or even WalMart. You can get hummingbird feeders or songbird feeders. It’s amazing to stand in your kitchen washing dishes and see a hummingbird hover right in front of you.
  • Buy bird feeder and put up a bird bath in your garden. Who cares if the squirrels eat it, too. Squirrels are fun to watch as well. I had a little guy with a bent tail visit me outside my home office window for years–every morning at 10am. I rushed to get in there to see the little guy and I enjoyed their antics–he apparently had a thing for a girl squirrel who was the equivalent to the prom queen because every male squirrel fawned over her. It’s better than watching the soaps!
  • Get binoculars and sit on the porch with your care buddy and bird watch together.
  • Stop by your local animal shelter–or even the pet store. On your way home from errands, stop and pet some kitties and puppies at the local shelter. They need love and will be better pets for their adoptive family if they get touched and talked to every day. You don’t have to “own” a pet to enjoy them.
  • Go to the zoo, local butterfly garden, or nature preserve. Caregiving can include field trips! Even if your loved one can’t walk far, many places have wheelchairs or can drive you in a golf cart. And who says you need to go through the whole place? Pick one animal you love, let your care buddy pick one animal they love, and only go there. Even thirty minutes is worth it–and with senior discounts, it’s a reasonable price and will change your whole day.

Kismet is now 7 years old–and what I had no way of knowing is that she would give us another gift. The last few months of my mom’s life was excruciating and poignant. Alzheimer’s took her ability to eat, to chew, to swallow, and her death was slow but I’m grateful to have this experience. On the year anniversary of my mom’s passing, Rupert, Kismet’s son was born.

Life trumps death.

He is the most adorable dog–sweet, funny, goofy and he came right on time. Just when we all needed another infusion of life.

I hope you find life–in the midst of caregiving–in the midst of sorrow and stress. Go with your gut and find something that quickens your heart. Life. It’s all around you.

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