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Mary (on the left), Diane, and the bears

Mary (on the left), Diane, and the bears

My dear friend and writer bud Diane lost her husband this summer. They were soul mates finding each other after several starter marriages went bust. Two amazing people each in their own right who found sweetness and LIFE and spent  20 years side-by-side. They rode his Harley, got tattoos, water skied, and made a home for children and grandchildren. Then cancer came along and the last couple of years were tough. We (the Chats) joined Diane and Wally’s family and friends at his memorial service and witnessed a man who was and is so loved. Then Mary, another of our writer buds, offered to make Diane and her family teddy bears out of pieces of Wally’s clothing.

Diane lined up Harley, Corona, and Marine Corp tee shirts alongside a rugby shirt, a few Hawaiian prints, and even some plaid golf shorts and asked the kids and grandkids to chose whichever item of clothing they were drawn to, the one connected with a memory. Then, Mary got to work.

See, Mary makes bears.
Bears and puppy dogs and other critters.
She makes them so you’ll have something from your loved one to hold.
This isn’t all Mary does–she makes sanitary pads for young girls in Africa who will miss school because there aren’t disposable feminine products available, or they can’t afford them anyway. She makes quilts for sick babies. She’s that kind of gal.

Here’s Wally’s Hawaiian print  on a bear with a navy blue bow.

Here’s Wally’s rugby shirt turned puppy dog for a grandson–with a collar piece to boot.

Here’s another dog sporting plaid from Wally’s golf shorts.

She has seven more to make. Each adult child and each grandchild will have a bear or a dog to remember their dad/paps by. They get to hold a piece of him. They will no doubt be comforted in the days and years to come–all because Mary offered to make a bear.

Mary is like that–thoughtful, empathic, generous.

Perhaps you’ve lost someone you love.

Perhaps you’ve held onto articles of clothing, a favorite jacket or vest, something that links you to your loved one. Most likely your keepsakes, like so many of mine, are stored in chests, in the back of closets and boxes we keep under the bed.
Why not take these beloved items and do something with them?
Turn your missing into something tangible you get to touch.

Diane stood, amazed, when she saw her bears. The exhaustion lifted from her brow and  the sorrow in her eyes gave way to light. It was as if she were giving a piece of Wally to the family they both so love. The plaid, the  Hawaiian blue palm trees, the rugby blue and red are all parts of what made Wally who he is and how he will be cherished.

When we take our loss and so something with it–write a poem, tell a story, wear their dog tags as a necklace,  make a bear–we make something new in us. They live on in this transformation, “reincarnation,” if you will.

We take our sorrow and turn it into something that offers comfort and connection.

Wally is now a bear–and a dog–and  he’ll be tucked in at night, taken on vacation and get to play tea party with his granddaughters, and if you ask me, that’s exactly where he’d like to be.

If you’d like a bear, shoot me an email at writecarolodell@gmail.com and I’ll get you in touch with Mary

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“Where was I? A caregiver friend of mine asks, standing in the middle of her life as if she has walked back into a room and forgot what she was doing in the first place. Life after (or between) caregiving can make you feel odd in your own skin. You’re not who you were, you don’t know what’s to come, what you’re good at now, or what interests you anymore.

Long term caregiving can feel as if you’ve held your breath so long you don’t know how to inhale and exhale like all the other folks on the planet.

My friend is coming up on the first anniversary of her dad’s passing. Fifteen years spent as a caregiver (primarily) and her hair is now strikingly white, she has a new husband, and for better or worse she’ll tell you she’s just not the same gal she was when she agreed to move in and care for her mom, then dad all those years ago.

Perhaps a better question is, “Where am I?”

Where was I doesn’t particularly matter. You’re however many years older. Your experiences, beliefs, and even issues have changed. And that’s okay. It has to be. It’s the nature of living–things change and so do we.

It’s not that things changed, most of us get that, it’s that aspects of our selves, our lives, were in stasis. We feel like we’ve been in cryogenic sleep and have no idea who won that last 20 World Series. Life has gone on without you. You have no idea what movies are in theatres, and whatever happened to DVD’s?

You may be thinking about going back to work, but what are you qualified to do–other than bring juice, fluff pillows, and argue with insurance companies?

Getting traction, momentum may take some time–and while you’re figuring this all out–grief sweeps in like giant waves crashing on top of you, buckling your knees, you come up sputtering with a mouthful of grit and a belly full of hurt.

Letting go of what was will eventually come. Let it. No, you’re not 35 any more, but 55 isn’t so bad. There are a few perks that come with aging, with living, with loving for so long. Letting go takes time. We don’t open our grip without some resistance.

In Finding Your Own North Star by life coach Martha Beck, she talks about being in quadrant one–when all we know dies, when our lives are reduced to rubble and we stand in the ruins, ashy, beat up, stunned, and the mantra is:

I don’t know what’s happening, and that’s okay.

It’s okay to not know what comes next.

It’s okay to have a decent hour when you’re not consumed with grief or anxiety followed by four crappy, baseball in the back of the knees–ones.

It’s okay not to have a plan.

It’s okay to bump into walls.

It’s okay to cry–not cry, scream–not scream.

That’s where you are.

And that’s okay.

My only suggestion is this:

Do what soothes you, follow any inkling of a curiosity, buy, borrow, visit anything or anyone that stirs something in you. These are the seeds of desire.

And our desires, however small or trivial doesn’t matter, are the thread thin roots of our new selves.

~Carol O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Carol O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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Caregiving my mom carried many ironic gifts. One is that I witness how love goes on–after death. My parent’s marriage lasted for 52 years. They faced the Great Depression, World War II (Daddy served for four years–in France, at the Battle of the Bulge, and then stayed to help rebuild the country), a miscarriage, an inability to have natural children, a two career household when that was quite unusual, and later–one illness after another, including daddy’s final battle with heart disease. What I realize now, looking back on this vast relationship landscape, was that love goes on. As a daughter and caregiver, I am profoundly grateful to have witnessed this.

My mother was a widow for 18 years. She would have never wanted that. She had no desire to marry again. Daddy was the love of her life–and vice versa. I was adopted when they were 54 and 58 years old. Established. They argued (petty but quite verbal) all the time.Both of them retired by the time I was in second grade, so they spent a lot of time together and with me.  They only have maybe two tiffs that seemed rather big the whole time I knew them. They were as polar opposite as can be. He was quiet, a bit melancholy. Deep. Thoughtful. She was loud, vivacious, and her moods were shall we say…unpredictable. And yet, they worked it out.

More than that, they adored each other. They complimented each other constantly.  They respected each other, bragged about each other, doted on each other. And yet, they were completely normal. She talked too much and that drove Daddy nuts. She micro managed his entire life down to picking out his daily underwear. Daddy was slow. Wouldn’t do anything he didn’t want to do. Stoic. Refused to follow the doctor’s orders. That infuriated my pull-pushing, dot every i, OCD mother. He escaped each day down to his chateau–the garage he built with his own hands. That’s what marriage is like.

Daddy did all he could to look out for my mother. He left her a home, a generous savings, health and life insurance. More than that, (which all of that became less valuable over time–almost 20 years has a way of gobbling up money and goods) he left us all a legacy.

I’m grateful that my mother, who fought Parkinson’s and at the end, Alzheimer’s/dementia didn’t forget her husband–not until maybe the last year. We talked of him every day. We kept his pictures out. We shared stories. And as you can probably tell, I adored him, too. With all of my being.

And now, both my parents are gone. Time has taken them. That’s what time does. And yet, they remain. Their marriage endures. They are my example. I am profoundly blessed to have been adopted by such a union–and I say this in full light of my less than idyllic childhood (I did mention that my mother was unpredictable and for anyone who has read Mothering Mother, they’ll also note that she wasn’t exactly easy to care for either!)

Still, love is what endures. Spending the last years with my mother and caregiving for her daily needs gave me the opportunity to witness love in action. Their marriage carried over, like the scent of gardenia on a southern night. The sweetness remains.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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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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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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