In the nine months since my parents moved to AZ I’ve been on a mission to reclaim my life. And I started with my body.
There were many aspects I’d ignored. How I ate. When/if I exercised. Regular medical screenings. Dental cleanings. I didn’t skip them completely. It’s not like I’m toothless but I was late. On everything.
During the years of caring for my folks I injured my back. Both knees, one twice. Since they moved I had one surgically repaired and spent months on crutches while the other healed. I’ve had sinus surgery. A pap smear nearly a year late. A colonoscopy over two years overdue. A dental cleaning and exam six months past the reminder postcard.
How did all of this happen when I know what I know? When I know to ‘put my own mask on before helping the person next to me’? When I know the research on shortened life spans of caregivers.
Knowing what you know isn’t enough when thrust into eldercare. That’s the bottom line.
When my brother took over as the custodial child as it were, he’d had a heads up from watching me in the preceding years. He’d worried about me and wondered why I didn’t ameliorate my behavior and shift some care to myself in spite of my mother’s constant demands and illnesses and my dad’s deadly diagnosis. His concern, and mine, too, was that I might collapse before them, or shortly after. Be too spent to enjoy retirement with my husband because of the cost of caring for Mom and Dad.
I couldn’t answer him when he asked, “Why?” And he has a tough time doing differently with his own behavior now that he’s ‘the one’.
I’ve asked myself this question many times. My son and husband barraged me with that question. My friends challenged my management of the situation. Every morning I’d awaken and pledge a more even distribution of thought and energy, and by nightfall each day looked exactly as the one before. A time-sink of managing my folks, their business, and their care.
My brother was a scuba instructor and he recalled drowning data from his days as a student in the instructor program and then again from classes he taught. The greatest percentage of drownings occurs between parent and child. It doesn’t matter who’s going down, parent or child, the other rushes in to save the situation and frequently both are lost.
With this information as a springboard I began to consider my situation. My parents’ dire straits hooked me twice over – all my pictures of being a good daughter were invoked (what I knew my parents expected of me) and all those of good mother and caretaker (what I expected of myself). I couldn’t merely toss my folks a life jacket because I was clear they wouldn’t know how to put it on even if I believed they’d know what it was. I was constantly jumping off the boat and swimming out to them.
Exhausting. And yet I couldn’t stop diving in.
Good daughter and good mother. I put myself in a vice of expectations.
That was the beginning of my own understanding that what I knew about caring for myself was not enough to actually do it. I ran to the water without thinking just as my brother’s scuba data would predict, playing the role of parent and child.
Does this knowledge change anything? No. It helps me understand me. And if affords me the opportunity to say again, what you think you know is not enough to actually follow through with doing. Don’t lose that if you’re a caregiver.
Which brings me to my last point in this series of reflections on care giving – the spouse stands alone.
My husband saw everything and helped in every way he knew. He did, and does, bear the brunt of a completely unavailable mate. My brain was in such a muddle from juggling my numerous parent related responsibilities there was little to nothing left to relate to him. I lost myself (and often continue to) in hours of computer games or television reruns because I didn’t know another way to quiet myself from running ahead to the next, predictable crisis. He could see the damage being done and was powerless to influence a different outcome for me.
He encouraged me to contribute some small amount of energy to myself but by the time I could hear him it was too late. I was too tired to want to do anything but sleep or zone out.
He was essentially single for years while I was consumed with care giving. Even worse, he didn’t have the freedom of being single and would be pressed into duty when both parents were simultaneously in need and I could only tend to one.
Now I hear from my sister-in-law words which echo my husband’s. “I know in my heart I’m your number one priority, but nothing I can see or feel reflects it. I’m lonely and I miss you. I worry you’ll never come back to me and if you do, you’ll be too broken to ever be the same.”
The spouse stands alone. And they shouldn’t have to.
I don’t have answers. I wish I did. I have regrets, for myself, my husband, and son. We all lost the same person. Me. And ironically I still wonder if I did enough for my parents. Good daughter/good mother pictures prompting a hamster-wheel of second guessing. Did I do right by them?
I’m hoping that will fade over time. My intellect tells me I cared for them well. Emotions trail behind.
Though short on answers, I would suggest if you’re in my position you remember three things:
- What you think you know is not enough – there’s a “knowing-doing” gap. Make a deal with those you trust that you’ll heel when they yank your leash because you’re not doing what’s required to care for yourself. Negotiate this upfront. In the thick of things is too late.
- Remember the drowning data and consider your own triggers. I realized mine but only in hindsight. Do it now so you can keep them top of mind.
- Don’t let your spouse stand alone. Yes, they signed up for thick and thin, sickness and health, and they’re most likely willing to do it. But don’t make them watch you throw your health away. They didn’t sign up for that.
This is the fifth piece I’ve written on eldercare. It’s time to get back to being me. I’m finished with this. I’m shaking it off, I’m turning the page. I’ve offered everything I think might help.
If you have questions about resources or how I/we handled something, feel free to ask, either here in comments, or email me, but I won’t be writing about this again.
Good luck. Take care.
Dedicated to my hubs with more gratitude than words can express. And to me.