February 26, 2013

Unchartered Territory

Schricker,-Mary-Dec2010By Mary Schricker Gemberling

Gary and I were having dinner with a couple on our tour in South America, and before I knew it, the conversation turned to concerns about caring for an aging parent at home in Canada. On a recent visit in Arizona, we stopped to see a friend, who had just been released from the hospital with some long-term health issues. Their carefree life had been turned upside down! It seems no matter where I go among friends or strangers, the conversation at some point turns to caregiving. It is a reminder to me that the book that I wrote on caregiving a couple of years ago is certainly not time sensitive. Recent research indicates that the 65.7 million family caregivers in the U.S. – 29 percent of the U.S. adult population – provide important societal and financial contributions toward maintaining the well-being of those they care for. Caregiving touches almost every family and in very different ways – different health conditions; different situations; even different cultures. Over and over, individuals and families are thrown overnight into unchartered territory. I recently read this accurate analogy: “Imagine a GPS that guides you easily along a road for hundreds of miles, then suddenly the voice command blurts out, “Turn left…No turn right! Make a U-turn. Stop! Go!” You’d feel pretty frazzled, right? Well, that’s what caregiving is often like, particularly for those who are caught off guard. In fact, unexpected twists and turns are part of the journey. It’s just a matter of recognizing your “new normal” as a family caregiver.

One of the biggest obstacles I have faced in marketing my book and trying to get the word out about caregiving, has been to reach the people who really should know….those who need to prepare for the future. Until we need the information, we are just too busy with our daily lives to think about the “what ifs?” It is only when a loved one, parent or spouse suddenly becomes ill, that our interest is spurred. All of a sudden, we want a crash course in “Caregiving 101.” I remember when I was dealing with my mom’s sudden illness, I too, became overwhelmed with the emotions, the imminent decisions that had to be made, and maintaining a life of normalcy beyond her illness. In retrospect, these many years later, my advice would include:

• Expect the unexpected. Just when you think you know the prognosis, the routine, and the choices — something you could not have anticipated happens. Find ways to respond, and keep moving forward. It serves no purpose to look back.

• Never say never. Do not promise your loved one that you will never put them in a nursing home. In reality, you cannot predict their future needs. It may be the safest and best option at some point down the road.

• It is OK and “normal” to get angry and frustrated. You need to find a safe outlet to express negative, pent up feelings. Talk to a friend, join a support group or get professional help.

• Get on the same page with your siblings and children. Be honest and open with them and make it clear that you are in this together and their help is needed. Focus on how to plan for your loved one’s care. Let go of the old hurts, or put them in a box for another time, if you can’t totally let go.

• Put yourself on the “to do” list. Do not ignore your body’s messages. Headaches, insomnia, irritability, weight gain (or loss) can be subtle messages that it is time to take better care of your own needs.

During the time your loved one does require your care and intervention, it’s important to stay grounded in the present. This means staying positive. And I know that can seem unfathomable at times. You will have good days and bad days; we all do. But afterwards, try to learn something about why this particular experience became so frustrating, stressful or overwhelming – and change your mind set for the next time around. The most maddening thing about this journey is that you cannot do anything about your parent’s aging process or your loved one’s illness; you can only change your approach. So, whether you are currently a caregiver or are just starting out, the first step is to truly feel that this state of caregiving is an opportunity, and not a burden. Yes, you should hire helpers and call in reinforcements. And, you should be giving yourself breaks as often as possible, so that your life and your job remain in balance, as much as possible. So what’s the opportunity? Find the joy. It might even help you see life in a whole new way. Like all the phases of our lives, this too will pass and before long you will be looking back and remembering the good times.

“There are things that we don’t want to happen but have to accept; things we don’t want to know but have to learn; and people we can’t live without but have to let go”
– Author Unknown

Mary, a former educator and Seniors Real Estate Specialist is the author of two books, The West End Kid and A Labor of Love.

A Labor of Love; My Personal Journey through the World of Caregiving by Mary Schricker can be purchased at www.Amazon.com.