Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Elder Caregiver - A Unique Situation

"What's bothering you? What hurts?" I ask, as I try to disguise my impatience with phony concern.

"I don't know. I just think I'm dying. I feel so awful," mother-in-law, who's dementia (coupled with lifelong hypochondria) dominates her behaviors, responds as she raises her hand to her brow and frowns in her inimical melodramatic style. She then refuses to see a doctor.


"Mami, don't bother. I'll clean the counter," I say as I contain a shriek.

"Its okay. I'm almost done," mother says cheerfully. She can't remember that when she was healthy she did much less than her share of housework. Now that she has Alzheimer's and severe allergies she tries to help by "cleaning" things with a tissue in which she has blown her nose several times, and has turned to powdery shreds.


I sincerely bow to all elder caretakers - those who get paid and those, like me, who chose to care for family members. I am aware that I have it easy. I do not yet have to deal with adult diapers, difficult bed transfers to the toilet or bath, manual feeding, etc. But, I guess all suffering is relative and some say it is even chosen. It's hard for me to conceive of creating or choosing my current reality, but the truth is that all that shows up for us has a purpose. I am certain the purpose of my caretaking, besides humbling me, is a deeper spiritual lesson, which I know is a work in progress.

Help! is my most frequent prayer nowadays. I read and peruse articles about caregiving and I do find a little solace in knowing I'm not alone. But, much of the advice doesn't seem to apply, at least in the readings I've done. I think it's because there is a mix of commonality and uniqueness in all human experience. There is no mold or ready made solution to any problem.

Nevertheless, it's useful to explore tips and recommendations which may address many of the issues facing a family caregiver. The following may be helpful:

10 Tips for Family Caregivers :

1. Caregiving is a job and respite is your earned right. Reward yourself with respite breaks often.
2. Watch out for signs of depression, and don’t delay in getting professional help when you need it.
3. When people offer to help, accept the offer and suggest specific things that they can do.
4. Educate yourself about your loved one’s condition and how to communicate effectively with doctors.
5. There’s a difference between caring and doing. Be open to technologies and ideas that promote your loved one’s independence.
6. Trust your instincts. Most of the time they’ll lead you in the right direction.
7. Caregivers often do a lot of lifting, pushing, and pulling. Be good to your back.
8. Grieve for your losses, and then allow yourself to dream new dreams.
9. Seek support from other caregivers. There is great strength in knowing you are not alone.
10. Stand up for your rights as a caregiver and a citizen.

Source: National Family Caregiver's Association

(Reprinted with permission from Helpguide.org © 2001-2010. All rights reserved. For more articles in this series, visit http://www.helpguide.org/.)

You may also want to check http://www.eldercare.lifetips.com/. They seem to deal with more of the emotional components and difficulties in caretaking.


A distinctive aspect of my caretaking predicament is that it is colored (no pun intended) by my ethnicity. I don't think that responsibility towards parents is defined by a particular culture, but culture plays a huge role in my personal caregiving situation. I'm convinced it played a role in making all my relatives assume I had to take in the old ladies. The truth is I had choices, but this seemed like the right thing to do.

My circumstances are speckled daily with the idiosyncrasies of my Puerto Rican culture due to the fact that the ladies are so ethnocentric. Most people do not understand this and assume the ladies are at least pretty "normal". However, they eat nothing but rice and beans (Puerto Rican staples), they do not speak English although they have lived in mainland U.S for at least 60+ years, they still consider white people different - and not necessarily in a good way, and overall they think their little island is the center of the world.

To complicate matters, we live in New Mexico, an area which is rampant with Latinos - Mexican Americans. For those of you who think that must be great, I have news for you. The ladies never saw a hot chile or jalapeno until they moved here. Tortillas, tamales and tacos are akin to what Martian food may be for you. Or, to be less dramatic, what fish and chips, or beef and cabbage may be for you, especially if you hate it. Our Hispanic cultures do share much in common, but they also have very marked differences.

One might think the ladies can at least speak and understand Spanish and that is true. Yet, I recall a long time ago, when I visited London, England and a Bobbi tried to give me directions to Piccadilly Square. I had no idea they spoke gibberish there! I could not understand a single word. The ladies can't either sometimes, depending on the colloquial dialect spoken in Spanish.

These intricacies cause difficulties in getting help, in considering nursing homes, if ever needed, and of course in our daily living. The conclusion I have come to is that all situations, even if similar, have their own unique details. I must confront and even embrace mine. There is good information and advice out there for elderly caregivers, but little about my particular circumstance. There may be little for yours. But I can't refrain from adding some advice of my own that may enhance your unique caregiving experience.

My tips for Elder Caregiving:

1. Learn to love yourself. Be kind to you in every way you can.

2. Give up guilt. It is useless.

3. Do something fun daily. Skip around, jump rope, go for a walk, listen to music, dance, play.

4. Get angry, furious, scream, shout, have a tantrum - without blaming anyone.

5. Pray.

6. Cry a little. Laugh a lot.

7. Observe that the world still is. You still are. Though difficult, cherish each moment.

8. Acknowledge and appreciate that you are alive. Life is not on hold, life is now.

9. Renounce martyrdom. Modern day saints don't die passively, they dwell in action.

10. Decide and chose to give freely, confidently, and from the heart. You have the power!

Though we use the words interchagably, you are a careGIVER, not really a careTAKER.

"You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give."

Kalil Gibran

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