Are You in a Sprint or a Marathon?

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Being a family caregiver is a lot like training for a race. Make no mistake here; Betsy and I are not runners, but we both know that how you train depends on what kind of race you are planning to run. If you want to run in a 5k, you can be ready in a matter of weeks, but if you’re going to run in a marathon, you will need to prepare over a much more extended period. And if you are already a runner, then training goes much more quickly than it does if you have no previous experience at running.

In a similar vein, family caregivers don’t always have the luxury of knowing how long they will be providing care. Sometimes your aging loved one’s need for care seems to creep up on a family unaware. Betsy experienced this with her mother over the course of several years. Living far from her family home, she saw her mom a few times each year and was able to recognize changes in Sarah’s abilities that were invisible to the son who lived next door. Only in the last year of Sarah’s life did Betsy’s brother agree that their mother needed more help, and when their mother broke her hip two months after her 97th birthday flexibility and preparation ahead of time helped the family navigate the changes that happened rapidly over a very short timeframe.

Betsy’s mother experienced two types of decline: a sprint and a marathon. The marathon came first, over the last five years of Sarah’s life. During this time Betsy’s brother set up home care services for a few hours each week to help with light housekeeping and laundry. The professional caregivers who came a few times each week took on household upkeep and also made sure Sarah was doing well. Initially, Sarah resented the “assistance” but agreed to it because she realized that it did make her life a little easier. Over the years those visits went from once or twice weekly to more often as Sarah stopped driving, stopped cooking for herself and began to have difficulty with more intimate tasks like bathing and dressing.

A few months before her mother’s 97th birthday, Betsy convinced her brother that their mom needed someone with her every day, and possibly overnight as well. Since neither of them was available to do this permanently, they worked out to have professional caregivers work a split shift of morning and evening hours to include weekends. This seemed to cover getting in and out of bed, meals, med reminders, bathing and dressing assistance, and driving for errands like grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments. The schedule worked well until the morning Sarah fell and broke her hip, about two months after her birthday. When she came home from the hospital, she needed someone with her around the clock who could help with things too medical for Betsy or Billy to handle, so having professional caregivers already in place was a huge blessing!

Sarah’s marathon of care changed to a sprint in those last seven weeks of her life, but because both of her children were watching her needs and changing her care over the previous five years, they were as prepared as they could have been for the last sprint. Betsy went for the first 10 days after the fall occurred, then returned home for a few weeks. She went back to her mother’s right after Thanksgiving and stayed until her mom’s death on December 21, 2017. Billy lived next door but was grateful for his sister’s ability and willingness to come and live in their mother’s home for those last weeks. And Betsy was able to do this because she had been preparing for this possibility for the last couple of years. She had put systems and people in place to cover her in her absence and keep things running in our business and at home.

If you have aging parents or family members that might need your help in the future, begin now to observe and ask questions. When you visit, take notice of the cleanliness and upkeep of the house. Check foods in the pantry and refrigerator to make sure there are fresh, healthy options. Notice if mail is piling up or past due notices are being received. Ask your mom or dad how their money is holding out if you have that kind of relationship, but be careful not to sound like you are wondering how your inheritance might look! Try to couch any money conversations around topics like which Medicare supplemental plan they are on and whether the copay covers enough. Even bring up how high your own utility bills were over the cold winter or hot summer, to see if this leads to a conversation about choosing between paying the electric bill or buying groceries.

If your parent has a chronic illness or condition that might make basic household tasks more challenging, suggest getting a housekeeper or caregiver who could take over things like dusting, vacuuming, and doing laundry. If this suggestion is met with any resistance, try to drop it and then revisit it at a later time. Talk regularly with other family members and friends if you live far away to find out if they have any concerns. Consider what kind of help might be needed over the coming years if not today. If you haven’t already done so, begin a conversation with an organization that can help you find the assistance your loved one may need when the time comes.

We hope you’ll join us this week at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about training for your sprint or marathon in family caregiving.

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Caregiving 101

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Being a family caregiver certainly isn’t a job for sissies! This is a commitment that requires careful consideration and thoughtful preparation. It’s not for everyone! But if you are called to this avocation for a period of time, you need to understand several important elements involved in becoming a family caregiver. Among these are the time requirement, the level of care needed, the cost to you, others in your life and your job or career, and whether you are physically strong enough to deliver the necessary care.

For some family caregivers, only a little time is required to provide the care needed. Maybe you will be driving your mom to occasional doctor’s appointments because she can’t navigate the complexities of the medical system. Perhaps you will find yourself needing to provide more care over time if she has dementia or if her physical health is declining rapidly. And if a catastrophic event occurs your time requirement might become 24/7 with no notice at all. You need to take a realistic look at whether you can make the commitment to cover whatever time is needed to provide the care.

Defining the type of care needed is also essential before you become a family caregiver. While your dad might need bathing assistance and you think you can probably help him with that, you need to ask yourself if you would be comfortable providing intimate care and if he will allow you to perform this task for him. My brother told me he could never have helped our mother with a bath, but I did that every time I visited for the last year of her life. Assistance with personal care needs like bathing, toileting, dressing, walking and getting up or down from chairs or beds is both physically demanding for the caregiver and personally embarrassing for the care recipient. Talk with a medical professional to learn about your loved one’s care needs, and if you don’t feel competent or physically able to provide that level of care, ask if there is a service available in your community that might be able to help with those tasks you cannot do.

When you become a family caregiver, there is definitely a cost to be considered. If your care will require you to take time away from your marriage, raising your children, volunteer organizations or even a job or career, be certain that you can afford the emotional and financial cost to you and those around you. If you are stepping away from your workplace, ask if you qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act. This can help you keep some income coming in while you work out long term care needs. Be clear in communication with your spouse, partner, or others in your life as you make the decision to invest in your loved one’s care needs. Ask yourself and others if becoming a family caregiver will require major changes in your own life, like moving in with your loved one or quitting your job to provide care? Are others in your life supportive of your decision, or will negative emotions emerge?

As in all things, if you are or have been a family caregiver, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, so what have you learned that might help someone else whose caregiving walk is just beginning?

We hope you’ll join us this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about things you wish you had known before you became a family caregiver.

 

Spring Clean Your Caregiving Experience

It’s March, and that means longer days, warmer temperatures, and the promise of spring! Wherever you live, this time of year tantalizes us with winter’s imminent demise. When temps hit the 60’s and 70’s I want to throw open the windows and embrace the warm breezes!

During this time of year, all of nature seems to shake off the cold and dark and burst forth with new light and life. Flowers bloom, baby animals appear, and bright colors everywhere seem to greet the sun’s warm rays. Spring is a season of life celebration, and there is so much to celebrate!

For a family caregiver, especially one whose road is challenging, this is a great time for you to embrace revival and experience personal renewal as well. There’s nothing like taking a few minutes to sit in a warm sunny spot with a good book and a cup of tea to renew your energy and sense of purpose. Of course, there are plenty of tasks that need to be done when readying a home for warmer weather. While you put away cold weather clothing and winter coats, talk about the places you went and the good times you shared together. Ask your mom which outfit she likes best while you look for spots, spills or repairs to be made before placing items in winter storage. Sort through gloves, scarves, and hats together while you get your dad to talk about his favorite memories of the cold days in his past. And as you pack away the winter months, don’t forget to introduce spring! Freshen up sweaters and light jackets, watch for early spring flowers, or plant seeds in a window box and try to guess when the first sprouts will appear. As you freshen up memories of laughter and tender moments shared together through the long winter months, you may find your passion for being a family caregiver rekindled.

If your journey is long and arduous, pray for strength and joyful peace as you walk this caregiving road. Doing some of the activities above by yourself or with a friend or family member can also be restorative and energizing. If you can do nothing else, try sitting in the sun while your loved one naps, and bring in some spring flowers to put around the house. Watch birds build their nests in that tree in the yard and open a window on warmer days to bring in the sounds and smells of emerging spring.

If you are one of those people who is compelled to clean house in the spring, here’s a link from Caregiver Stress that will offer great suggestions for that as well.

Chris and I hope you’ll join us this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about how you dust off and bring the shine back to your caregiving experience in the days ahead.

Winning at Caregiving

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What does being a Family Caregiver mean to you? This concept means different things to different people. If you are retired, or if you don’t work full-time, you might be able to devote many hours to caring for a loved one. If you live far away or work full-time in a demanding job, you probably need to involve others in your care plan. If your loved one’s needs advance beyond your capabilities, or if you are sick or injured yourself, you will need to modify your care plan to supplement or replace the care you have been giving. The key words in all of these scenarios are FLEXIBILITY and TEAMWORK.

Flexibility is the hallmark of a champion Family Caregiver. When you take each day as it comes, and deal with each challenging situation as it arises, you will find yourself developing strategies that work most of the time. And if the same technique does not work every time, then have a couple of backup ideas. Through practice with what works and what doesn’t, you can hone your skills and refine your playbook.

Just like with any serious athlete, it takes courage for a Family Caregiver to get up day after day and start all over again. Because one day is never like the next, you always have an opportunity to build on the good moments and minimize the hard ones. Your courage to work through good times and bad, to step back when necessary and regroup, to try new ideas when routines fail you, and to accept your failures when they occur establishes a foundation for winning at caregiving.

In addition to your efforts, remember that victorious caregiving is a team sport. While the Family Caregiver’s role can feel terribly isolated, your game plan should include others who care for you and will offer help before you are at the end of your rope! Just like any championship sports team, you probably also have people on your bench who are just waiting for the opportunity to assist. Accept their help when it is offered, and ask for it when you need help. Take breaks to regain some balance in your own life. Utilize a professional caregiving service like Home Instead Senior Care if you need additional resources. It takes a team to support a winning Family Caregiver, and teamwork can make you a superstar at giving care.

When you are a Family Caregiver, one thing is certain: every day is different, and each one holds its own challenges. Your championship strategy is to remain flexible, practice what works, step into your caregiver role with courage and confidence, and involve others when you need them. Courage, consistent practice, and a great game plan will carry you all the way to win every day at caregiving!

Family Caregiver Sabotage!

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Do you feel like a failure as a Caregiver? If you do, you are not alone! Caregiving is sometimes resisted, often unappreciated, and frequently even unrecognized!

Chris’s sister lived with their mother for several years before their mother’s death. She claimed the role of Family Caregiver to their mother, and when we were at family gatherings, she would talk about how hard she worked to provide care for her mother. Chris’s mother was a vibrant, active senior who still drove, did home-bound visits, staffed a local crisis hotline, and taught Bible study. While we all knew she moved a little more slowly, she did not appear to need anybody’s care, so his sister’s Caregiver claims mostly fell on deaf ears. The family didn’t see her as a caregiver until much later on.

There are many ways that Family Caregivers can be sabotaged. Feelings of personal failure, the absence of recognition or appreciation for the hard work you do, and even your loved one’s resistance to receiving the care you offer can undermine your best intentions to be a great Family Caregiver. If you have experienced any of these things, you might find yourself discouraged and wondering if your sacrifice is worth it.

Family Caregivers make great personal sacrifices when they embrace their role. You might give up such things as time with other family members or friends, professional advancement, monetary gain, vacations, social events, and spiritual growth. Your health may suffer if you aren’t intentional to exercise, eat right, and get enough rest. Social impacts include damage to marriage or friendships and loss of social engagement. Emotionally, feelings of isolation and failure can cause clinical depression. Spiritually, lost opportunities for corporate worship can leave you feeling as if God and your church family have all forgotten about you.

If you allow these negative feelings to persist, your attitudes and behaviors could negatively impact the care you give. Your words might grow sharp and impatient, or your hands might not be so gentle when offering assistance. Before this happens, reach out for help! Take a break and evaluate how well you are taking care of yourself. If others don’t recognize the need for the care you provide, ask for their help and let them experience first-hand what you do during your days. Reach out to your church family and ask for help or prayers for support. As hard as it may be, allow yourself to be vulnerable and admit that you cannot do this alone. Even Jesus asked for help when he needed it, and God will never call you to a task that he will not equip you to complete. Part of that equipping is the provision of resources like tools, techniques, and support from friends or family members. Don’t forget to use those resources when you need them!

The critical thing to remember is to keep yourself fresh so you can be up for whatever your caregiving day may bring. Chris and I hope you will join the conversation and share your heart about what you do to overcome negative emotions and experiences and keep yourself healthier and happier in providing care!

Taking Time for Yourself

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Remember that song by Janet Jackson back in the ’80s: What Have You Done for Me Lately? The lyrics went like this:

Used to be a time when you would pamper me
Usta brag about it all the time
Your friends seem to think that you’re so peachy keen
But my friends say neglect is on your mind – Who’s right?

What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah
What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah

I want you to take those lyrics, and ask yourself if you could be talking about yourself with those words? As a Family Caregiver, you know how hard it is to carve out time to do the things you once did…from simply reading a book or a magazine article to going out with friends for lunch, to dating your significant other or even spending time with your own children. Caring for older family members, or those with special needs can be both exhausting and time-consuming. Depending on how much help you have from others, you could be providing care up to 24/7! Just ask yourself this question: What have I done for me lately? Ooh ooh ooh yeah!

Finding time to pamper and care for yourself when you are caring for someone else can seem impossible, but I promise that with a game plan, you can care for yourself while caring for another. Building a winning strategy involves collecting information, developing a plan, gathering resources and implementing the plan. It also involves regular check-ins to determine what is working and what is not, and a willingness to make modifications and try different ideas if the first one, or several, are not helping you achieve the desired outcomes.

Let’s say your desired outcome is to find one hour every day to spend alone, relaxing and resting your mind and body. Here are steps you will need to take to accomplish this goal.

  1. Consider the schedule that you and the one you care for currently live with. Think about the needs you are meeting with your loved one, and what other obligations you might have. Keep in mind that sleep and nutrition are ultimate necessities, so you cannot short-cut either of these when carving out your hour. Does your loved one nap regularly? Does s/he eat or take medications on a tight schedule? Does anyone come into the home on a schedule to provide support services like cooking, cleaning, or caregiving services? How does your current schedule align with all of these details?
  2. Once you have collected all of this information, you are ready to develop a plan. Write everything down for a week or two, and then examine the schedule to see if there is a time where you can “step away” and rest for a while. If you cannot find anything, ask a friend, family member, or someone you trust to look with you. Ask this person to push you to find a solution to your dilemma.
  3. Once you have found your window of time, you need to gather resources. Use a pillbox to pre-sort meds so someone else might give them if your window of availability occurs when it’s time for your loved one to take medication. Consider who else might be available for the hour you need if there simply is no safe way to leave your loved one unattended. Hire a professional home care company to provide support if you don’t have any local family or friends who can be available. Designate a space in your home that is your quiet place. Make it comfortable and cozy, and gather those things you want around you during your quiet time. Think about what you need to make this space and time helpful to your rest and restoration, and put it there.
  4. Finally, put your plan in motion! As much as is possible, when it’s time for you to unplug, do it! You might need to start with only 15 minutes or so, to help the person you are caring for learn that they can trust another while you are away. Be firm with the substitute caregiver; they need to figure out how to manage while you are taking some time to care for yourself. You need this time to be a better Family Caregiver, and they are here to help you accomplish this goal! Work up to your hour, and maybe even go beyond it. You will be amazed at how much better you feel, and how much more you can get accomplished with a little break every now and then.

Once you’ve implemented your plan over a few days or weeks, you will want to check in with your support caregivers, as well as the one you care for, to discover how things are running and feeling for them. Sometimes it will be obvious that the plan is not working. Perhaps your substitute isn’t working out or needs you for something every day. Maybe your loved one is more difficult to manage when you are away for the hour over several days. Any number of things can go wrong, but with patience and a willingness to make small adjustments in your plan, you should be able to find a working solution before long that will help you take your “me” time regularly, and you will be a much better Family Caregiver for doing this! And I promise, when you are able to pamper yourself regularly, even just a little bit, you will find yourself saying, “Ooh, ooh, ooh YEAH!”

Finding Grace

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Having a healthy spiritual life means different things to different people. Chris and I are actively involved in our church, and our church family has supported us through many of life’s joys and sorrows. Churches, Bible study groups, fellowship or small groups and the like can provide accountability, encouragement, suggestions of resources and even respite care support when you need it…but you have to speak up and share your needs within these spiritual circles of trust. Our church family has celebrated one daughter’s wedding, our infant son’s death, the loss of Chris’s mother and many smaller milestones along the way. We love these people for how they have been family to us the last 20+ years, and we wouldn’t survive without them! Our church family takes care of us when we need them most, and we, in turn, take care of others out of the spiritual nurture we receive there.

Chris and I both grew up in Christian homes. We both accepted Christ at an early age and began to grow spiritually from the time we were children. We both entered vocational ministry in our mid-twenties prior to our marriage. We have walked very similar paths in this respect. Today the nurture of our spiritual lives involves daily (at least most days) Bible study, prayer and meditation, regular fellowship with other Christians, mission or service projects, and stewardship of our gifts and resources to represent Christ to others we meet along our life journey.

None of us are perfect in our spiritual lives. My friend Kyle Matthews is a Christian singer/songwriter who wrote a song made famous by Bob Carlisle some years back called We Fall Down. The chorus goes like this:

We fall down, we get up,

We fall down, we get up,

We fall down, we get up,

And the saints are just the sinners

Who fall down and get up.

I fall down…a lot! But when I accept God’s forgiveness for my shortcomings and ask Him for help with challenges or extreme needs, I always find that His provision of grace is exactly what I need to get up again. God’s provision may not be what I asked for, or what I thought I needed, but I can clearly see in hindsight why His way was perfect for my situation. And people who practice spiritual disciplines like prayer, meditation, Scripture study, journaling, and worship on a regular basis indicate that they experience feelings of hope, peace, and joy. They are generally not depressed and can cope with life’s challenges in healthier ways. Furthermore, many spiritual people are physically healthier as well! By nurturing your spiritual health, you will fortify your capacity to care for the people within your care.

What’s your best spiritual discipline for finding God’s grace? And how do you keep it fresh and vibrant in your life? Join the conversation and share your heart!