Looking Back – A Lesson on Recharging

Looking Back – A Lesson on Recharging

On a recent Monday morning, as I finished my morning walk and was sitting down for a cup of coffee on the porch, the phone rang and my world as a caregiver changed – forever and permanently.  For many years, I have been the “chief” caregiver for my mother – AKA “Ma”. There are six children but for reasons that are too complex to unpack here, I have been the man.  Divorced and running a small company, I found myself constantly running a series of daily and weekly races to meet the needs of my aging and increasingly frail Ma.  While I had her comfortably based in an assisted living facility a few minutes from me, the demands were huge and more often than not, I ended each day – each race – feeling like I had missed the mark and failed to provide the care I know she wanted. Not necessarily needed, but wanted.

If you are reading this, I am sure that you can easily identify with this statement.  While I clearly realized that my mother had been forced, due to health issues, to give up her home and surrender to a life of no longer having 100% independence…the frequent unhappiness expressed from such a move wore on me.  I had always been close to my Ma and had hoped that moving her 400 miles from her home to live near me would be a good situation…but it was hard.  Ma never let go of her old life.  While I could understand the emotional pain of such a change, I never was able to accept the constant swings and jabs of unhappiness that resulted from the move.  What I also did not anticipate was the belief that since I was now only minutes away, being a short-order problem solver and concierge was an expectation.  To top it off, Ma refused to socially assimilate.  She held firmly to her former social order and quickly developed an expectation that I become the social chairman in her life.  As I consider all this, I sit here fighting with the thought that I failed at each of the jobs she expected me to fill.

As all of us know, running our life and trying to make a living is a delicate balance.  Make that a party of one and laundry, cooking, cleaning…having a social life…it all requires great planning.  Add a demanding parent to that list and the cart most certainly tilts and does so on a frequent basis.  But I worked hard to make it all happen.  Doctor visits, picking up personal items Ma needed, fixing her computer, tending the cat, cutting toenails, sitting and visiting…picking up a meal when she was tired of assisting living food…all just left me depleted.  And the most challenging part of it all was…it never seemed enough.

At no point did I lose perspective that I was somehow the only person on the face of the earth who was running this race.  I knew better.  But…many times when I had not had dinner, had missed an important meeting to go handle a crisis, walked out of her room and gotten in my car exhausted and knowing that the look of disgust on her face said I had not done enough…my heart told me I was all alone.  I felt that no one on earth was experiencing the frustration, exhaustion, anger and isolation that I was.  My mind said no – but my heart said I was doomed.

As the years went by, I found myself throwing up walls to guard myself against the stinging feelings of failing to successfully run this race.  The frequent calls and voicemails from Ma asking me to call her, come handle some issue that clearly could wait but seemed critical to her and the comments from my absent siblings sharing her feedback on my performance just hurt.  It all wore me down like a dulled-out crayon that only scraped the paper with the wrapper and no color was to be seen.  But still, I found myself pealing back the color wrapper a little more and rallying to run again.  The last year, it felt as if I was running on one leg and I was fairly certain that my good leg was failing me and soon…I’d have to drag myself to run in the race.  I realize now that I was seriously lost in a case of caregiver burnout.

While I never acted in a manner that was abusively in any manner, I look back now and see that my fainting color was equally impacting my mom.  I know for a fact it did.  I know now that my high walls and emotional shrink scared and worried her.  I realize that my quick stop trips were painful for her. The thought of all that rips out my heart and has caused more tears that I can count.  I’ve asked myself so often…how it was that I allowed myself to become that transactional person.

But, not all was lost in our relationship.  When I allowed myself to rest, take a break, take a few days of well-planned R&R, things were better.  I loved cooking some of Ma’s favorite meals and packing them up and taking her a picnic dinner.  She loved it when I’d sit down and share the latest gossip from life and we’d shop for Audible books and talk about the books we had listened to.  She loved to hear about my flowers, my kids, the vegetable garden and just share life.  I loved it too.  I also loved “me” when we’d do that.  But I know that I did not discipline myself often enough to have that rebuilding time so that I’d be fresh for her.  I regret that.

On that morning as I sat on the porch drinking my coffee, the phone rang.  It was the nurse at Ma’s assisted living facility and she told me I needed to come quickly.  Ma had had a stroke and was “really bad off”.  I drove like a crazy man and found Ma in an ambulance waiting for the life flight helicopter to fly her to a larger advanced care hospital an hour away.  She was a mess.  She was scared and not able to speak and she looked at me with great fear. She knew I was there and I just held her, told her how much I loved her and promised her that whatever was about to be…that I would stay right with her and not leave her side.  That was Monday and she died peacefully on Thursday without ever being able to say a word to me.  My heart broke into a million pieces because I wanted to hear her say one more time, “I love you very much”.

In Ma’s last days and hours, I sat right by her bed.  I slept off and on but I never left.  I knew Ma was going to leave this world and I was hell bent that she was not going out alone. I thought about how my busy life had left her alone much of the time and I was not going to allow her to die alone. It was a special time, a sweet time, a time for me to talk to her and tell her how great a Ma she had been and how much I loved her and how much I would miss her. All of me wants to believe she heard me and she felt the love.  The night before her stroke, we had a great conversation.  She laughed often and we talked about the tomatoes I was growing for her.  She seemed happy and she ended the call with her classic ending…” I love you very much”. I am so deeply grateful for that call.

So, what’s the “what” here that I can share with other caregivers?  That list can be long.  I won’t try to be the “fix all” man.  I’ll just say that I know that caregiving is hard.  If you’ve not done it, you cannot know.  The physical and emotional toll is huge.  Everyone’s circumstances are different.  But our needs are generally the same.  Find a way to rest, relax and unplug from your duties.  Be it a movie or a vacation…you cannot provide needed care if your tank is empty.  24/7 is deadly and asking for help is not a “nice to do”, it is a must do.    Build your emotional energy banks as often as you can.  And then, use some of that energy to open your heart and allow a personal connection…for as much as your loved one can allow and will accept.  The odds are, you will outlive the person you are caring for. Yes, there are times you doubt that. I see your head shaking “yes”! When it’s over, give yourself the gift of good memories.  There will be plenty of not so good memories about your journey as a caregiver.  But for me, my saving grace rest in those memories where I rebuilt, recharged and went back into the ring for another round and was able to offer myself more completely.   There are days now where those few memories are what carry me through. It’s not easy.  I know.  While my race is over, I will forever keep those of you running the race firmly in my heart and deeply seeded in my prayers.

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