Our first Menopause Goddess Group meetings revolved around The Big M. We commiserated over symptoms, shared tips and remedies, and supported one another through the Change.
Subsequent meetings morphed into discussions about relationships, visions for our futures, and life stages. One whole weekend retreat focused on caregiving. We knew that someday we would have to address the care needs of aging parents or our spouses. How could we prepare ourselves for that eventuality?
One of the goddesses shared that she worried about whether she’d be up to the task. “I’m not a caretaking kind of person,” she said, “I’m not patient or all that good with illness.” It was a legitimate concern – for all of us, even those of us who were nurses. We ultimately decided we couldn’t really prepare all that much, just be ready to respond when it was needed.
I had thought my parents would be the ones I’d have to caretake. After all, they are in their 90’s and have underlying medical conditions. It turned out that it was my husband, Dewitt, who led me to put on my caregiver hat. I’ve learned a lot through this process and I’m still learning. Here’s what I know so far:
1. All you can do is put one foot in front of the other. We were spot-on in our goddess group meeting when we decided that we couldn’t really prepare except mentally. There were days without a shower, days when I forgot to take my own pills and supplements. Days of fear, encouragement, steps forward and back. But one step at a time, whether forward or back, is all that you can do.
2. You can accept help – and you can even ask for it. When Dewitt was first in the hospital, I didn’t even know what I needed, if I needed. But there were angels who stepped in to help anyway.
R got on the phone with her friend K and assigned her to help me out. K brought me water, power bars, and chocolate when I didn’t even realize that I was thirsty or hungry until she did. And then, she picked up my laundry at the hotel and returned it freshly washed and sweet-smelling.
C and L immediately offered to fly out to Hawaii to help if I needed it. In the midst of a pandemic. Before vaccinations. I said no, not yet, but tucked their offers away like secret talismans or smooth pebbles I could rub in my pockets when things got bad.
C talked me off the ledge at least once a day. Her phone calls were a lifeline.
Dr. J drove me back to the hotel at night, even though she’d worked all day saving lives.
M called in the evenings and made me laugh, which I needed as much as a bottle of water or a snack.
E and F took care of our demanding black kitty, picked up our mail, took down our Christmas tree, and made healing soup for our return home. J and K made dinner for us, too.
Finally, S called and offered her upstairs apartment (she and her husband live downstairs) as a place of healing and respite after discharge so we wouldn’t have to go to a Honolulu hotel. And we could have space. And a kitchen. Wow.
There were more angels, but you get the drift. I learned that I didn’t have to do any of this alone. And next time a friend or family has a health crisis, I won’t say “let me know if you need anything.” I’ll be there with water, food, laundry and pet-sitting, whatever I see that is needed because now I know that the caregiver may have no idea what s/he needs right then.
3. It’s a joy to care for someone you love. This might seem obvious to some, but as a nurse, I know how arduous caregiving can be. I’ve watched families struggle, doing their best to push through exhaustion, complications, and uncertainty. But I had no idea how much joy was involved in showing love through tiny acts of caregiving, moment by moment. Even when Dewitt was discouraged or impatient with progress, being there with him was the only place I could imagine being. The only place I wanted to be. Nobody tells you this – so I’m telling you now.
4. You have to make it a priority to care for yourself. Because if the caregiver goes down, you’ve got real trouble. Everybody tells you this, but it needs to be emphasized. Knowing it intellectually and actually doing it are two different things. I forced myself to eat, even when I didn’t think I was hungry. I tried, not always successfully, to get enough sleep. And I made it through without getting sick.
5. The real work starts once s/he gets home. The myriad medications. The monitoring of symptoms, heart rate, blood pressure. The changes in diet and exercise. The mental health counseling. The scheduling of appointments. These are the 24/7 responsibilities of the caregiver. This is when it becomes absolutely critical to practice self-care – see # 4. There’s no second shift of nurses, dieticians, or housekeepers to fall back on. However, don’t hesitate to ask friends and family for help – people WANT to help. Let them. (see #2)
6. Pace yourself – don’t try to do everything. Learn what really needs doing and what can be postponed or jettisoned. Sweeping the floor can wait. So can the dishes. Take advantage of your loved one napping to shower, read a book or magazine, take a nap yourself – rather than trying to get caught up on “chores”. In my case, I had to take on not only my own chores but the ones Dewitt always did. Like taking out the garbage, putting air in the car’s tires, going to the post office to get the mail. So some of my chores got put off. I’m here to tell you that it didn’t change our quality of life one iota.
Dewitt is growing stronger every day. He’s taking on more chores and responsibilities slowly. We are grateful for all we have experienced and learned. And to be able to share this with all of you. Stay safe, be well.