‘As he shared his story … something was missing’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

We need to talk. Those four words can ease many of our stresses and strains as caregivers—and as human beings. That’s why I welcome conversations at my Facebook page—and I love to see our writers engage in honest dialogue. This prompts us all to sit down, pour a cup of something—and talk. Right now, Paul Hile and Benjamin Pratt are talking about the dangers of unresolved anger and the potential of forgiveness. This conversation started with Ben’s column, Clearing Boulders, and continued with Paul’s Forgiveness Is More Than Skin Deep. Today, Ben gives us …

‘Did I Say Anything about Anger?’

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Paul Hile wrote a very personal account of his life as a caregiver and his efforts to forgive—in response to my tale of forgiveness by my father-in-law. In his story, Paul confesses his wide range of deep feelings, from joy and gratitude to guilt and anger. This admission is so necessary for healing the broken pieces of our souls as we move toward forgiving others and ourselves. It’s not easy to reach the point of honesty Paul shared with us.

Let me tell you about a different conversation I had recently.

BEN PRATT says: "I'm such a big believer in sitting down to talk over a cup of coffee that a logo of two coffee cups pops up on special pages in my book 'A Guide for Caregivers.' I invite readers to plan a future conversation with a friend." (Click this photo to learn more.)

BEN PRATT says: “I’m such a big believer in sitting down to talk over a cup of coffee that a logo of two coffee cups pops up on special pages in my book ‘A Guide for Caregivers.’ I invite readers to plan a future conversation with a friend.” (Click this photo to learn more.)

Michael phoned me at the suggestion of his parent’s pastor who had told him I was a caregiver writing a book for caregivers. We met at a local coffee shop, sat at a corner table, and, as the coffee cooled, we introduced ourselves. There was a quiet moment and then, he began to tell me of his long-toiling, faithful commitment as a caregiver of his parents. I was moved by his honest, compassionate, straight forward, sincere rending of his life tale. Midway through his story, I sensed there was something missing—something I had experienced in myself and in other caregivers.

He began, “I was about two years from retirement at a job I liked, when my mother called to say that Dad wasn’t doing well. She asked me to visit. What became clear soon was that neither one of them was doing well. I talked to my two sisters about the situation, and they said they couldn’t really help. I made a rather impulsive decision: I had enough money and resolve to quit my job and move back home to help care for my mom and dad.

“It may be that I moved home because I had guilt about not visiting them enough. I know I felt some shame about my testy relationship with my father. He pushed me and I pushed back—that was our history.

“I moved home and life got pretty intense and difficult very quickly. I was feeding, bathing, and cleaning my father when he soiled himself—stuff I never even imagined I would be doing. It was difficult full time work, and I was doing most of it because my mother was becoming more confused and less helpful. She would leave the stove on, ruin food and fail to function in the kitchen or at other simple chores. I was losing sleep, not eating well and gaining weight. My sisters seemed to drop off the map—they called but didn’t come.

“After about 10 months, my father had a stroke and died a week later. I did something I have rarely done, I cried and felt very sad, but mostly, I felt guilty. I blamed myself for not doing enough for him. Over the next few months, Mom became more confused and unable to care for herself. It was one thing to bathe my father but I didn’t want to do all those personal things for my mother. I got her into a care facility and, before too long, she often didn’t know me. I visit every day. I never know whether she will recognize me or not. I keep thinking I let them both down—I should have done more.”

We sat quietly, as men often do, with our hands clasped, leaning in, elbows on spread knees, eyes staring at nothing on the floor. I had time to feel and then to think.

I finally said, “I’m touched by your care of your parents. You have told me about your love, your compassion, your long-suffering faithful commitment. I am honored to sit in the presence of such a loving, sacrificial man. You gave and continue to give a remarkable gift to your parents. But I get the sense that I am more grateful for your generosity than you are. You don’t seem to value your gift. I’m also puzzled.  Can you tell me more about your anger?”

He slowly raised his head, “Did I say anything about anger? I don’t think I mentioned it.”

“I know you didn’t. You told of your shame and your guilt. You did what many caregivers do: You gave your whole self, body and soul. Then instead of appreciating what you have done, you pronounced yourself guilty! You blame yourself for not being all powerful. You feel guilty for not being powerful enough to make their last days tranquil.

“One of the things I have learned is that guilt and anger are often two sides of one coin. Guilt has its root in the daunting shoulds of our lives. We should be able to do it all! Anger is also rooted in our helplessness. Anger gives the illusion that we are powerful and not helpless. Each of us has plenty of reasons to feel legitimate guilt, but I can’t detect one thing in your story that deserves that indictment.

“Your guilt may serve only to keep you from acknowledging and realizing your anger. Both guilt and anger are empty answers in your journey of respectful caregiving.”

‘Nebraska’ … Where Wishes (Could) Come True

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

A Note from Your Host: Caregivers know video! TVs often are on wherever we go. Of course, we may not have time to sit down and watch an entire movie, unless we plan ahead—and that’s the point of Benjamin Pratt’s column today. This highly praised new movie with Bruce Dern shares some serious insights. In 2014, we are inviting Ben to write a Caregivers column each month. In January, he wrote about footwashing as a wedding ritual.

Going to ‘Nebraska’

By BENJAMIN PRATT

“NEBRASKA,” the film nominated for six Academy Awards, offers surprising wisdom and good modeling.

Bruce Dern in "Nebraska"

Bruce Dern in “Nebraska”

This bleak comedy in black and white reflects the dismal winter landscapes mirrored in the struggling, hard-tack characters. Woody Grant, an aging, family-neglecting alcoholic is found by police walking in Billings, Montana. David, his son, rescues his father whose destination is Lincoln, Nebraska.

Woody’s goal? He wants to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize. David reads the sweepstakes letter and chides his father for mistaking a mail scam as a prize winner. Woody remains convinced. He still thinks he can collect the winnings, despite the naysaying of David and his wife’s acrid criticisms.

The misadventures of father and son en-route to Lincoln, their family and acquaintances, will get you clucking with disgust and laughter and an occasional tear in the corner of your eye. Woody’s extended family and former friends all latch onto his dream of $1 million and the vultures move in. But don’t worry—I’m not going to tell you the whole story. This is a movie best experienced, before reading about it. So, make a plan to see it! If you can’t wait, I suggest you read this excellent review by my friend, Ed McNulty.

I knew nothing about the story prior to entering the theater, as is my usual preference. What surprised me most when watching “Nebraska” was remembering the wisdom of Haim Ginott, the author of Between Parent and Child, a guide Judith and I turned to often when rearing our children. Ginott offered a unique combination of compassion and boundary setting; he showed respect for a child’s feelings while setting limitations on his/her behavior.

As I recall Ginott’s advice, it was: Grant them in wish what you cannot grant them in fact. For example, when our child wanted chocolate ice cream at bed time, I might have responded, “I know you really want ice cream now. I would like some too but I can’t because it might keep us from sleeping well.”

It is this gift of acknowledging the wish—but attempting to set boundaries—that David employs as he guided his prodigal father through the film. He listens to the feelings behind his father’s words, a fascinating reversal of roles but not one unfamiliar to us who care for aging parents.

David finally asks his father what he would do with the million dollars. “I’d buy a new truck and a new compressor,” says Woody. David, tenderly surprised, reminds his father he no longer has a driver’s license. Sober, somber Woody replies that he wants to leave something for his family when he passes. He wants these for them, not for himself.

He wants dignity at the end of his life. There we finally have the yearning, the feelings, the real wish stated. Behind the words is the ache of a man who knows he has failed to be who they needed and wanted him to be. He wants to leave them with a positive that he had never been able to give.

As I reflect on the movie and Ginott’s advice, I can see there’s real wisdom there for many of us: Sometimes, we can give them what they wish. But first, we need to slow down, listen, be present, carefully listen to the hope and ache behind the words.

Go, see this film. See if wishes come true.

Cindy LaFerle: When do we listen to our own hearts?

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

WELCOME Cindy LaFerle, a popular author, columnist and longtime friend of our online magazine. She also is a veteran caregiver and writes eloquently about the challenge so many of us suddenly face—between caring for others … and ourselves. At the end of this column, I invite you to learn more about Cindy’s work.

Also, thanks to all the readers who are passing along our recent columns on Tips for Caregivers. We always look forward to your comments, emails and suggestions.

HERE IS Cindy’s column, which she calls …

Broken-Heart Signals

By CINDY LaFERLE

Long before the weird heart palpitations started, my first warning was a never-ending series of medical appointments on my day planner.

Not one of those appointments was for me.

Three years ago, I’d purchased a new day planner to keep track of my widowed mother’s care management. While transferring dates and phone numbers from my previous planner, I noticed I’d driven Mom to nearly 50 medical appointments in less than a year—yet I’d neglected to schedule an annual physical for myself.

Unable to drive due to her progressing vascular dementia, Mom lived alone in her condo then, relying solely on me to help maintain her “independence.” Between regular trips to Mom’s cardiologist, urologist, audiologist, primary care physician, pacemaker clinic, and various surgeons, I was lucky if I could book a free morning to get my teeth cleaned.

Friends told me I was looking tired, but I ignored them (and thought they were being cruel). Months of worry and caregiving were starting to take their toll—yet I was too frantic to notice.

The beat goes on and on

Cindy LaFerle created this multi-media piece, called “Cycles of the Muse.” It is featured in "The Rust Belt Almanac," a new anthology of art, fiction, and poetry about growth, change and loss in America’s Rust Belt. (Click this image to visit the Amazon page for the book.)

Cindy LaFerle created this multi-media piece, called “Cycles of the Muse.” It is featured in “The Rust Rising Belt Almanac,” a new anthology of art, fiction, and poetry about growth, change and loss in America’s Rust Belt. (Click this image to visit the Amazon page for the book.)

Since March of this year, Mom has fallen twice, first fracturing her back and later shattering her ankle. (By this time, we’d finally made the difficult decision to move her, totally against her wishes, to a skilled nursing care facility.) These episodes required three extended hospital stays and two surgeries—plus weeks of physical therapy.

Meanwhile, I endured two minor surgeries of my own, but ended up spending my recovery time overseeing my mother’s care at the hospital. I would try to care for myself later, I promised.

Visiting Mom at the hospital, I could feel my blood pressure rising every time she insisted she was “perfectly capable” of caring for herself at home. Deluded by the insidious fog of dementia, she refused to believe she’d broken her ankle and was unable to walk—even when we pointed to the cast on her leg.

Over and over, she’d ask: “Why are you keeping me here, there is nothing wrong with me?”
“Why can’t I go home now?”
“When are you taking me home?”

By August, I’d developed some alarming new symptoms of my very own—including heart palpitations—and a wretched case of insomnia. My heart would pound without any exertion to prompt it—even while I was relaxing in front of the TV.

It scared the hell out of me, unpredictably, several times a day. I was terrified enough to finally schedule an appointment with my family doctor, who ordered several tests. As the doctor explained it, I’d been living on adrenaline fumes after functioning on “high alert” for the past couple of years.

Taking versus giving

More than one-third of caregivers who provide continuing care for a spouse or another family member are doing so “while suffering poor health themselves,” notes a study cited by the Family Caregiver Alliance. Not surprisingly, middle-aged and older female caregivers are more susceptible to heart disease, hypertension, and depression than those with no caregiving duties. The stats are sobering, so I won’t go on here.

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“In many midlife women, heart palpitations are primarily caused by increasing heart energy—influenced by partnership, passion, anger, and forgiveness issues—trying to become embodied in a woman’s life,” explains Christiane Northrup, M.D., in a column she wrote for her website. She’s best known as the author of The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional Health During the Change.

In her online column, she writes: “My experience has been that our bodies speak to us only when we can’t seem to ‘hear’ them any other way. When issues of love, issues of the soul, or issues of a woman’s unmet passions cry out for attention, they often take the form of heart palpitations. If we are willing to be open to their meaning, we will be giving our hearts a chance to be heard.”

Dr. Northrup challenges women to ask what could be weighing heavily on our hearts—including our key relationships. Are friends and loved ones “investing” as much in our emotional bank as we’re investing in theirs? If not, why do we hang on to unbalanced alliances?

Of course, some relationships—family, especially—are not dispensable. I have no choice but to show up for my mother and to manage all aspects of her life, from finances to healthcare. But when others make silly or unrealistic demands on my time—or ignore my emotional needs—I have every right to question those relationships. My heart depends on it.

Reading Dr. Northrup’s advice, I also realized I’d been putting everyone else’s needs ahead my own for the past two decades. Starting in early motherhood, I’d completely redesigned my career goals around the schedules of my husband and son. As soon as my son left for college, my widowed mother’s health began failing, throwing me unexpectedly into the role of full-time caregiver again.

Hearing the heart sounds

Once we “listen” to what our hearts are telling us, Dr. Northrup says, our symptoms begin to fade—though it’s always best to have them checked by a physician, as I did.

Even though Mom has been in a nursing home for several months, I have to remind myself that I needn’t worry about her 24/7. Professional caregivers are being paid to tend to her needs.

I’ve also learned that it’s best to avoid visiting her when I’m feeling especially depressed or exhausted. Mom still begs me to take her “home”—which inevitably leads to more heartbreak and frustration for both of us. The social worker at the nursing home has suggested “redirecting” our conversations to focus on happier memories—which rarely works with anxious dementia patients, but I keep trying.

Though it might seem otherwise, this post isn’t a pity party. I fully accept the privilege of being part of a family—which often includes caring for a chronically ill (or incredibly difficult) elderly parent. I hope it serves as a warning for anyone fulfilling the role of caregiver while navigating her own middle years—years that inevitably present health challenges and other turning points that she might ignore at her peril.

It’s time to listen up.

Listen to your heart.

Cindy LaFerle

Cindy LaFerle

LEARN MORE ABOUT
CINDY LAFERLE

This column was republished, with permission, from Cindy’s home website: Cindy LaFerle’s Home Office. Cindy is an award-winning columnist, journalist and author. Her work appears in many book-length anthologies, including The Rust Belt Rising Almanac. Her own signature collection is Writing Home: Collected Essays and Newspaper Columns.