20130307 – Frustration and Boredom

I’m frustrated. Sometimes I just don’t know what to do for my mother-in-law. She’s bored. There are daily events inside and outside her residence and she doesn’t participate. She’s bored. She has knitting and puzzles and a phone to talk to family and friends but she’s bored. She has cable TV with five dozen channels but she’s bored. Other residents get together for dominoes, a game she really enjoys but she doesn’t join in and she’s bored.

Mom has always said she doesn’t make friends very easily and yet if you put her in a new place she often knows half the life story of the person sitting next to her when you come back ten minutes later. I’ve seen her do that in the mall, in a restaurant, on a dolphin-watching excursion in the bay, you name the place! But she’s bored in her new residence and there are loads of people she doesn’t know yet.

How can you tell if someone is giving up on life? Is this one of the signs? I know Mom’s been through a lot this past two years with the loss of her older sister, her husband, and her ability to manage a household on her own. She’s always been one to bounce back; forty year cancer survivor, multiple heart attacks, all sorts of other health problems and yet here she is, 88 years old and determined enough to hate using the walker beside her chair, but she’s bored. And she’s tired, and she’s in pain, and she doesn’t want to be a burden, and she insists she just doesn’t have the strength to go out for breakfast, or to church.

Is she giving up? Is there a way I can help her engage in life again? We don’t want to lose her any earlier than necessary but we don’t want to force her to do things she doesn’t want to do. Is it the pain talking and keeping her from doing things she usually enjoys? Is it just too tiring even with the pain medication she takes?

She says it’s time to start clearing out the condo, and she doesn’t want to visit there; she’d rather have us take care of it and just ask about certain things like her collections and china. We agree, but from the perspective that simplifying life can be liberating. She could enjoy life more without all the trappings accumulated over the years. We see it as a new beginning; she sees it as another end-of-life task.

So today I’m frustrated, and she’s bored … any ideas … anyone?

20130305-2 – What are those infernal numbers?

YYYYMMDD – These blog posts come from a journal I keep, actually several journals, one for each blog. That eight digit number is the date that I first drafted the entry, first the year, then the month, then the day. I add a dash and a number for days when I draft two or more entries on the same day. It’s an old habit that has to do with sorting and sequencing chronological records in a database, and absolutely nothing to do with anything you care about I’m sure. Just one of those quirky little things I do that my dear wife has learned to live with …

20130305 – Contemplating Caregiving

Sitting here at McD’s nibbling my Egg McMuffin® and sipping my diet soda while Ernesto and the Tuesday crew work hard behind the counter I began thinking back over the last four years and started to appreciate how easy life in the sandwich has been compared to other caregivers like my Dad and our family friend Mr. D who each cared for their spouses 24 hours a day. Assisted living, nursing home, and hospice care can be expensive propositions and most people don’t like the idea of living in Medicaid-induced poverty, assuming they can qualify for assistance at all. So these two men, retired and aging themselves, cared for their spouses at home during their last days.

Ms. D suffered from dementia and the related failure of bodily functions that made her care particularly difficult and the commitment to provide such care something that comes only from unconditional love through 50+ years of marriage. My wife and I have been fortunate not to be the 24 hour caregivers that he needed to be. I stand in awe of Mr. D’s work in seeing his wife through to her passing, and I’m grateful for all of the information he shared with me about what to expect with my Father-in-law as his dementia progressed. What he shared helped us immensely in understanding what my Mother-in-law was experiencing in caring for Dad. The best thing he shared with us is a book called A Dignified Life: The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care, A Guide for Family Caregivers; I heartily recommend this book to anyone caring for a dementia sufferer.

My Mom suffered from the loss of heart and lung function, a gradual decline that left her mind and will generally unaffected but in some ways made her care more difficult for my Dad. Her decline was more generalized and affected her mobility but left her capable in many areas. What she needed most was continuous communication and to see activity continuing around her. She could be very demanding and impatient because she couldn’t do the things she normally did around the house, and expected Dad to pick up all of the slack under her direction. Dad is a quiet and gentle guy who would do anything for anyone; it was a challenge to meet her expectations while being subject to her scrutiny regarding his own health. In my Dad’s situation I was able to take a little time from my job one day each week to go back home (about an hour away) and spell him while he took a little time for himself. Dad also gave of himself unconditionally although I’m not sure Mom really appreciated the sacrifice, but I saw; I knew. And I stand in awe of him as well.

It has been a challenge for me and my wife to help in the care of her parents over the last four years while living in the sandwich as we also helped our son and his wife through some difficult times for them. But as I look back I begin to see how much greater the sacrifice could be than the one we’ve made, and I think that more than anything this look back leaves me grateful for the chance to help our family to the extent I have these last few years.

I’ve been fortunate to have the kind of work that leaves my schedule up to me, and keeps me available to help my family. My wife and I have paid a financial price for it, but when I trade that cost for my presence when I was needed, it’s a small price to pay. I have no regrets. What I have is faith that we’ll be taken care of when we really need the support.  What’s the saying? “Pay it forward!”

Faith, it’s what I live on day to day as I share with you our life in the sandwich …

20130226 – Living with the In-laws

My daughter asked her sister-in-law, “How can you live with your in-laws?” The response, “Well, it’s not easy, but we learned how to make it work.” That’s the same response I would have given my daughter – it cuts both ways.
Two generations living together, sharing kitchen and living spaces, is hard. Learning where to draw lines between being parents and children, adult equals, and landlords and tenants is hard. Learning about each other’s habits and quirks and personalities is hard. Heck, marriage is hard and it’s a lot like getting married. They say when you marry; you marry the whole family and not just your spouse. It’s true, and it must have been incredibly hard for our daughter-in-law to not only marry our son, but actually move in with his parents at the same time!
When my wife and I got married I couldn’t have done it, and I’m pretty sure my wife couldn’t have either, even though my Mom was the one who suggested I ask her out!  Interestingly though, we actually did live with my wife’s parents for two months with an infant on board while finding a house after our move from Colorado back home to Michigan; and her parents also lived with her grandparents for more than a year, so we can say that there was at least some family experience with multi-generational living.
So yes, life with the in-laws is hard. What’s the one hard and fast rule? Talk, and don’t quit talking. Be honest, be engaged, and don’t get nasty. Talk about how you talk with each other. Share your hot buttons so we can be careful not to hit them. Tell us if something we said hurt you and why, so we communicate fairly and less painfully. Talk about and establish clear and acceptable expectations of each other. Talk about equitable divisions of labor. And parents especially, learn when not to be parents and instead be counselors and advisors; learn to wait to be asked and to not butt into your married children’s business. But also learn not to be afraid to speak up when their business is affecting the household.
When you get it right, multi-generational living is rewarding and emotionally uplifting. To share joyful announcements and successes with each other, to be surrogate Dad and Mom to your daughter-in-law when her own Dad or Mom can’t be there and give her a hug when things have gone badly or well, to be able to give your son a lift to work, to have a deep conversation between the four of you around the dinner table, to laugh to the point of tears at a great movie you enjoyed together, and just to celebrate life together is a remarkable experience that brings us even closer as a family.
Cherish the opportunity …

20130221

I know; it’s not Tuesday.  But it’s an emotional day that deserves a comment.

My Facebook status today: “After nearly three weeks with Kim and the kiddos including the trip to California to help them settle into their new home I’m back sitting in my office, briefly Elijah’s room, Pack-n-Play neatly folded by the door … it’s heartbreakingly quiet in here … so I go to Kim and Cadence’s room … just emptiness … heartache redefined …”

When you’re in the sandwich things can get a little emotional, yes, for guys too. A big event like part of your family moving from a home only a day’s drive away to one that’s only accessible by a hard and expensive preplanned day of flying and driving, is exciting when you’re in the moment, but heartbreaking when you contemplate the distance that separates you. The thought of being a Dad and not being able to get to your daughter quickly when she needs you is hard to bear, and establishes the importance of trust that her husband is up to the challenge.

Technology can actually help a little; webcams and Skype are wonderful tools that help keep the family a little closer. It’s always so pleasing, but not too satisfying, when my little granddaughter wants to show me everything she’s doing and learning, but has to kiss Pop-pop goodbye by kissing the screen.

Being in the sandwich triggers emotions ranging from joy to frustration, hope to despair, disappointment to happiness. Managing your emotions is essential to keeping some semblance of normalcy in an environment that is not normal for us Americans. Most other cultures in the world accept extended families as commonplace. We don’t. And maybe we should learn to. Because if we can accept the different stereotypes brought on by extended family living we can reduce the emotional peaks and valleys, and the stress on those of us living atypically. It can be OK for male heads of household not to be the primary breadwinner, it can be OK for the woman to have the steady job, it can be OK to take care of your parents while you can instead of dumping them in some home and ignoring them, and it can be looked on as not being soft on your kids if you haven’t kicked them out of the house just because they’re older than 22 and need a little “tough love”.

We tend to be bound by cultural norms that may not be in the best interests of our family members who really need help. Everyone’s situation is different. We’ve looked at ours and decided this is the best way to help each one in our family to the best of our ability. Our challenge is to find the correct balance that gives my wife and me strong family ties, financial security, and peace of mind. And sometimes we have to have faith that we’ll be taken care of when we just don’t see where the money is coming from to tackle that next hurdle.

Let some emotion enter the equation, but don’t let negative emotions rule your situation. You can handle this. Many people do. It’s not as unusual as you think. Your true friends will understand and support you. They’ll encourage you and give you space. And they’ll offer you a shoulder to lean on when you need it. It’s cliché, but just keep putting one foot in front of the other…

20130219

This Tuesday I’m in California with my wife, daughter and grandkids, helping them to settle into their new home, brought on by my son-in-law’s promotion and transfer to the West Coast from the East Coast. It’s a day of learning the lay of the land, chauffeuring the family around, hanging curtain rods, cleaning sinks, finding meals, and moving furniture. Back home our son and daughter-in-law take care of the house and check in on Mom to make sure things are going well for her third week in assisted living. When we get back tomorrow it will be catching up on more of Mom’s paperwork, then back into the office to figure out where I left off with my business contacts and clients during the last three weeks.

20130212 – First Tuesday

Today my wife and I shared a brief conversation while I drove her to work – refreshing! I drove her because my daughter and grandchildren are visiting for two weeks while in transition to a new home out of state, and they need the other car while they’re in town. After a quick turnaround back home I take my son to work because his wife needs the one functioning car they have for several work related meetings during the day.

Breakfast on my own at my favorite McDonalds where the whole staff knows me and Mom (and Dad rest his soul) and ask how Mom is doing at assisted living because we’ve been there every Tuesday since October 2009; is followed by some quick paperwork for the doctor, confirmation of new bank signature cards, new phone service at assisted living – Mom’s new home, the traditional USPS change of address (don’t ever have the mail forwarded to assisted living, it can’t easily be “un-forwarded” from there, have it forwarded to your house for sorting and delivery to Mom), playing and food service with the grandchildren while Mommy grabs a few minutes of privacy for a shower, and finally a few minutes to write this post.

I guess I won’t be getting much business done today, the marketing plan, follow-up phone calls, Chamber of Commerce committee work and more phone calls will all wait another day. And that’s a Catch-22 decision because doing consulting work for supplemental income depends on those business things getting done, hmmm.  Stress is starting to kick in, but at least the blood pressure and blood sugar are still showing normal at midafternoon, not bad for a 63 year old overweight diabetic with a heart condition; yeah, I’m working on it! Somehow the hugs and playtime with the grandkids tend to even things out, at least for a little while.

Next will be time to retrieve my wife, prepare some dinner while she retreats from a tough day and the daughter and grandkids meet the other grandparents for dinner, take care of paperwork, and hang out in case my son needs a ride home for work if my daughter-in-law’s evening meeting runs long.

Not unusual for a day with the sandwich generation – just wanted to give you a sample. There’ll probably be more occasional examples to follow