Women, especially, are socialized to make nice — to make everyone around them comfortable. That can leave us hamstrung saying “Um” a lot, avoiding the difficult, when we really need to become comfortable with discomfort — extending the edges of that zone as far as we (safely) can.
And, really, what’s “safe”?
Many women are also still socialized to expect little of ourselves intellectually and economically beyond the tedious maternally-focused media trope of “having it all” — working yourself into a frenzy to be perfect at motherhood/work/friendship/PTA cupcakes.
To never show a moment’s vulnerability.
To do it all, all alone.
I do mean developing and consistently using and trusting your own power, a strength and resilience that sees us through the scariest and most unexpected moments.
That might be physical, tested through sports or the military or parenting or adversity.
That might be intellectual — studying subjects so difficult they make your brain hurt — coming out the other side wearily proud of your hard-won new skills.
That might be spiritual/emotional — helping someone you love through a tough time. Or yourself. Probably both.
Jose and I have had an interesting, eye-opening few weeks caring for my 85-year-old father in Canada, where I grew up, after a hip replacement.
He’s the kind of guy whose biceps, still, feel like touching concrete. Who, in the past two years alone, sailed in Greece for a month and flew to Hong Kong and Viet Nam.
Like me, he doesn’t do “ill” or “weak” or “helpless.”
It’s been instructive, and sobering, for all three of us to see how intimately — not our norm! — we’ve had to interact through this transition.
Seeing someone you care for ill, in pain, nauseated, is frightening and disorienting. You desperately want to fix it, right away, but all you might be able to usefully do is wash a bloodied bedsheet or empty a pail of vomit.
You become a reluctant witness.
They become reluctantly passive, forcefully humbled by the body’s new and unwelcome fragility, even if blessedly temporary, a painful way station on the road to recovery.
It’s not fun. It’s not sexy.
Nor can you hand it all off to someone else.
It’s your job to give it your best, no matter how scared or freaked-out or overwhelmed you might feel.
It is real.
You also, if you’re lucky, get to see your partner be a mensch. Jose is an amazing husband in this regard, a man who steps up and gets shit done, no matter how tired he really feels, no matter if it’s all new and unfamiliar.
No whining. No complaining.
We never had children and have no pets, so the whole cleaning-up-bodily-fluids-thing is not part of our daily life and never has been.
But drives to the pharmacy and laundry became daily activities, plus cooking, cleaning up, housework, helping him back into bed. By day’s end, we both needed, and took, a long nap.
And Jose’s caregiving of me for three weeks after my own hip replacement in February 2012 was, in many ways, easier: I had less pain, a nurse came in every few days to check my progress and our hospital at home is a 10-minute drive from home, not an hour, as it is for my father.
I’d never seen my father ill and he’s never spent a night in the hospital, so taking medications, (very few, but still), and constant attention to the physical came as a shock to all of us.
As a family, always, we tend to live in our heads, to focus on art and politics, to thump the dinner table in vociferous arguments over (yes, really) geeky shit like economic policy.
We don’t do a lot of hugging or “I love you’s”. We’re private, even shy in some ways.
We typically don’t inquire after one another’s emotional states nor really expect or even want a candid answer. (WASP, Canadian, whatever…)
Surely you jest.
Not so much.
And so three comfort zones now have entirely new boundaries. I doubt such extensions arrive without cost.
We now know one another better than after years of brief less-intense visits, and have forged deeper, richer bonds as a result.
(Dad is doing great, so we’re now back at home; he’s well on the road back to normal, active life. No more tinkling of the bedside bell for help, a tradition we used for me as well.)
I’ve been in Victoria, B.C. for only two days, after flying from New York, where I live. I’m here, the only child, with a shared power of attorney with a friend of my mother’s, to put my mom — one of the most ferociously private and independent women I’ve ever met — into a nursing home. She is only 76.
To describe this week as painful and sad and wrenching is to understate the maelstrom of emotions threatening to engulf us both. Yet there is no time to zone out emotionally or intellectually, no matter how tempting.
Despite my own fears, sadness, jet lag, fatigue and general sense of overhelmedness, like everyone trying to be a caregiver, I must be on, present, attentive, meticulous in my attention to every detail — from the screwdriver I need to borrow (a Philips head? not sure) to detach the antique medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom to sell at auction to the 24-paragraph contract I signed today with the nursing home, the one with so many contingencies it made my head spin.
The most challenging piece of all this? Taking care of myself.
So, which is not at all typical of how I handle my life, I am telling almost everyone I meet here, from the clerk at the grocery store to the woman selling me a mid-afternoon cappuccino, why I’m here, and savoring, gratefully, the kindness I encounter. Victoria is the Florida of Canada, the one city where so many Canadian seniors choose to retire — and often end up moving into a nursing home here. So everyone, from the attorney to the auctioneer, knows the territory and how it feels for the caregiver rushed into a welter of decisions.
What to sell? What to keep?
How do I break the news, as I had to this afternoon, sitting on the bed beside her in the hospital (where she has been for 3.5 months) that my mother’s new home — one small room — simply does not have room for two chests of drawers. Just one. Which would she prefer?
It is a hideous and heartbreaking question to ask. I wish she could have stayed in the other room we found — twice its size and easily holding many more of her beloved things. But the owner of that nursing home was a really nasty piece of work and also refused to accommodate my mother’s newly-discovered celiac disease.
There is no way to make life in one small room, eating meals with 52 strangers beneath extremely bright overhead lights, especially alluring.
And then I gave her, too soon perhaps, probably the worst possible news she could have heard, beyond a terminal diagnosis. She is a woman who traveled South America alone in her 40s, lived alone in Lima and Bath and Roswell, NM after married life in London and Vancouver and Toronto….it was, that because of her damaged lungs, she will likely never be allowed to fly in an airplane again.
Her shoulders sagged and I wished more than anything I could have snatched those words back again. But I could not. I cannot.
And she lives a six-hour flight away from me, an impossible distance for her to travel by car or train or bus. Neither can either of us, for several reasons, move closer to one another.
So I despair of my inability to comfort her and turn back the clock. I feel powerless and angry and sad.
So I call my sweetie and he hugs me over the phone. I sleep a deep, restorative 9 to 10 hours every night. I have a beer or a glass of wine. I sort through my mother’s linens and books and dishes and glasses and wonder when or where someone will do this for me. I vow to return home and clear to the bare walls our garage and storage lockers full of…stuff.
Here’s a fantastic, detailed story by author Gail Sheehy about coping with her husband’s cancer from the March issue of Woman’s Day on caregiving. The issue also contains a story about how to prepare for this role, with lots of practical advice.
I’ve been facing this sudden reality for about the past two months. My divorced mother, 76, who lives in a very far away city in Canada — I am just north of New York City — now must move into a nursing home. I have someone there sharing power of attorney with me, but even so it has become an unpaid, draining, overwhelming, full-time job demanding almost daily decisions, all of them with major consequences.
None of which are anything I have ever faced before or have a frame of reference for.
I’m the only child.
If you have not yet entered this specific obstacle course, a few things you need to think about:
Does your parent have a will? Do you know where it is and who is the executor?
Have they, in advance, designated a power of attorney?
Do they, or you, have a written inventory of all their belongings and which they might want to keep when they have to trade a home for one room?
What do they want to do with all ephemera — photos, letters, documents? Have you or they sorted through it and identified what is important or of sentimental value? Identified who’s who in the photos?
Who will handle your parent’s affairs financially?
Do they have long-term care insurance? (Do you?)
Have you discussed any of this with your parent?
Do you have anyone, like a geriatric care manager, to help you if you are trying to deal with all of this from a distance?
Here’s what we’ve faced:
She fell in the hospital, breaking her hip in the emergency room
Surgery to repair her hip and months of rehab and physical therapy to regain strength and mobility
Another fall in the hospital, which protested there was no way they could prevent yet another one
Bowel surgery and a colostomy
She has COPD and heart problems as a result
She has early, for now, mild dementia and trouble with short-term memory
The learning curve is vertical!
These are just some of the many people I’ve spoken to in the past three months:
Two nurses, doctors (at least four, so far), physical therapist, occupational therapist, nursing home staff at four homes while seeking a suitable and available bed, hospital social worker, hospital risk manager, attorney, realtor, notary for the buyers for her apartment; auction house coming to appraise and sell her things; Salvation army for picking up the rest, movers to move her into the nursing home, airline (for my flight); car rental (for my visit), UPS (for packing and shipping back here whatever I can take or keep), bank staff to try and arrange handling of her finances…
The only thing keeping me sane is knowing many other women also going through this hell or who have already gone through it, and who kindly offer compassion, humor and advice.
It is a maelstrom of grief, fear, sadness, confusion, anger, frustration, loss. And the cost is staggering — $6,000 a month for one room. Yes, a nursing home room is definitely much cheaper elsewhere, but she is not physically able to move and emotionally would not want to as her friends are in this city.