BY IRENE OLSON
It cannot be said often enough how being a family caregiver is a learn-as-you-go endeavor. I spent years working in assisted living and memory care but still struggled greatly as my father’s caregiver. Dad died on October 13, 2007, after a relatively brief five-year Alzheimer’s journey. My professional experience was certainly beneficial during those years, but it did not guarantee a smooth caregiving ride. When it’s your father, mother, spouse, partner, grandma, grandpa, brother, sister, or friend, it’s personal.
That’s what happens when the heart is involved—knowledge serves as a mere guide, not a fool-proof prescription. Another thing that happens when the heart is inextricably wrapped around a loved one’s caregiving is that the struggling caregiver thinks she has to do it all; that no one could do it better than her; that delegating tasks to others would mean shirking her family duties.
Pride and an imbalanced sense of ability can get in the way of looking after number one: the caregiver. Some think considering oneself as the most important element in the caregiving duo is a selfish way of thinking, but I adamantly disagree. If the caregiver’s best interests aren’t attended to, she won’t be available for her care receiver. As my father’s caregiver, I didn’t always delegate and I didn’t always excel at looking after myself, but with my brother and sister’s support, and with my husband’s compassionate attention to my psychological and physical needs, I made every attempt to not totally lose my Irene-ness while focusing so much of my energy on my father’s Dad-ness.
During my long-term care career, I witnessed the falling apart of many family members whose health status bordered on extraordinarily injurious. I counseled and encouraged them regarding their fragile situations and at the end of the day, I headed home and felt I had done my part for their well-being. Then after retirement, while I experienced my own caregiving dilemmas, I reflected on the lives of those I had counseled and wished I was better able to follow my own sage advice. Again, the heart’s involvement gets in the way of applying the wisdom of self-care, even while the mind battles to overrule the heart.
The sincere and thoughtful advice of others needs to be seriously considered if one expects to endure all the unpredictability Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias thrust on those involved. One need not assign the lion’s share of responsibilities to others, but even letting go of some of the more mundane tasks will free up the caregiver’s time and give her the chance to be more than a caregiver. She can once again flourish in the role of wife, partner, daughter, sister, and the like.
One can’t avoid the inevitable potholes and pitfalls encountered on the caregiving path, but learning to pace oneself will go far toward eventually becoming a caregiver survivor.
Irene Frances Olson writes from passion and experience. She was her father’s caregiver during his struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Having previously worked in memory care, she was not new to the disease, nor was her family immune. Irene hopes to make a difference in the lives of others by writing novels that encourage and support those who just might need another person in their corner. As a matter of fact, she has her own byline, In Your Corner, in the Australian online publication, Grandparents Day Magazine. For updates on the author’s current projects, please visit www.irenefrancesolson.com, or Like her on Facebook: @RedmondWriter.