For me, my caregiver role at the time was wholly about my father, my young son, my golden retriever with multiple allergies and my full-and-a-half-time job! My dad came to live with my little crew after a heart episode made him unable to drive and care for himself. Along with congestive heart failure, he was also living with cancer. Those first few weeks with him at my home were like caring for a 250 pound toddler.
Over the time I cared for my father and juggled my other roles, I learned a few things. Certainly throughout this two-year period there was never a moment I didn’t know where I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to be doing and who I was to be caring for. While, for sure, I am a human BEING, at the time I was very focused on the “Do’s” in my life where my responsibilities as a caregiver were concerned. As a result, I became just as intentional regarding the things to DO to restore my soul, each and every day. Over time, I came to group those things into FIVE categories.
I made this the first thing for a reason. I was only eight months into being a single mom when he arrived. I was still working out what the “new normal” was and then he showed up. We all had to figure it out, me especially. In the weeks that followed, I had to be intentional about dedicating time to laugh and lose myself in the moment. I didn’t really know what “fun” was for me, at that point. So I started, here:
When I got my first cold after dad came to live with me, it became immediately obvious the vital importance of taking care of myself. Yet, OMG, how hard is it to take time out to do things like crawl into bed at 7:30 PM…on a Saturday night? I got real and got over my self-righteous, martyrdom-ridden self and figured out what kept me on my feet so I could fulfill my roles and be a whole, present human being instead of a shell and automaton.
Things that were important for me to take care of me included the basics, like time for sleep, preventative health appointments, eating regular meals and exercise. But other things came forward as important for me to do. These were things like getting a massage, bringing home a bouquet of grocery tulips, taking time for a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine) with friends—without children, dogs or dads present. It wasn’t any one thing, it was all those things that made up my definition of taking care of myself. Yours may look totally different and that’s okay. What’s important is that you figure it out.
After you’ve had some fun and taken care of yourself, you will have replenished your emotional reserves a bit. In the process you’ll figure out how-to set up additional help and caregiving resources. It’s an opportunity to determine the highest and best use of your time. It's important to note that after being in my home about a year, my father did so much better that his cancer went into remission for a bit. It became obvious he was lonely and bored while my son and I were out of the house during the day.
So, I moved my father moved into an assisted living facility that was two miles away from the house. Before that, I would have people check on him, but it just didn’t meet his needs for social engagement with his favorite thing: Other people. I also needed help with my son and the dog from time-to-time, in order to get out for fun and self-care. So I got busy and found the help I needed.
Here was an example of my typical day: In the morning, I woke early to fold laundry and get ready for the day. A couple days a week, I had a morning caregiver come in to help my son get off to the bus. Other days I’d drop him at the before-school care but this allowed him to sleep in. I'd leave the house to drop off laundry and have breakfast with my dad.
Some of my FAVORITE times were watching him and his buddy, Bob, hold court at the breakfast table checking out the ladies as they made their way to their tables. Oh, it was funny. After work, I stopped by dad’s to pick up any dirty clothes, went home, made dinner and washed clothes. Went back to say hi with my son, check meds again and we brought fresh clothes with us.
It was a balancing act between the things I kept and the things I shed: I did laundry. I got help with Samuel in the morning. I laid out medications and helped stay on top of those because it kept me close to him and helped his physicians. I got someone else to clean my house and another person to mow the lawn. I also asked friends to stop by and see my dad or be his “date” at functions that I couldn’t attend. It was good for us, all.
Okay, this seems like a simple thing to do, however, as caregivers we’re B-U-S-Y. Being present, to listen, engage in conversation and be responsive takes conscious effort. When I was rested and my soul restored, being present was a LOT easier to do and I’m so grateful for it. I learned that my dad’s best times to visit were:
Early morning and also right at/after meal-time. He could sit at the table or we’d move to the sofa and he would talk to me about what happened during the day and then wander off to regale my son with memories of his life that were both funny and inspiring. I will always remember my father telling my son the story of when he shot a cobra’s head off while overseas in the Marines. It was hilarious and I’ll always remember him saying, “Son, I shot that sucker’s head off!” I will also always remember how it sparked a long conversation about wildlife during war.
Any place that his walker could be stowed away. We had the best conversations on a long drive or over dinner at a restaurant. I also learned the law of attraction by asking him to keep his eyes peeled for a parking spot and laughing, out loud, because we ALWAYS found rock-star parking.
Watching football. My dad’s famous saying was “Two times of the year!” He was the ultimate scholarship boy, playing football for the infamous Chuck Taylor at Stanford University. We’d sit down for a game and talk football strategy the whole game. He loved that time and so did my son and I.
If you spend time together, time that you are really present, you’ll find those things that help engage and honor your loved one. You won’t regret anything when the time comes, and I promise you that time will come sooner than you think.
Worry is a wasted emotion. If you can change the outcome then focus your energy on doing that. If not, the worry and regret won’t help you deal with it. This is where faith comes to the rescue. My faith tradition is that I am a Christian. In my faith, my God promises he will never leave me or forsake me. Whether religion or natural laws of the universe, faith in the outcome, whatever the outcome.
The poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” Let go of worry, regret, the past, doubt, whatever is weighing you down. The gift you give yourself and others ripples through the generations.
As part of that, I need to do my part by doing things that fill my emotional and intellectual reserves. For me, along with fun, self-care, asking for help and being present with my loved ones, it also included quiet, contemplative time to hear that still small voice within me.
Some hurts, some worries are big. Without delving into each of our personal lives and family histories, some things must be worked out with the help of a professional therapist or counselor. But be active, take time to face it, deal with it, and make peace with it.
My dad came to me sick and broke. But the miracle was that his employer continued to pay him. I was a single mom with a six-year old boy, a golden retriever and a full-and-a-half-time job. When my dad came to me it was after my parents divorced at 35 years of marriage. There were decades of unresolved issues in our less-than-functional family. But we made time to enjoy each other. We both let go.