‘Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

Have you had one of these conversations?

A colleague and I were talking about our parents a couple of weeks ago, swapping stories about our fathers. Hers has been declining for years, but a fresh episode was troubling her. My father passed away last year. As we talked, the stories began to sound like—well, they began to sound like things we shouldn’t even say out loud. We were talking honestly. If you’re a veteran caregiver, you can fill in the rest of this story. You know right away the troubling kinds of issues we were discussing.

Roz Chast book cover Cant We Talk About Something More Pleasant

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

It was a good talk! We laughed. We felt better.

As we were getting ready to leave, I said, “These are the things that no one talks about, but really should.”

Fast forward a week or so and I found myself listening to an interview with Roz Chast on NPR. She became the sole caretaker of her two elderly parents and she shares both the pain of this process and the laughter (and, yes, there is laugher, too). I immediately related to her new book: Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir. That link takes you right to Amazon, but if you want to listen to Roz on NPR, you’ll find two different interviews: Here’s the All Things Considered interview; and here’s the Fresh Air interview.

I find myself thoroughly relating to much of Roz’s book. Told in a way that only a cartoonist can, I am getting great relief from enjoying another person’s tale of life in my shoes. In her memoir, Roz certainly dares to tell the often unspoken “rest of the story.”

So this week my recommendation is: Check it out and let us know what you think.

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Your body won’t lie. Your mind will!

By BENJAMIN PRATT,
Author of Guide for Caregivers and contributing columnist

A moment of stress by N Renaud via Wikimedia CommonsBoth of our daughters were ill at the same time recently, and they live 1000 miles apart. No, they are not twins. It was just coincidence. Nothing serious really—each complained of being worn out, tired, no energy, exhausted, congested, aching.

Our older daughter described it by saying, “I just needed to drop out for a few days and have an affair with my couch.”

Neither left her couch for three days.

Both are in their 40s, leading very different lives, yet they have a few things in common—endless work and constant stress from self-demanding standards. Confession time: They got it from their parents.

Our older daughter is a successful businesswoman who devotes untold hours to charity work. Among her many time commitments are serving as a regional board member for the American Red Cross—plus fund-raising and development for a local museum and the regional symphony and for a local child care center related to her church. She is also a key creative player in the annual book festival for her city.

Our younger daughter is a 4th Grade teacher in a Texas border city. She works 7 to 7 most school days and juggles the demands of her family, with children’s sports and school functions.

I talked briefly to both of them on their lie-down weekend. I, of course, had to drop in my fatherly advice: “Your body won’t lie. Your mind will! Your mind will tell you that you are able to do one more task. But at some point, your body will just shut down and demand a rest. I think that is what is going on at this moment. If you don’t listen to your body and treat it better it will get sick.”

They politely listened, but I strongly suspect they will not follow my sage advice much more than I did myself at their age.

When I teach caregivers I often take a bottle of water and hold it out at arm’s length and ask its weight.

The replies come back: “Six ounces?” “Twelve ounces?”

Then I ask, “If I hold it like this for an hour, how much does it weigh?”

Smiles begin to appear.

Finally I ask: “If I hold it for 24 hours? A week? A month? A year? Five years?”

I pause, as they are nodding with me, and I say: “Now you know the weight of stress!”

I have a good friend whose mother died recently. Nearly seven years ago she retired from a position she loved to become the caregiver of her mother whose physical and mental capacities were diminishing rapidly. Her mother was finally placed in a nursing home where my friend visited her daily. She continued to go each day, even when her mother only rarely recognized her or expressed any appreciation for the visits. As if this was not enough stress, her husband developed serious heart problems. My friend was a caregiver on two fronts.

Not long before her mother died, my friend began having problems talking. Her voice became raspy and could barely be heard above a whisper. She has had extensive tests which reveal no physical abnormalities in her throat or larynx.

Her doctor simply said, “Have all the muscles in your neck always been so tight?”

“No,” she replied, “Only in the recent years that I have been under a lot of stress as a caregiver.” She says that the voice lessons she is now taking are helping, but it will be a long recovery.

It is well for each of us caregivers to remember that our bodies won’t lie—our minds will.

Be tender toward yourself.

Listen to your body.

BENJAMIN PRATT’s recent columns include “Simple Gratitude for Simple Gifts” and “Did I Say Anything about Anger.”

Recovering in a bath Becky Wetherington via Wikimedia Commons

PHOTOS today are not Benjamin’s daughters. Both photos were contributed for public use via Wikimedia Commons. Top photo was taken by N. Renaud of Canada; bottom photo was taken by Becky Wetherington.

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International Pay It Forward Day: Let’s Keep It Going!

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

Here’s a challenge:

Let’s keep it going. International Pay It Forward Day came and went last week. (Dr. Wayne Baker wrote a whole series of stories about the importance of this idea.)

But please remember: The whole point of this “day” is to keep it going. The campaign seems to be working. Paying it forward has been gaining momentum over the years. I know of some friends who honor their mother’s birthday by paying it forward and encouraging others to do the same on that day. It’s a nice tribute for a woman who was very generous with her time and talents.

Card for Pay It Forward Day

Want the “official card” as a reminder? Click this snapshot to learn where to download and print one to carry in your pocket.

I had the opportunity to pay it forward (or backwards, depending how you view it), this week, in the drive thru while getting my morning coffee. I picked up the tab for the person behind me. Did the person appreciate it? Did he, in turn, and pay for the next car? I have no idea. I do know it made me feel good—and it made for a good start to my day. Hopefully it improved his day as well.

Why am I writing about this in our We Are Caregivers column? Because, as caregivers, we often are overburdened, stressed, and tired. Frankly, we’re helping so much—each and every day—that most people don’t expect caregivers to go an extra mile and do something like paying it forward.

I have a challenge for you. Sometime in the next week try to do something to pay it forward. Pay for a cup of coffee, ask someone to go in front of you in a long line, pick up trash or drop off some flowers (May Day is Thursday!). I promise you it will make you feel good.

When you pay it forward, tell friends on Facebook that you did it because we suggested it on WeAreCaregivers.com, which is an easy-to-remember web address for this column.

Try it! Talk about it! Let’s keep it going!

Have a great week!

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‘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.”

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Oh the weather outside is frightful …

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

Was it really news to any of us when the International Business Times reported, over the weekend, that this is one of the worst winters in recorded history for the northern U.S. states? This bitter, snowy season ranks up there with some truly dreadful winters in the 1870s, 1920s, 1940s and is close to that awful winter of 1995-96, according to the Times.

Headlines like that are popping up nationwide. A state official in Minnesota who is charged with tracking weather trends issues something called “The Misery Index” and, based on that Index, Minnesota is experiencing the most miserable winter in 30 years.

Snowy Winter DoldrumsBut we knew that, didn’t we? That is, the millions of us living north of the ever-shifting freeze lines in the U.S. knew it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love humming lines like: “Oh the weather outside is frightful …” But, only around Christmas.

By March, the appeal is gone. Here in Michigan we are setting records for cold and snowfall. It’s a struggle. I went grocery shopping yesterday and had to pull rather than push my cart to the car as it wouldn’t roll through the snow. By the time I got everything loaded my fingers were frozen.

I could have headlined this column: UGGGGH!

I try to stay positive, but it is easy to feel a little down in the dumps. Are you feeling that way too? What do you do to make yourself feel a little better?

There are a few things that I do to feel a little happier.

SUNLIGHT (real or artificial): Most mornings, I get up, sit in my chair, read my devotional, and turn on my sun light. I soak it up for 20 minutes. Ahhhh….

DARK SKY APP on my phone: Why? Because it gives the sunrise and sunset time for each day. And I can see that the days are getting longer.

I GET THE MAIL (once a week): I’m no fan of the mail. Our mailbox has been unreachable for months now so I pick it up at the post office. I’m considering it a gift that I only have to deal with it once a week instead of daily.

BUY FRUIT: Fresh fruit makes us all happier. It’s worth the cost.

WARM SOCKS: I hate cold feet. I want warmth. Good socks help.

For me, happiness really does spring from the little things. What are your little things? Will you share something that helps you get through? Add a comment here, or jump over to my Facebook page and drop me a note. I’d really like to hear about your favorite way to beat the winter doldrums.

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Pour a warm cup … and focus on Contentment

Photo today is by 'Cyclone Bill' shared for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

Pour a cuP.

I’ve told you, in earlier columns, that one of the simple pleasures in my daily life is drinking coffee from a real mug. You may be a tea drinker, or even a cocoa sipper in mid-winter. Whatever your comfort-beverage of choice—pour a cup.

My point today involves a simple, yet powerful, truth. I am usually someone who loves the New Year, setting new goals and resolving to make changes. But this year I am changing it up.

That’s partly because I’ve learned some hard lessons about this season. January has been rough. The last two years have started off with a loss in our family—my husband and I each have lost a parent. Though not entirely unexpected, these deaths still were hard. We certainly didn’t have a feeling of a new start to the new year.

Rather than make a list of goals with the bar set high, in the opening days of 2014, I am focusing on: Contentment.

This is the thing—I have a good life filled with big and small joys as well as challenges. I don’t want to change everything and strive for perfection. I want to live the life I have; I want to appreciate all that is in it. I want to take advantage of the moments that might be overlooked otherwise, spend a little more time without a device in front of me, and give myself a little leeway to just … be.

I want to work hard on my passions, be efficient in the daily tasks of life, and let go of the time suckers that do nothing more than take my time.

With this focus on contentment I expect great things will happen. As I clear my life and brain, fresh ideas come my way. I can finally hear, and respond to, the conversations that really matter. I stumble upon things that make me laugh out loud and moments that I will cherish forever. They happen in everyday life—if we see them.

As caregivers we are often very much involved in day-to-day moments. But as James Taylor sings, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” Not all of the moments will be enjoyable, but certainly there are glimpses each day to hold on to.

So this year, my resolution is this. To enjoy the passage of time.

I’ve poured my cup, so please excuse me. I’m going to go sit for a while and look at the snow.

I’m content.

How about you?

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(Photo today is by ‘Cyclone Bill,’ shared for public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Stuck in traffic? Have you thought about it like this …?

Photo of a traffic jam by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz. For public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of a traffic jam by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz. For public use via Wikimedia Commons.

By PAUL HILE

WHEN YOU become a caregiver you learn to let go. It’s not necessarily something you want to do—you have to do it. You realize, pretty quickly, that you don’t have any control. That’s a difficult pill to swallow because we all want control. But, when your mother falls and breaks her hip the day before Thanksgiving, or you get a phone call from your brother telling you he has cancer, or your husband suffers a stroke, it hits you:

You have no control. You’re just along for the ride. And sometimes you get stuck in traffic.

This has been a year of change for my wife and me: new jobs, new cities, new friends. It also has been a year of renewed health for my wife, who started a new treatment with success. But there was a period of time after our move where we hadn’t found a new doctor for her, and she had missed a treatment, and we needed to take action quickly. As it would happen, our best option was to drive to Chicago, a six-hour trip, for a two-hour appointment.

I am telling you all of this because nothing ever goes according to plan, and caregivers know this better than anyone. Forty-five minutes into our trip and we were stuck in traffic. This wasn’t stop-and-go traffic, only a minute’s inconvenience. This was three hours of nothing. No movement. No go, just stop.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that when I am driving on the highway and I pass major traffic in the opposing lanes, I think: Thank God that isn’t me. That’d be terrible! We’ve all done this, at least privately: We see someone going through a difficult time, suffering the loss of a spouse or child, or grieving a diagnosis of cancer in the family, and we think: Thank God that isn’t me. That’d be terrible! Of course we don’t celebrate in their agony, but we’re relieved that, this time, we weren’t the ones being held up.

But the truth is: Life doesn’t come equipped with Cruise Control. Sometimes the traffic jams aren’t in someone else’s lane. And, sometimes we get stuck. Sometimes the person you love is diagnosed with something dire, and there’s nothing you can do. We wait. And we try to help. We look for any opportunity to turn around or take an alternative route. As a caregiver and husband, I keep looking for that perfect thing that will cure my wife: a new diet, a new treatment, a new thing that will solve all of her problems. I keep thinking: If only I had checked the directions before the trip, we could have avoided this!

Have you whispered something like that to yourself? It’s so frustrating: If only …

But here’s the real question: Can we grab hold of all that anxiety, frustration and anger—and refocus on …

Well, let me tell you more about our recent traffic jam. We were on our way to Chiago—with my wife’s health in question—sitting in our little Volkswagen Jetta that my wife has dubbed “Alejandro,” parked in miles and miles of traffic. Only 50 minutes from our home! Not moving!

So, I turned to my wife and grabbed her hand. “Sometimes you’re just stuck in traffic,” I said.

She nodded her head and I knew she understood what I meant.

“But I’ll tell you this,” I continued.

“What’s that?”

“I wouldn’t want to be stuck in traffic with anyone else but you.”

CARE FOR MORE?

First, if you like this column by Paul Hile, please share it with friends via Facebook or Email. You’ll find icons with this column to help you with your sharing. Or use the “Print” button to print and share this with someone who needs to read it. If you’d like to read an earlier column by Paul, he also wrote “What We Talk about When We Talk about Entitlement.”

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