The angels we call ‘caregivers’

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Not all of us think the same way about angels. The angels I think of are all around us every day, in every city or town of any size, living on our street or even next door. They often wear a weary look from their unremitting daily tasks, along with the smears and smudges that go with the messy process of taking care of someone while having little time to tend to themselves.

We call them caregivers.

Sometimes caregivers wake up feeling trapped, again, with no options in how they will spend their day, knowing their commitment will prevent them from keeping the house clean or running basic errands, never mind lunch with a friend or a weekend getaway.

Even their own family members who love them don’t realize the depth of their need for a regularly scheduled day-or-two break they can count on marked on the calendar at least every month, scheduled relief on the horizon that helps get them through pressure-cooker days that all seem the same. These angels put their own life on hold in the service of someone who needs it, no matter how unpleasant.

Not all caregivers are in the same circumstance. Sometimes the need they fill starts small and grows slowly over a long period of time until they are consumed. A retired man may give up golf to spend more time at home to help his wife with an illness slowly diminishing her strength and stamina to do simple things like cleaning the house, opening jars or reaching high shelves in the kitchen. A daughter might be forever troubled that she had to leave behind a promising career because Mom needs daily help dressing, preparing meals, bathing and toileting.

Caregivers suppress their own needs and desires to serve someone else, and their tension becomes stretched like a piano wire that a hundred things they want and need to do are shoved aside, their own self-fulfillment but a dream.

It would be nice if the object of their care reciprocated by giving them the appreciation they deserve, but we tend to get cranky, demanding and unpleasant when our health is impaired and we cannot do things for ourselves.

If your eyes have not yet been opened to the sacrifice and frustration of caregivers, then you are on standby, Bub. You won’t dodge this bullet entirely. Sooner or later someone in your family or in your circle of friends will become unable to care for themselves, and someone will need to step up. It can tear families apart.

Today families tend to become scattered over time, and when caregiving is required the burden is rarely shared in an equitable manner. As time and effort and expense are assumed by the local sibling because they are face-to-face with the need, sometimes their remote family members have the cheek even to lecture and complain by phone; resentment can harden into permanent division.

My eyes were first opened circa 1980 as a younger man when a hard-working woman named Euna, the kindest person I have ever known, held a job and cared for her family and her mother when dinner time involved a blender to puree the food and feeding was done with a turkey baster. Those were the days before anyone knew what “long term care” meant.

This is the real healthcare crisis in America, not what the fools in Congress have been screwing up over the last decade. Advances in healthcare and medications keep us alive until we become feeble of mind or body and require supervision or assistance with what the health industry calls ADLs, activities of daily living. In bygone days, we used to die not too long after retirement, whereas now we live another 30 years or more.

I am retired now, but I was involved with this issue as a Certified Financial Planner. Another of my professional designations is CLTC, Certified in Long Term Care. Years ago when I was sitting through CLTC coursework, the instructor, who had himself had much experience with long-term-care cases, made the point a number of times, “Making a placement will break your heart.” He was referring to putting Mom or Dad in assisted living or, as a last resort, a nursing home. And he was spot-on about breaking your heart, as I have discovered over many cases, in clients’ families and my own.

I’ll give you a few pointers in case you want them.

When I met with clients and prospects, two financial products I believed in with all my heart were life insurance and long-term-care insurance. Now that I’m not in the business of selling products, I can speak freely. If you are not elderly or single, and if you do not have substantial life insurance death benefit to protect your family in case you get hit by a truck, when you speak of loving your family your words are empty, taking up air that could be more useful elsewhere. Get it done.

When I talked to people about long-term-care insurance, I could almost see the gears turning in their head as they wondered how to make me go away. Statistically, one of two who live past 65 will spend some time in long-term care. It’s easy to say with machismo, “It will be the other guy.” But what if it isn’t?

Long-term-care insurance is a bit like homeowner’s insurance. You need the coverage to protect your family, but none of us want our house to burn down to put the policy to work. One day a client was writing his first premium check for a long-term-care policy on himself and his wife. He was grumbling because none of us like to write insurance premium checks.

I was handy and guilty of persuading him he should buy the policy so he groused at me, “I’ll probably never even use this #%*&@ policy!” I didn’t say a word, and in a minute he looked up at me and said, “I guess that would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?”

I said, “Exactly right, Bill.”

One common attempt to shut me up was, “If I can’t take care of myself, my family will take care of me.” Here’s how I answered, and I’m still as serious as a heart attack.

“You’re right, Bob. Someone will take care of you, most likely someone in your family. But if you really care about them, you should ask yourself what caring for you will do to them? When you are unable to care for yourself, it isn’t about you any more, it’s about your family and whether you have left for them a trap, or choices. Will someone have to quit their job? Will someone have to give up their freedom and independence to take care of you? Do you want your children to bathe you and help you with the toilet?”

People think of long-term-care insurance as nursing home insurance, and nobody wants to go to a nursing home. But long-term-care insurance, even though it insures you, isn’t for you at all. It is for your family, to give them some control, like helping to pay for home care in which a qualified worker comes to your house to help, or assisted living, or adult day care, or a nursing home as a last resort.

Adult day care, or respite care, whether paid for by long-term-care insurance or out of your pocket, can be a lifesaver for a caregiver consumed with frustration. Sometimes they can’t even run simple errands because taking along their impaired loved one is such an ordeal.

In my own family, adult day care rescued a caregiver from the brink, saved her sanity. Especially for those of you dealing with the slippery slope of dementia or Alzheimer’s, here’s some advice. Find the adult day care facilities in your area, go visit them and decide which ones are worth a try. You take your impaired loved one, leave them in good hands while you are free for the day until time to pick them up. And you know what? Quite often they make friends there and like it.

The question I pose to caregivers I like well enough to pester is this: “If you don’t take care of yourself, how in the world are you going to continue taking care of her?”

You can start your local search for options by contacting the Ga. Division of Aging Services, Fayette County Department of Aging, Fayette County Commission on Aging or others. I don’t know these agencies but it’s a place to start.

Protecting the mental health of the caregiver is vital, and the family could help a lot but usually does not. Picture yourself sleeping with one eye open because Dad with Alzheimer’s wanders the house at night, may get outside if the doors are not alarmed, and needs to be watched and helped from the time he gets up in the morning.

To deal with that you habitually shower early and scramble to get dressed. Throughout the day, even though Dad is a sweetheart, he can’t remember what you talked about 10 minutes ago, and you might be able to focus on things like paying bills only when he is napping.

If you are this caregiver, and the son you are proud of with his beautiful family and successful career, is thoughtful enough to stop in now and then to check on you, and even stay a couple of hours while you run an errand, that helps a little but not much.

If that son really wanted to help, he might say to you, “Let’s pick out two days a month to relieve you, so you can go do what you want to do, and either I or my wife or a well-qualified health worker I hire will be here to stand in for you.”

When he puts it on the calendar, and during your struggle you can look to those days upcoming and mentally plan how you will spend that free time, that REALLY helps.

I’m hoping to stir your thinking, or perhaps awaken you to help a caregiver who carries too much of what should be a shared family burden. This is on my mind because I am involved in making a placement quite close to me, and helping an overwhelmed caregiver recover her life.

If you want to do some of God’s work this holiday season, one way would be to find a caregiver if you don’t have one in your family, and think of a way to heap on them some love. They need it, and they richly deserve it.

[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City. He occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. He can be reached at tlg.opinion@gmail.com.]