“You’re Not Putting ME in a Home!” 2/4
By David Hahklotubbe, gerontologist
Welcome back. I am assuming that you’ve decided to forge ahead in reading this series because you have chosen wisely to follow the path of due diligence. To this, I say, congratulations and thank you. The following tips will facilitate a decrease in trauma as your journey unfolds.
One major internal barrier that you will undoubtedly struggle with as you walk the path, will be disappointment. As you read my BLOGs and watch my VLOGs you will note that my style is to keep things simple. As to not underdeliver, I will distill down what disappointment really is, in hopes that you will apply this concept not only to navigating senior living, but in everyday life. The quickest definition of disappointment is; “expectations not being met”. Therefore, if you don’t have your expectations calibrated correctly, you will assuredly find disappointment as a consistent hurdle. While I don’t promote pessimism, I believe that you must brace yourself for a series of expectations not being met. The first big one is the so-called “Role Reversal”.
At risk of sounding unpatriotic, Americans don’t have a healthy paradigm of thinking when it comes to the aging process. In other words, Americans are terrible at aging. And as such, because we have devalued being elderly in exchange for vanity and aesthetics that are consistent with youth, we run from anything that resembles aging, we cover up our gray and we inject poison into our skin to have relevance in our flawed society. As a result, Americans tend to see aging as an event rather than a process in which to plan for. And consequently, when it comes time to deliver care for our aging parents or spouses, we view it as a “Role Reversal”, which is completely absurd, but, sadly, more common than not. So, if this is you, don’t feel too bad, you are in the majority. That said, it’s time for you to evolve.
While a college instructor, I had the pleasure of meeting many students from around the globe. I recall one student in particular who was from a small village in India. I noted that she shook her head a lot in class in disagreement of what I was lecturing about. One day, I thought her head was going to helicopter off her neck. We were talking about the perception of Americans in taking care of their parents as a “Role Reversal”. I stopped the class and asked if she would like to chime in. And, thankfully, she did. She said, “In my village we have an understanding that we will be cared for by our parents as young children when we are needing assistance with feeding, ambulation, incontinence, wandering, mood swings, memory, bathing, dressing, grooming etc. But, we also have an expectation that when our parents age and require the same care and supervision, we, as their children, will return that favor. We even have a saying for it, “Once a Man, Twice a Child”. It is an expectation that we will care for our parents, not a disappointing shock labeled a “Role Reversal””. The class and I stood in silence, stunned with this brilliant revelation. The revelation that somewhere in the world, there is an agreement, that there’s no such thing as a “Role Reversal”, just simply a “Role”, period. There is no shocking disappointment, but rather it’s expected and planned for. Needless to say, this has yet to permeate the American psyche and far from adoption. Which is precisely why I’m here. So the message I’m sending you is to shift your paradigm of thinking to mitigate disappointment and set your expectations properly as to your role.
This next bit of information is critical and should be underscored. Whether you are the dutiful son or daughter of your parents or the spousal caregiver, you must heed my warning. Pardon me for being blunt … The terms, “In sickness and in health, until death do us part” are lovely sentiments but never to have been taken literally. It turns my stomach to think about the amount of otherwise healthy spousal caregivers that I’ve seen precede their afflicted loved ones in death by way of caregiver burnout. While it may be seen as a noble gesture to care for your spouse in their time of need, you must consider yourself first. And for you sons and daughters, you need to pay especially close attention to your parent who is giving the care.
This entire situation is fraught with pitfalls and sensitive topics of conversation, but you must be reminded that lives are literally on the line here. It is well worth approaching and intervening as offspring to prevent cataclysmic outcomes. And, this is over twenty years of experience talking, there WILL be cataclysmic outcomes if no one steps in. And, if you are a spousal caregiver with no one to lean on, please perk your ears up for the following message…
You are only as good as a caregiver as you are healthy yourself. Let me repeat that, so it sinks in, you are only as good as a caregiver as you are healthy yourself. I use a tired old analogy to drive this point home. When flying, you have undoubtedly been subject to the presentation on the mandatory pre-flight checklist – the stewardess shows you an oxygen mask and goes on to instruct that if there is a sudden loss of cabin pressure, you are to put the mask first on…….. yourself. You are no good to your fellow passenger if you are passed. Truer words have never been spoken to describe the caregiver conundrum. My daughter came up with an even clearer example. She said, “If you see a car on the side of the road with a dead battery and you pull over to assist, but your battery is also low, there will be two disabled cars on the side of the road in short order”. Again, appropriate analogy.
If your aim is to deliver the best possible care for your loved one, you must consider that you may not be the best person to deliver it. And, again to be blunt, as a spousal caregiver, you serve no purpose to your loved one should you die in the process, in fact, you will be doing more harm than good by adding trauma and loss to the already overwhelming bevy of emotional challenges. So, please heed my warning, if you are a dutiful son or daughter, step up, step in and share this knowledge. If you are a spousal caregiver, please take my words seriously and consider joining my monthly caregiver support group. You will hear not only my wisdom being shared, but those who are on active duty with caring for their spouses. Spoiler alert, they will agree with me and they will share their war stories prior to outsourcing care. They will all admit that they had a tough time letting go of their prior convictions, but that the outcome far outweighed the pain of letting go of their beliefs. And, once again, being blunt, the proof is in the fact that they are alive to tell their tales, unlike those who unwisely chose to go it alone.
Love – David