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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Guest Post: "Through My Caregiver Eyes" by Elaine Shanks

                   Photo by Elaine Shanks

Blogging is such a therapeutic experience.  I am referring not just about my own experience of writing stories of life in the nursing home, but anyone who has discovered that a blog can be that special place where we share with others our experiences, as a way to reflect and to learn.  

I have met many special people since I began to blog. Elaine Shanks a.k.a Retired Knitter is one of them.  She is a devoted daughter who recently began posting about her journey as a caregiver for her Mom.  After I began reading her heartfelt and beautifully written posts, I invited her to be my guest, and share a couple of her posts that have been compiled  into this one. 

This was Elaine's reply:
“Thank you.  I was a little unsure when I started these postings if there was any value in me sharing my experiences. I know among my friends it seems like almost a tide wave of baby boomers who mirror many of my experiences. The postings were mostly for me and my family, but if they help others, count me in!” 
Through My Caregiver Eyes
In all of life you take steps ... steps towards something or steps away from something.
It is movement. Nothing is static.
Trying to remember when I stepped forward into the role of care giver has been challenging. The changes in life that preceded mom's move into my house were so subtle - sort of like the movement of a glacier that can only be quantified by looking back to where the glacier was years ago.
But I did try to look back.
Others who have been witness to this progression might think they know exactly when it all began, speak with authority on the choices that were made with each step and feel confident to project just how the outcome could have been different. But unless you actually lived through the whole process in my skin and saw it through my eyes, those opinions are theories.
Mom lived an independent life starting 1970 as a widow. She struggled with uncertainty and unknowns in those initial years but she was a stronger person than she ever believed. I am sure she developed the same thoughts and perspectives that I now hold about myself ...
that I am capable and self-sufficient enough to not need help,
that am I sound of mind and body and will never falter because I won't let it happen,
that I refuse to be a burden to others.
She walked every day, enjoyed crafts, read books, she went to swim exercise, she stayed active socially with her friends, she traveled. She remained active and involved with life separate from her daughters. She had no reason to doubt her beliefs of an independent and active future.
But age, genetics, and normal chemical changes in the aging brain can to rob you of all your plans and expectations. It is stolen from you slowly - almost so slowly as to believe that it is not happening at all.
And so it was with mother.
And when did my concerns for her arise?
I often wonder if the seeds of my concern were buried somewhere in my childhood. There is no one memory that stands out, but the scope of many unhappy memories lumped together would be fertile soil for growth of gratitude toward this woman. And from gratitude would come concern at her failing.
The most startling memories of those from my adult years. I remember when she stopped going to her swim exercise. She said it was because someone had stolen a hair scarf from her locker. It seemed like such a small thing, and yet she gave up swimming - something she had done for years. Why I remember that event is a mystery ... except that it might have been the first tiny little red flag for me. Tiny as to be almost quickly forgotten. She was still doing everything else. What was the concern if she changed her one activity? No big deal, right? ... and yet, I remember. For mom it was a tiny step back. For me it was a tiny step of memory - a memory stored away - a concern - step forward ... for me. That probably was in the 1990s.
Another more significant event in the 90s shook her confidence. She was involved in an auto accident. Her car was hit by a motorist who ran a red light. The impact threw her car across the street landing it on the far sidewalk. Although not visibly injured at the scene, it was later discovered that her pelvis was cracked. I believe the realization of how close she had come to serious permanent injury or death changed her a bit.
The day after her accident I remember going to the tow lot where they had taken her car. The car that hit her had plowed into her car just behind her driver seat - missing her by inches - and destroying the back end of the car - the car appeared to have been bent in half and the back half was total destruction. Upon finding her car on the lot, I remember standing quite still, staring in disbelief at the pile of metal that was mother's Honda Civic, tears streaming down my face at the horror of what could have occurred and the terror she must have experienced at impact. Yes, that experience would shake anyone.
She took a step back in confidence that day. I took a protective step forward to compensate. That was 1997.
Mom recuperated from her accident at my house for about a week. She could barely walk and even after returning to her home, she needed lots of help. Food shopping, laundry, rides to the doctor and church ... but over time she recovered, she got a new car and took back bits and pieces of her life.
I really thought we were back to normal.
But then another behavior began to emerge. I discovered that talking took the place of action for mom. Although she was always a cautious person, I didn't remember her delaying actions indefinitely. Talk about taking computer classes and getting a computer went on for a year or more. Talk about her need for hearing aids lasted almost a year. Concerns about her rising rent and a possible move to another place went on for two or three years. Through it all, we talked and talked, and planned and planned, but I couldn't seem to prompt her to action.
Eventually I convinced her to get hearing aids. A hearing test had shown her hearing loss was severe. But it was probably 8 months before she would wear the new hearing aids full time. At least I was content that she could hear sirens when driving her car or people approaching her from behind when she walked on the street.
But I had uncomfortable thought that maybe she had passed some mental invisible line in her functioning. Everything took so long to achieve.
Most worrisome was how frail she was getting. She still went out for walks in her neighborhood, but they were slow and measured with the help of a cane. At times she seemed to be overly trusting of casual acquaintances. As I left her apartment after each visit, I would watch her. She would follow me out to my car, and watch as I left, waving all the time, then walking back to her front door - slowly and carefully.
I couldn't help but worry that as she was getting older and weaker, she was becoming a target for bad things that sometime happen against the elderly.
During a short period of 4 or 5 years, friends were moved away or went into retirement communities, trusted neighbors were leaving, some close friends died. She also seemed to be pulling away from her normal social circles - doing less of everything. She stopped traveling, taking only occasional day trips. And then even the day trips stopped. And decisions about all things, big and little, became more and more difficult for her. Discussions and conversations were only partially remembered. Important things were written down so she could refer to them later. Soon even unimportant things were written as well. Taking action on anything was lacking.
The circle of her life was shrinking noticeably.
Maybe I was over reacting, watching too much crime TV, reading too many newspaper stories about crimes against the elderly ... maybe. But I know my personal radar was picking up changes in mom that required action from those who cared about her.
I struggled then, as I do now, with how to balance her rights to independence (as much as she could manage) against my concerns for her health, safety and quality of life. My yardstick in dealing with mom was to treat her as I wanted to be treated when I was her age. So we continued to talk as I sought to move her through decision making into action. Movement was slow going.
It definitely was the harder road to travel. I always seem to pick the harder road.
And the forward steps by me towards being a full time care giver were occurring without conscious thought or plan. I was just doing the things that needed to be done for a member of my family. 
To do otherwise seemed to be irresponsible.

Elaine Shanks

Retired Knitter

Thank you, Elaine for your precious posting.  I hope everyone continues to follow the rest of the series over at Retired Knitter


Amrita said...

Dearest Doris , thank you for introducing me to Elaine. She is stupendous - I will be her regular visitor. Trust you are doing good.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Doris and Elaine .. I can see some of what you're saying here in my mother before she had her strokes - the difference being the 300 mile distance (long way in the UK).

I'm sure my mother suffered from depression - she became uncertain and dithered, yet was adamant in what she wanted. Funnily enough it still shows through now ...

... fortunately the depression seems to have been curbed by her faith and trust in those around her.

My thoughts are with you Elaine - thanks for sharing ... we all need to read and understand the things that may happen.

Thanks Doris .. Hilary

Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder said...

Dearest Doris,

Thanks for having this guest post of incredible Elaine! She has an ability to express her innermost thoughts of deep love and respect towards her Mom, in such a wonderful and understanding way! It would be a loss if she had not more exposure so she can instill the same into others...

Love to you,



Thanks for posting this it was a wonderful read.


Jules said...

Elaine what a beautiful, heartbreaking post. You were correct in saying we all have these situations to deal with but wrong in assuming we need to hear "We are not alone." It is was a pleasure to get to know you.

Doris, I finished your book and just as I thought I loved it! Thank YOU!! My housemate now has it and I heard her chuckling as she started it. :)
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Mary Aalgaard said...

Elaine, this is an uplifting story on how you came to embrace the roll of caregiver for your mother. Does she have memory loss?
Don't be afraid to ask for help with your mother. You can't do it all.
Carry on, you are a good soul.

floweringmama said...

This post hit home for me. My mom is going through the same thing with her mother. It's hard to watch those we love wither mentally and physically. I truly appreciate your statement -

"My yardstick in dealing with mom was to treat her as I wanted to be treated when I was her age."

Linda said...

I am lucky to be Elaine's cousin - knowing her makes me a better person.

Memoirs of Me & Mine said...

What a beautiful post!

Retired Knitter said...

Thank you all for such wonderful and supportive comments and thoughts. I feel like I just got a collective "arm around my shoulders" from all of you.

And thank you Doris for offering me the opportunity to share this story with your readers. The writing of my experiences continues to help me in ways that I never imagined.

The icing on the cake is hearing from so many wonderful people.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Thank you for hosting Elaine on your blog, Doris. I read these posts on her blog, but she had the comments disabled. Now I can tell her here how much her posts touched my heart. Sometimes we find ourselves in these unexpected situations, and wonder how in the world it happened. But Elaine has been handling the unexpected with both grace and love.

Chatty Crone said...

I have been friends with her too and following her story.

Glad to find you!

Vilisi said...

Thank you Doris and Elaine. This is very touching. I will visit Elaine's blog. Blessings to you both.

Chatty Crone said...

I have a gift for you on my blog.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing. The seemingly infinite doors so many of us open to find ourselves caregivers / carers never cease to amaze me.

Caregivingly Yours, Patrick

Toyin O. said...

What a great post Elaine, very touching, thanks for sharing.

Deb Shucka said...

Thank you for the introduction, Doris. Elaine's writing is powerful and evocative - just like yours. I'm off to check out her blog.

A Plain Observer said...

bitter sweet story. Beautifully written. It made me think of my mother now in her late 70s and how I see those changes, the same conversation over and over. How I control myself in answering thinking "let her be happy with the way she remembers things even if that is not how it happened"

A Plain Observer said...

I wanted a comment by itself to tell you how much I enjoyed your book. Such a clever idea. Beautiful cover, quick stories and beautiful meaning.

Wonderful job!