The heading from an Associated Press story by Matt Sedensky, “Who’s going to take care of our aging population?” should wake ALL of us up; not just us Baby Boomers, but ALL of us because at this stage of our world’s existence, no one has created a magic elixir that cures old age and dying.
Talk to anybody who is in med school, or considering med school, ask them what specialty they would like to focus on and you’ll hear: orthopedics, pediatrics, heart disease, cancer treatment – all worthy fields but I would venture to guess that not one of whom you ask that question has said, Geriatrics or Senior Health. “What about geriatrics?” I ask them. “We’re living longer so you’ll ALWAYS have a job taking care of a civilization that’s fighting to stay alive as long as it can!” They don’t buy it, especially since Geriatricians are one of the lowest paid medical specialties amongst the medical community.
Ugh! Who wants to deal with the wrinkly, saggy, hard-of-hearing, loud complaining geezers among us? Not very many according to the linked article above. According to Mr. Sedensky’s research, there is roughly one Geriatrician for every 2,600 people 75 and older. No wonder people can’t find a doctor who specializes in Senior Health! I facilitate an Alzheimer’s Caregiver support group in my town wherein these family members expound on their frustrating efforts to locate a doctor who: a) will spend the time needed to have a productive appointment with their aging parent; b) who knows enough about elder health issues to suggest a treatment that will provide quality of life for the patient; and c) who has a medical staff that is sufficiently trained to interact with their elderly patients. Unfortunately, the General Practitioner or Internist quite frequently provide the same treatment, and the same method of communicating, to their elderly patients – even those with Alzheimer’s or other dementia – as they do their patients in their 20’s thru 70’s. That just won’t cut it.
Older patients have more complex conditions – and more of them. If a medical professional isn’t accurately trained, he or she might discount an elderly patient’s symptoms as those expected during the normal aging process and therefore offer no effective treatment. “What can you expect at your age Mrs. Jones? Be glad that you’ve lived this long!” I know – that sounds really callous – but I dare say too many elderly patients are treated dismissively, and as a result their quality of life decreases greatly.
Think about it my fellow Baby Boomers. Are you willing to be dismissed just because your doctor doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing? I know that all of us have been to doctors who we’ve “fired” because of their lack of understanding and/or their failure to provide proactive treatment. The vulnerable adults among us might not realize that they have choices. They might not feel confident enough to challenge the highly educated medical professional to whom they have entrusted their lives. Who loses in that equation? We all do. If our aging relatives don’t have appropriate medical care options at this time in their lives, why do we think that there will suddenly be an influx of Geriatricians to treat us when we’re their age?
Maybe this is a lost cause for us but it doesn’t have to be that way for those coming up in the aging ranks behind us. What are your thoughts about this glut of Senior Health professionals? How can we hope to live in a world where quality of life – something we value greatly – is an unreachable, yet much desired goal?
Imagine, if you can, sitting next to your spouse of 25 or more years, and experiencing for the first time that she no longer recognizes you. As a matter of fact, she’s quite scared of you, fearing eventual harm, and backs away, even screaming, because you’ve become a menacing figure in the room. Or your father, who you have diligently visited at the facility several days a week for a couple years; he looks at you with a questioning glare and asks, “Who are you? Why are you here?”
You can’t imagine this scenario unless, of course, it’s happened to you. I’m talking to you, the new-found stranger in your loved one’s life, in the hopes of softening the blow that the above scenarios have landed on you.
Oftentimes during the course of our loved one’s dementia, we’ve managed to find the humor in some of the ongoing episodes, e.g. observing your wife as she stands in front of a mirror, carrying on a one-sided conversation with her new BFF; or your husband’s acceptance of you as a nice lady and all (even though he doesn’t recognize you as his wife), but he tells you he’s not gonna have sex with you because he’s already married; or perhaps you’re admiring the outfit your mother has chosen to wear for the day, only the bra and panties are worn on the outside of her blouse and pants and it’s time to take her to church! Kind of funny, right? But these odd behaviors take on a whole different light when, by their very nature, they cut you off from the loved one with whom you have shared so much history.
I first learned that my father no longer recognized me when I walked into his Oregon hospital room – he had been admitted with an ongoing prostate issue – and after spending a good portion of the day with him, he stood up to shake my hand and said, “Well Jim, it was nice of you to drop by but I have things to do.” Needless to say a) I’m his daughter; and b) my name is Irene. My 89 year old father was five years into his dementia by that time – and as it turned out, only one month away from dying – but the good news is that I had just experienced a really wonderful day with him and I felt very close and in-tune to him.
Did it feel weird for him to call me a name not mine? You betcha – especially since it was a male name – but let’s face it, my hair is pretty darn short so maybe I reminded him of a friend of his and that’s the name that came to him first. Unfortunately, his incorrect identification of me only happened once because the next time I saw him, he was in a coma dying from prostate cancer. What I would have given for many more opportunities to have passed off as his friend Jim. It was not to be.
The loss we experience with non-recognition. I think the biggest loss that is felt by family members is that their loved one no longer shares the same family history. No longer are we able to talk about old times; no longer can we reflect on the road trips, the Holidays, or the day-to-day memories that make a family unique. Nope – we’re on our own and even if we have other siblings with whom to share these stories, it’s just not the same. Imagine being the only child and your last remaining parent no longer has the ability to be a part of the stories and histories that keep your legacy alive. That’s a difficult pill to swallow to be sure. There are no amount of condolences, hugs, and “I’m so sorries,” that will take away this very real pain.
I think the only gift I have to offer those experiencing this scenario is to say that only YOU can provide the love that your father/mother/spouse/sibling can receive. A caregiver can’t take your place; a well-intentioned volunteer can’t take your place. Only you can transmit the familial love that will make a difference in your loved one’s life.
Whether your name is Jim, or sweetie, or heh-you: please know that you hold the only genuine love that can make a difference in your loved one’s life. If you can believe that – your visits might be a little less painful when you’re no longer the acknowledged spouse, adult child, or sibling of your loved one.
Do you feel as though you don’t visit your loved one often enough at the long-term care (LTC) facility in which they live? Try to acknowledge that guilt is a feeling that may not necessarily reflect an accurate reality of how attentive you are towards your loved one.
The local caregiver.
Many people have expressed their concerns to me that they’re just not doing enough for their loved one who lives in a LTC facility. Even when a caregiver visits Mom several days a week, the caregiver still feels guilty for not making more of an effort to be there for her.
Guilt is a valid feeling – I believe all feelings are valid – but the feeling of guilt may not accurately reflect what is going on. Let’s face it, most of us are hard on ourselves. The old adage, “we’re our own worse critic” came about resultant from generations of people who unfairly beat themselves into the ground.
At a recent gathering I attended, a woman expressed how guilty she felt for not visiting her mother more often than she thought appropriate. Another person, also a caregiver, suggested that this person ask herself whether or not she felt she was doing the best she could in this situation. “If you are, then perhaps your feeling of guilt is based on emotion rather than reality.” Whether five visits a week or one visit a month – if that’s the best a person is able to do, then it’s sufficient.
Some of us caregivers simply need to cut ourselves some slack. Even when the loved one we’re visiting has no concept of the passage of time and is not able to discern whether they’ve been visited as recently as the last hour or as long ago as last year, we still berate ourselves for not being there more frequently.
Caveat: I need to add that even if your loved one doesn’t a) recognize you, and b) can’t quantify the passage of time, you are still a wonderful addition to that person’s life. No staff caregiver can take your place when it comes to providing a loving presence for your Mom who lives in a facility. Just being there with a smile, a hug, and speaking words of compassion can do wonders towards brightening Mom’s day.
The long-distance caregiver.
My biggest role as a caregiver was that which I performed long distance for my father who lived in a dementia unit in a Southern Oregon assisted living facility. I felt like I was doing something truly valuable for him while I was there but as soon as I boarded the plane for Seattle the guilt enveloped me. Usually, the first night of my return was spent crying because I felt I had been impatient with him, or I acted flustered when I had to answer a question that my father had already asked me no less than two dozen times prior. I relived every moment of my visit, criticizing this and that about what I did, or didn’t do. I was a wreck. I had to talk myself into believing that dad did have a good time and dad was genuinely happy to see me, and by golly, I didn’t do that bad of a job as a caregiver daughter.
I could then relax knowing that he was being well-cared for in my absence; my visits augmented that care, and I could rest on that fact rather than falling back on my guilt. The NY Times article, Being There and Far Away sheds some light on the long distance caregiver’s experience. I hope you’ll take the time to read the article as I believe it will touch on some topics that all caregivers may experience.
As I mentioned in my Blog entry, Deathbed Promises and How to Fulfill Them take a deep breath and shed the mantle of guilt you’re wearing. It doesn’t do you any good and it gets in the way of you being the best caregiver you can be. Cut yourself some slack and don’t be so hard on yourself.
Do your best – that’s all that is required.