There is no such thing as easy caregiving – anyone who has been, or is currently, a caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or other dementia can attest to that fact. The good news, however, is that every once and awhile we’re fortunate enough to be exposed to glorious snippits of wonderfulness that help us through the day. Here’s hoping that this link does just that for you.
The more a person becomes dependent on others, the more protection he needs. A person with dementia needing the assistance of others is considered a vulnerable adult. He can’t defend himself or speak up for himself. He can’t demand exceptional care, courtesy, and respect. As his advocate – that’s where you come in. When he doesn’t have a voice – you step in to be that voice. Your reward will be great if you succeed in doing so.
Part of what I do in my working life is to advocate for vulnerable adults by doing what I can to promote dignity and quality of life for those I have the privilege to serve. As a family member, or good friend, to an adult with dementia, your task is a monumental one because along with your caregiving role, you must also excel at the task of advocacy. In my blog article, “Be an Advocate for your Loved One” posted on this blog November 14, 2011, I discuss the various ways in which you can advocate for your loved one. This current article is the last article in my “Understanding Alzheimer’s and other dementia” series and it addresses the issue of dignity and privacy.
As those of us who have, or have had, loved ones with dementia we know without a shadow of doubt, that our loved one’s current condition does not reflect the pre-Alzheimer’s/dementia person. A grandmother who previously never spoke the “F-word” now speaks it as though it were just another word in her vocabulary. A previously modest and distinguished gentleman now routinely removes his clothes in front of others, and/or may be inclined to grope his caregivers or other residents. A former globally recognized businessman, sought after for his abundant knowledge in his field, now needs others to feed him and has lost the ability to string a meaningful sentence together. Our loved one’s new normal is shocking to those of us who are close to the person with dementia, and completely foreign to those who are not.
Keeping people informed about your loved one’s condition.
Those who definitely have an attachment to your loved one: friends, coworkers, close neighbors, and of course family members, will probably appreciate knowing what’s going on with him. It’s important to use discernment when deciding who needs to know – and who doesn’t. And thanks to e-mail and texting, we can update people immediately and thoroughly with no need to pick up the phone. That’s truly a bonus, isn’t it? You’re already stressed and emotionally drained by your situation so having to conduct numerous telephone calls and provide the same update to several people would be prohibitive at best.
But with the ease of e-mail comes the temptation to be too thorough in the e-mail missive. You’ve already discerned who needs to be kept updated; now you need to use judgment on how much you say and how you say it. Does your neighbor really need to know about your husband’s incontinence? How would it benefit your mother’s former coworkers to learn that their former Marketing Executive now drools throughout the day and can no longer feed herself? More to the point – ask yourself this question: How would my spouse/parent/partner/sibling/friend feel if they knew I was providing all the gory details of their dementia progression to those near and dear to them? The answer, I believe, is obvious. If they could, your loved one would say, “Please don’t let everyone know what I’ve been reduced to.” Showing respect for your loved one includes protecting her privacy, and thereby her dignity. And I’ll tell you from experience – those on the receiving end of the information would rather you be brief and not overly descriptive.
Celebrate the uniqueness of your loved one.
Your loved one is not just some generic living and breathing person in the Early, Middle or Late stage of Alzheimer’s. He may not be able to do everything he previously could – maybe he’s not even able to speak – but you can still celebrate him as a human being. Everyone mourns what’s been lost; hardly any one celebrates their loved one’s remaining attributes. I learned a lesson from my father during the middle stages of his dementia. I was quick to finish his sentences, or rush him along by answering people’s questions for him. My dad didn’t have to use words to express his displeasure when I did that. He slumped in his chair, looked at me, and let out an exasperated sigh. I stopped right then and there and made no further attempts to rush him as he conversed. Doing so would take away one of the abilities he still had – talking and getting his point across. It may have taken him a long time to complete his thought, but he still had the ability to do so. Please don’t take away the remaining vestiges of your loved one’s independence and abilities. If you feel compelled to feed your loved one just because they take a long time to eat their meal, you’re training them to rely on you for that assistance when they could have been doing it on their own. Who cares if it takes 60 minutes instead of 15 to finish a plate of food? If they’re still able to feed themselves – celebrate that ability. Don’t take it away for your own convenience.
Walk into their reality – don’t force them to enter into yours.
We’ve all experienced conversations with our loved one wherein he or she talks about things that didn’t really happen, although they are convinced that they did. What’s the harm in agreeing with them and going along with their story. Your wife says, “Didn’t you enjoy that trip to the Grand Canyon we took with the kids a few years ago?” O.K. – first of all you don’t have any children, and second of all, you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon. Instead of trying to convince her of what’s real – and making her feel bad/ashamed in the process – talk about the great view, or how all the kids fell asleep in the car and missed the entire gorgeous spectacle. I can guarantee that if you change your paradigm regarding this development, both you and your loved one will be better off. The Alzheimer’s Association has a great adage that they offer us caregivers to help us along the way. If you don’t insist – they can’t resist. I challenge you to go with the flow instead of trying to paddle upstream. Don’t cause contention. A little make-believe goes a long way and harms no one.
AARP magazine reviewed the book Dancing with Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s by Lauren Kessler. This memoir by Ms. Kessler is portrayed as “an Alzheimer’s tale that’s warm, uplifting, even hopeful – qualities not normally associated with the illness. This odd dichotomy – joy atop a ravaging disease – makes this book a refreshing standout.” Alzheimer’s and other dementia have the ability to peel away a person’s former mask to allow what’s underneath to surface – pleasant or not. What Ms. Kessler learned in her journey with her mother is that “if viewed from a different perspective, Alzheimer’s is not the end of personhood.”
Yes – dementia changes who your loved one is. It oftentimes reduces him or her to childish, and then infantile behavior. But they are still a person. They are no less worthy of your respect and your compassion. This hardest task of your life will end some day. In the interim, may you be merciful to your loved one and may those with whom you are associated support you along the way.
Numerous authority figures are entrusted with your loved one’s care – most of them a fraction of their age. If you can’t be a physical presence for your loved one what will you do to bridge the gap between physical absence and an effective long distance presence?
My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 84 and died in 2007 at the age of 89. By the time of his diagnosis he had been living in a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) for seven years. His wife, my mother, died a month before they both were to move to this CCRC located in Oregon state. My mother was truly looking forward to the move with my dad but on September 24, 1994, she was granted the wish that she had thrown into the universe many years earlier – that when her time came, she wanted to die in her sleep. My father still moved to the Oregon CCRC because at the age of 77, he knew he still had a valid reason to move there. Both he and mom didn’t want to be a burden to us three children, so moving into a retirement community that would meet all the needs of his aging body and mind was dad’s gift to us.
A few years after my mother’s death, dad married a resident of the CCRC and they had a wonderful late-in-life marriage. Dad’s wife, Barbara, died from complications of Parkinson’s in 2003 so once again, dad became a widower, but this time his biggest challenge was that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He was still able to live semi-independently in an assisted living apartment at the complex and he was able to perform his activities of daily living (ADLs.) Of us three adult children, the job of being dad’s caregiving team leader quite naturally fell to me. I had worked in the senior care industry for several years so I was quite familiar with caregiving lingo and body frailties, not the least of which was Alzheimer’s and other dementia.
Initially, the miles that separated us wasn’t all that challenging. He was still active, was fully capable of getting himself up in the morning, taking his medications, getting to the dining room, etc. Us children would call dad frequently – and he still had the ability to call us – and we continued our visits throughout the year and although his dementia was obvious to us, we knew he was in good hands and that he was functioning quite well. The staff was very attentive to him and if they had concerns, as his health care representative and financial power of attorney, they kept me abreast of the latest, the greatest, and the ever-increasing not-so-greatest.
The not-so-greatest happened one frightful evening. Dad called me telling me that he felt very agitated and he couldn’t stop walking around his apartment; he couldn’t settle down; he didn’t know what was going on. I asked him if he had recently taken any medication and he replied, “Just some cough syrup.” “How much did you take?” “I don’t know.” So while I had my father on my home phone line, I called the front desk of the facility on my cell phone and told them that my father was having an emergency in apartment #94 and a nurse needed to get there immediately. I kept my dad on the phone and told him that a nurse was on the way to see him and that he would be taken care of very soon. The nurse arrived quickly, and the emergency was averted.
Bottom line? We now knew that dad was no longer capable of managing his own medications. He took way too much cough syrup that evening and it caused his heart to race, resulting in extreme agitation. This precipitating event was the start of his noticeable decline and medication management became the first ADL for which my dad needed assistance.
The above example barely scratches the surface of what many of you are dealing with. Your long distance eyes and ears seem thoroughly ineffective and you’re concerned about your loved one’s well-being. There is hope for the long distance caregiver. It’s not the same as being there, but this hope somewhat bridges the long distance caregiving gap. Part II of this article, published December 4, 2011, addresses some practical steps you can take to help in your caregiving journey.
A team is only as good as its members. If the playbook isn’t carefully followed, success is unattainable.
The scenario for this article centers around care for Mom. It doesn’t matter if Mom is still living at home and cared for primarily by one of her adult children OR Mom is living in a care facility receiving care for her day-to-day needs outside of the home. Either way, the brothers and sisters of this caregiving team are in for the challenge of their lives. What follows is a simple, yet complex, listing of destructive traits that could get in the way of the family’s caregiving goal. All definitions are directly from the Oxford English Dictionary, 11th Edition, 2004.
- EGO. n. a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. Brothers and sisters, please check your egos at the door. The exercise of one’s ego is so self-involved that the input of others, most likely controlled by their own egos, clashes with an individual’s perspective. Acknowledge that egos are front and center, but either check them at the door, or put them high up on a bookshelf to be retrieved at a more appropriate time, and work together for the common good, not one’s own good.
- SELFISH(NESS). adj. concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure at the expense of consideration for others. I’m seeing a trend here. Ego and selfishness go hand-in-hand and truly have no place in a team dynamic.
- COMPETITION. n. the activity or condition of competing against others. A successful sports team does not compete against its own members – it saves that for its opponents. Your brothers and sisters are your allies, not your opponents, so you will all benefit from considering each other as such. You want the same thing – the best care experience for your mother – so your common goal will be more effectively reached when all of you play on and for the same team.
- SENIOR(ITY). n. a person who is a specified number of years older than someone else. Just because you’re older than your sister doesn’t mean your input is more valuable than hers. Your younger siblings are just that – they’re younger, not stupid. I know that sounds harsh but I’ve seen this time and again where siblings maintain the same perspective of their childhood sibling relationships and it becomes a barrier towards moving forward as adults. Once you reach a certain adult age, those differences no longer exist. It’s hard to break away from the age hierarchy paradigm, but break away you must.
- SHARED RESPONSIBILITY. You’ll rarely find a family that carries the caregiving burden equally. Some members will do more than others, either by virtue of their proximity to Mom, and/or due to their abilities. But a greater percentage of tasks does not necessarily equate to a greater percentage of input regarding Mom’s caregiving. Arguably one could say, “You don’t care enough to help out so we don’t care about what you have to say.” One could say that but doing so is counterproductive.
I list the above traits because they can be very destructive when complex issues of aging and caregiving come into play. Imagine trying to come to a consensus of opinion regarding an appropriate level of care for Mom at any given time, or managing the financial dilemmas often inherent with the caregiving process; or the emotion-packed subject of end-of-life issues. Respect for each others’ opinions will go a long way towards paving the road with fewer speed bumps.
A caveat: I acknowledge that some family histories are far more complicated, and more dysfunctional, than others. Because of the unhealthy years that many children have experienced growing up, far more is on the table when working with one’s siblings. In those circumstances, a third-party unbiased counselor can be a valuable addition to the care team.
My question to you wonderful caregivers out there who have wrestled with this caregiving team challenge: how did you iron out the difficulties, or did you?
If you do not have any family members, please look at my article Solo Caregiving.
What’s a pitcher without a catcher? A quarterback without a receiver? A point guard without a center? Individuals – that’s what they are. They are not a team. Caregiving should never be an individual effort because quite frankly, one person can not do it all.
Whether the primary caregiver actually does hands-on-care or is the primary “manager” of a loved one’s day-to-day life, that caregiver needs all the support he or she can get. For the purposes of this article we’re going to assume that the loved one, Mom, lives in a long-term care (LTC) facility cared for by professionals. As with every sports team, there is a General Manager of the team – responsible for the overall smooth running of the team, and then there are the individual team members without whom there would be no support whatsoever. Let’s look at the responsibilities of each person on the team. GENERAL MANAGER: whether self-assigned or chosen, the GM is usually Mom’s primary contact/visitor. He or she will also be the main point of contact with the staff at the LTC facility and as such, should definitely be on the “approved list” of people with whom the care staff can discuss every aspect of Mom’s care. Getting on the approved list might involve one or both of the following:
- Facility Care Plan/Residential Agreement. Because of the restrictions resulting from the enactment of HIPAA anyone other than the actual patient/resident must be given permission to receive confidential information regarding another individual’s health condition. There is usually a section on LTC facility agreements and/or care plans wherein a primary family member is listed and approved as the person who can have access to all confidential information regarding the resident’s/loved one’s care. Similarly you’ll want to be on the approved list for Mom’s doctors so you’re able to freely communicate with medical personnel regarding any ongoing health concerns. If Mom is able, she will need to sign the necessary documents that indicate her decision to allow that confidential health information be shared with you.
- Power of Attorney for Health Care. This legal document allows someone, usually a family member, to speak on behalf of a loved one who may not be able to do so on her own. I’m not a lawyer so I’m not offering any advice regarding this document but the attached link will give you a thumbnail sketch addressing when the appropriateness of such a document comes into play.
Now back to the General Manager’s duties: the GM needs to play on the strengths of each team member.
Hold a family meeting – even involving those living out of town via telephone or skype – to discuss the strengths that each possesses and ones’ willingness to exercise those strengths. Once those team members’ tasks have been assigned or volunteered for, it’s up to the General Manager to provide oversight to assure each task is being accomplished, and to discern if any team member needs assistance completing tasks. As you can see, taking on the role of General Manager carries a lot of responsibility and quite frankly, anyone who assumes this role needs to be good and ready to carry a heavy load. The good news, however, is that the GM is not alone – there are additional members of the team.
FINANCE MANAGER. Your older sister is a finance whiz who’s very comfortable crunching numbers. She gets to take over the day-to-day system of bill paying, investment monitoring, and the like. You might even arrange for all mail to go to this sister’s home so that she has immediate access to timely financial information.
INSURANCE MANAGER. One of your brothers who works in the health insurance industry understands the ins and outs of private insurance and as it relates to Medicare. Congratulations, his strength will contribute greatly to the whole. But you don’t have to work for an insurance company to excel at this task. Some of us – yes, I’m one of them – really “gets it” when it comes to reconciling Explanations of Benefits (EOB) documents from health insurance companies. The Insurance Manager will work hand in hand with the Finance Manager to assure that any balances due a particular medical professional or institution is paid. This can really get sticky when attempting to make sure that everyone who is responsible for paying a part of the medical service – private insurance companies and Medicare – have paid their part prior to sending out a check for the balance. But effective Finance & Insurance Managers can successfully get the job done.
TRANSPORTATION MANAGER.Your other sister has recently retired, or has a very flexible work schedule, and has the ability to take Mom to the various doctor appointments that occur each month. Terrific.
That sister will be doing the running around with Mom and can make sure each appointment is scheduled, attended, and summarized. Since she’s going to these appointments with Mom, she can sit in on the appointment and bring up issues about which the family has concerns; she can take notes on what transpires during the doctor visit; then she can report the medical updates to the family so everyone is on the same page every step of the way. This sister will also need to be on the approved HIPAA document that the physician’s office requires in order for her to communicate and interact in such a way as to be on top of Mom’s ongoing health care.
FAMILY DYNAMICS THAT GET IN THE WAY OF EFFECTIVE MANAGING. Let’s face it, not every family gets along well enough to avoid the bumps in the caregiving road. If family dynamics were strained to begin with, you can certainly expect those dynamics to be heightened in stressful situations – and caring for Mom is certainly one of them. My article “Family dynamics that hamper caregiving success,” addresses family dysfunction and offers advice on how to lessen its impact on your caregiving team.
A team’s success is attainable – but each member has to dedicate themselves to the task at hand for that to happen.