Recovering from pneumonia, my 96-year old father-in-law — I’ll refer to him as FIL — was released in April from a St. Louis area hospital. My husband brought him to our home in Shawnee.
Empty-nesters for the previous eight months (and extremely content in that role), we scrambled to assemble makeshift accommodations for FIL. For the first couple of days, our goal was simply to keep him alive. (He was that sick.) We devised a tag team care system and a schedule for each day that meshed with our work and other commitments.
Fully independent only two weeks previously (and extremely content in that role), FIL wanted to get back to driving and living on his own as soon as possible. Instead, he found himself 250 miles from home, in a twin bed wedged into our laundry room/mudroom, unable to walk and dependent on my husband and me for his every basic need.
What is a caregiver? Simply and generally it’s this: a person who attends to the needs of another person.
I have four children — three are independent now and the youngest is in college. I attended to a whole lot of their needs as a parent-caregiver, not realizing at the time how those skills and understanding would prove useful to me in other caregiver roles.
For a time, I found myself in the “sandwich” category, caught between the needs of my young children while sharing the care of, in turn, my grandfather, grandmother, uncle and father.
In each of those situations — aging, stroke, diabetes, cancer, dementia — I educated myself and tracked down resources. After my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I completed a dementia care certificate course. Those things were enormously helpful, but I don’t claim any expertise beyond my own personal experience as a caregiver.
Currently that involves my dad — physically strong but in a memory care facility, and now my father-in-law — mentally sharp but physically restricted and transitioning from his home to mine.
We were overwhelmed caring for his needs and a thousand details regarding his medical history, medications, pharmacies, doctors, hospitals, insurance ... and diet.
FIL had dietary restrictions because of hypertension and diabetes and needed good nutrition for healing and strength. But he had strong preferences and aversions that didn’t fit within those parameters, and his normally pleasant demeanor was in abstention.
For the first few days, FIL wanted nothing but milkshakes and pizza. I offered numerous alternatives. He declined. I stewed. He starved. Finally I hit upon a solution. I fixed him milkshakes using no-sugar-added ice cream and liquid nutritional supplements. And we let him have pizza as a bonus.
But his appetite was erratic, and on occasion we were unable to get the food he wanted at the precise moment he wanted it. One afternoon, my husband and I were both working in the home office. FIL was in his bedroom/laundry room, shouting.
FIL: Where’s my pizza?! (Repeated every couple of minutes, several times, with increasing volume.)
Husband: There’s no pizza here.
FIL: Well, get some!
H: The pizza will be here at suppertime.
FIL: Don’t you have any out there?
H: No, there’s no pizza here.
FIL: Can’t you keep some pizza in your refrigerator out there?!
H: We had some pizza in there, but you ate it already.
FIL: Well, order me some!
H: You have to wait until suppertime for pizza.
FIL: I can’t wait a half hour for pizza!
H: You have to wait two hours.
FIL: Get me some pizza!
It was my husband’s “shift.” I had an appointment to walk with a friend. So I left.
Me: See you later, guys, I’m going for a walk!
I exercised, vented to my friend and returned, refreshed, an hour later. Then my husband fetched pizza for supper, an hour early, and we all enjoyed it together in the laundry room.
Caregiving lesson (I suppose there were actually two) of the day: 1) Compromise. 2) Share the care so that you can take a break.
Freelancer Joy Gipple writes Caregiving 101 every other week.