Friday, February 21, 2014

Speaking for Your Dying Parent to Medical Staff

IMG_4069As my mother became weaker, it became difficult and exhausting for her to communicate with medical staff. Different doctors would ask the same things over and over. Trying to be polite and also attempting to make sure each doctor had the information they needed to effectively treat her, she tried to answer the best she could. But it was exhausting and exasperating. Breathing and living were difficult some days. Adding repeating yourself repeatedly was beyond difficult and it seemed a waste of energy.

Because I spent so much time with her I had a decent idea of what the answers were but I didn't want to speak for her and get it wrong. Eventually, a system evolved though.

Doctors would ask questions and I would answer for her but then let them know that if I got it wrong she would correct me. I paused occasionally and turned to her to ask if she agreed. At that point, all it took was a quick nod to confirm. It was much less taxing of her energy and because I had the energy to expand, the doctors got a much more comprehensive answer.

Other tactics to ensure doctors got the answers they needed were:

* carry our own copy of her medical history for reference
* have a quick reference sheet to hand to the doctors that they could keep that included current drugs, brief history, and latest status
* always ask for a copy of the medical records when we left so we could keep a complete history (did you know that you can ask for a cd for yourself each time you get an MRI or CAT scan?)
* utilize the help of nursing staff as they sometimes have more time and are more willing to give info than physicians -- make friends with them!
* be nice. This seems like such a common sense thing but medical staff are frequently verbally abused because they are facing frustrated caregivers and patients. Being nice but firm will get you much further than screaming though.

My Mom called me her bulldog and meant it in the most complimentary way. I spoke for her and made sure that she got the care she needed. Its true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease and when you are sick its hard to be squeaky.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Facing your Own Mortality as a Caregiver

whiteflowersI've heard it over and over again. As an adult child moves past their parent's age of death, they breathe a sigh of relief and can't help but be surprised they lived past what they thought would be their last breathe. Whether its 50 or 90, we tend to think that we will follow in our parent's footsteps and there is some scientific proof to back that theory.

Many genetic diseases have hereditary links. For example, if your mother died of breast cancer, this doubles the chance of developing the disease yourself. In the United States, heart disease is the leading killer.... a somewhat inheritable but most times preventable death. Granted, cancer follows at a close second place but many cancers are not genetically linked.

But we all say it and think it... my parent died early and so will I. Or I have genetics on my side... people live forever in my family so I will too. I am not a scientist or even an expert on the subject but I do know how to Google so I was curious... is there any scientific proof that if your parent dies early you will too?

The first article I brought up was which surprisingly cited a number of studies that showed there is NOT a strong correlation. Dr. Roizen on states pretty much the same thing. He cites the Framingham Study as the most comprehensive and summarizes that they found, "about a 6 percent correlation between life span of the parents and life span of their offspring, meaning that many other factors affect longevity as well. If both your parents lived past the age of seventy-five, the odds that you will live past seventy-five increase to some extent. .... Some genetic conditions, such as being a carrier of the BRCA-1 breast cancer gene.... is one of the instances where genetics can make a big difference."

So science says not to worry... just because your parent died at 61 (the age my Mom died) does not mean that you will too.

Phoooey on that. Facts are one thing but emotions don't always follow facts.

I was okay when my mom was dying because I was so busy caring for her and I didn't have the time to consider my own mortality. After her death though, every little illness became monumental. Bloating? Probably stomach cancer. Respiratory issues?... couldn't be a cold or just that I was out of shape and fat... it was probably the start of something serious and life threatening.

I began to look at my kids and wonder if I would see them have their own children. Would I see them married and with gray hair or would I be long gone and just a picture on their end table? Would I have the chance to cuddle my grandchildren? Tell them stories and watch them so their parents could have a night out.

People tell me I am like my mother. I am in many ways... and in other ways I hope not.... despite me loving her fiercely, she still drove me nuts. We both have the same issues with weight and similar health issues too -- thyroid and arthritis among them. If we have the same health issues, then won't pancreatic cancer fall into my bucket as well? She was one of the more health conscious in her sibling group -- she ate a nearly organic diet, worked daily on the farm, drank rarely and never smoked. She should have lived the longest but she died the youngest of six siblings. Doctors really don't know what causes the type of pancreatic cancer she had. They say its not hereditary but since they don't know what causes it I am not ruling genetics out.

Good things have come from the worrying. I took a good look at my life and priorities and decided I was spending way too much time at work and not enough with my children. My youngest daughter informed me I had never chaperoned one of her elementary school field trips. I couldn't imagine that to be true but when I objected and tried to come up with an instance, I realized she was right. I had been too busy running my company and volunteering for causes, that while they were important and life changing for someone.... they weren't life changing for my children. My children wanted their mother to show up and be in their lives. I am typing this now at my son's track meet. Earlier today I attended my daughter's volleyball tournament. In the past year I have attended lots more events than I have in the past. Its taken some creative methods - I bring my laptop and between matches or heats I work where I can. I have to get up earlier than I may like to get the horses fed or the laundry done. I also divided my job at work so I was no longer doing three jobs and failing at all three because I wasn't superhuman like I wanted to be.

But I have enjoyed it and I know its the right move. So there is some good in worrying you are going to die young but I don't recommend it or think its more good than bad.

People throw around phrases like "seize the day" or "you only live once". You do need to seize the day and make the most of it but not at the detriment of your future. I know I need to believe that I have a future past the age of 61 but I have to admit that I will breathe a big sigh of relief when I pass it.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Interview with Casey: Guilt, Grief and Caregiving of an Independent Dying Parent

This guide is not just about my journey.  I want to share other peoples stories.  It is remarkable how many commonalities there are in our experiences.  However,  each person has a different perspective and something they can teach the rest of us.  This story is from an interview I did with Casey (I have changed all names for interviews mainly to protect anyone that were involved in their story).

Do you have any tips for working with medical staff?

I found that if you act intelligent you get better care.   What I mean is that if you show them that you have good records and understand their lingo then they treat you differently and you get more direct answers.   I felt better and more prepared too when I had good records with me.    I'd also recommend that you work with the nurses rather than the doctor when you can.    Oh, and don't be afraid to get a second opinion and go to the best doctor you can.

How about your family? 

I was the rock for my mother but my brother was the rock for me.   Every time I asked for help he stepped up.  We had a constant communication line and talked everyday to compare notes and what needed to be done.

What about your immediate family?

I think I had unreasonable expectations for them.   I got irritated with them at times because the house wasn't clean or the laundry wasn't done to my expectations.   But their expectations were different - they didn’t care that the house wasn't immaculate.  They didn’t expect me to clean it but I felt guilty that it wasn't done and snapped at them about it.  I appreciate though that they never resented the time I spent with Mom even though it took time away from them.

How did you deal with talking to your Mom about her funeral and plans for burial?

I didn’t really.   I knew it had to be done but my Mom is not a touchy feely kind of person.  But I knew what she would want so I wrote up the will and came to her and told her that I had written it up and that we needed to go have it notarized.   She just said “ok” and we went.

Eventually I asked her about how she wanted to be buried.  I told her, “Mom, you need to tell me what you want done.  I would like to be cremated.  Would you want that?”   In her typical ‘don’t bother me with the details’ fashion, she said just replied, “Whatever you want is fine.”

A couple of days later though she came to me and said, “that seems kind of rough to me… what if I am not totally dead.”  So I knew she had been thinking of our conversation.  We didn’t talk much more about it then but after a few more days she told me that if she was cremated she would want her ashes spread in the river.   So I wasn’t really sure what she wanted when she actually died.  That made it tough.

I remember sitting around with my siblings, husband and kids the day after she died and they were all looking to me to make a decision on how she should be buried.  I wanted to do what SHE wanted but I just wasn’t sure what that was.    Finally I settled on the cremation.   It was what I would want and it was the least expensive option.   But I still wasn’t sure so I said out loud, “Mom, give me a sign that you want the cremation.”  Just then something fell loudly in the kitchen.  I took it as a sign that I had made the right decision.

What triggered the tears after her death?

I was numb for the first three months.  I think I was afraid of feeling the pain and for so long I had been the rock.. not allowing feelings to enter … I had to be strong for my mother.  At the time of her death I didn’t feel as sad as I thought I would because I was happy for her that she was no longer in pain.   It took about three months to believe it was real and then it really hurt.  By then it was too late.  Friends thought I should have been over it by now but I was just starting to really feel the pain.

It started with a phone call.  My cell phone rang one day and I looked down to see my Mom’s face and number on the screen.  Shocked, I didn’t know what to think.  I turns out my brother, who had loaned the phone to my Mom, hadn’t changed the contact numbers after her death.  But that started the tears.

Other things were triggers too.  Buying flowers in the spring was tough.  It was something we had always done together and I wasn’t sure how to do it without her.  I bought all the flowers she would have liked and planted them the way that she wanted.  I’m not sure if that was a tribute to her or just because I could hear her in my head telling me what to do.  Shopping is the same way.  My mother and I always shopped together.  Its been over seven months and I haven’t been shopping for clothes since she died.  I’m saving a lot of money!

If you could go back and change anything about the time when you were caring for her what it would be?

Not much.   I guess the one thing would be to spend more time sitting and talking with my Mom.   Instead of talking to her I spent time cleaning her house and taking care of things.   Part of it was I was afraid of talking about the hard things but also I felt like I was accomplishing something.   If I could give anyone going through this some advice it would be to be tender and caring and loving because you can’t get those moments back.  And forgiving because they can be difficult at the end.

Another would be to “Listen and listen well.”   Listen to the things they really care about and then do them even if it is against what you would want.  When it became difficult for Mom to care for herself, I asked her to come live with me.  She refused and it hurt my feelings.  Why wouldn’t she want to come live with my family?  The people who really cared about her?

Eventually, she wasn’t able to be alone and her neighbor and good friend was coming to check in on her.  Hospice was involved at that point and I called Hospice and told them I was coming to get her.  I was putting my foot down and she was coming to live with me.   I arrived at her house to get her and started to gather the things that she would need.  After a bit, her friend asked to speak to me outside.

I know it was difficult for her but I appreciate what she reminded me of that day.   “Casey, this is not about you.   I know you want her with you but she wants this control and independence.  She wants to be able to change the thermostat to what she wants, walk at night without bothering you, eat what she wants and when she wants.   She loves you dearly and appreciates what you do but she needs this independence.   When she told Hospice that you were coming to get her to take her to your house, she cried.”

It hurt me to do it, but I left her at home that day.  It wasn’t about me.  My Mom may have been ill, but her mind was not and she needed this last bit of control over her life.

I also wish I had asked Mom about her past, her childhood and things I didn’t know.  I assumed I would be able to ask her brother after her death and avoid asking her about her past as she was dying but turns out her brother doesn’t remember.   Now it’s lost heritage that I can’t get back.