Coming Back From Loss: Elder Care Tips & Tools
So...I don't have grandparents anymore.
This summer, my last living grandparent—my maternal grandmother—passed away after suffering a second stroke (and had likely suffered several mini ones before it), the damage from which her brain could not recover, though her body, at nearly 92, probably could have. She was just that resilient.
I had just returned from a surreal two-week adventure in Norway, my grandmother's homeland, where I met family members I'd never met before but with whom I instantly bonded, saw the most amazing natural sights, connected with the land and my heritage, was filled to overflowing with the kind of memories I hope will last a lifetime. I don't know if I'll ever have the right words, or enough of them, to describe the depth of emotion I experienced on that trip. Some of what I experienced probably can't be put into words. It was life-changing. But we got the call about her stroke while we were there, and we wrestled with cutting the trip short, unsure of how much time she had on this earth. I was especially concerned about not getting a chance to say goodbye, since both grandparents who preceded her in death had left this earth unexpectedly. I didn't get to say goodbye to them. I wanted to say goodbye to Grandma.
I got a chance. Several chances over two painfully long weeks, during which she fluctuated between extreme alertness and deep, seemingly peaceful sleep, but not able to communicate in words. Every time I left her bedside, I thought it was the last goodbye. I never wanted to leave her bedside because of it. But I also wanted her to feel she could let go when she was ready; I didn't want to interfere with that. It was an indescribably sacred, scary, and soul-stretching time. I'm still processing those two weeks.
With my daughter back to school and my teacher spouse back to school as well, I have the solitude I need to sort through all these hard feelings and experiences—and to make a fresh start in my work. Fall always feels more like New Year's for me. I thrive in this season. And I look forward to sharing many new projects in the coming weeks. Stay tuned, and thank you for following my caregiving work so far!
Here are this month's tips and tools, with extras:
- TIP 1: RECOGNIZE THE CAREGIVING ICEBERG. For many caregivers, there's a lot more going on under the surface—in our heads and in our hearts—which makes answering "surface" questions especially difficult. Sometimes we don't want to answer truthfully because we'll fall apart. Sometimes we're OK with falling apart, but just not at the moment. Sometimes the person asking the question doesn't really want to hear the iceberg answer. Wherever you're at, and whatever side you're on (the question giver/receiver), remember the potential iceberg below. And do your best to address it graciously.
- TIP 2: STEP OUT OF YOUR CAREGIVER ROLE. I'm not saying you should quit being a caregiver. But as a caregiver, you wear many hats and fulfill many roles. I challenge you, today, to step out of your caregiver role...even if only for an afternoon. If you're a caregiver for a parent, spend some time just being a son or daughter. If you're a caregiver for a spouse, spend some time just being a wife or husband. If you're a caregiver for a child, spend some time just being a mom or dad.
- TIP 3: EMPOWER YOUR CAREE. If you're in the early stages of caregiving, remember that independence is a major issue. Many will go to great lengths to avoid getting any kind of help—even if they know they need it—because they don't want to be a burden. Whatever changes you recommend (for example, moving a bedroom to the first floor to avoid the fall risk of stairs), present your suggestions in a way that promotes independence instead of making the individual feel like he/she is incapable or inadequate. Find appropriate resources, providers, or tips for your unique care situation, and engage your loved one in the decision-making process so he/she feels empowered, not patronized.
- TIP 4: GRIEF IS GOOD. While my grandmother lived a full 92 years, the length of her life didn't lessen the impact of the loss. It doesn't matter when or how you lose a loved one; the pain is just as deep. When someone has been a strong and constant presence in your life since childhood, and you've loved them deeply and been loved deeply by them in return, you have to grieve that loss. You have to feel that pain. Yes, the memories can comfort you, but for the time being, it really hurts. We wouldn't feel grief without that intimate connection. Wherever you are in your grief, be it the early days or many years later, know that your feelings of grief are normal, true, and good.
- TOOL 1: Caregiving Advice for All Ages and Stages Facebook group: I've created a closed group for caregivers of any age to ask questions, make connections, and seek resource recommendations about their caregiving situation. Join here.
- TOOL 2: Kalendar Kards: In a future blog post on my site, I'll write more about this helpful reality orientation tool for dementia caregivers. In the meantime, explore their website to see if this system could be helpful for a loved one with cognitive impairment.
- TOOL 3: Caregiver Smile Summit: Imagine being able to listen to 52 caregiving experts (I'm one of them!) share on a range of topics without buying a plane ticket, booking a hotel, or setting up respite care. And you can watch the sessions over and over. That's what the $79 all-access option of the Caregiver Smile Summit offers. Register here.
- TOOL 4: 2nd Annual National Caregiving Conference: I attended this fantastic in-person conference in Chicago last year and was thrilled to have served on two panels during it. While I won't be able to attend this year, I strongly encourage current and former caregivers to consider participating. There are virtual attendance options too, if travel proves difficult. Learn more here.