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When What You Can Do Changes (Part I)

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(Names changed)


As time moves on, and we get older, what we can do changes. There was a time I could bathe four kids at once, kneeling by the tub, quickly catching anyone who slipped. Now, if I go to bathe even one grandchild, I can barely feel my knees as they go from pain to numbness and getting myself up off the bathroom floor…well that, in itself, takes ten minutes. But even though our abilities change and we know we cannot do what we once did, the expectations others have of us don’t necessarily change with us.


This is even truer for well spouses and other caregivers. What you did for your spouse, the devotion and caring that you showed him or her everyday 20 years ago when the illness began, is still expected 20 years later. The same level of care is also expected by your parents should they become ill and need you. Twenty years may have passed and your stamina is less, your health has declined and your responsibilities may be more, but the expectations your loved ones have of you were defined long ago and, in their minds, you had better deliver.


When Miriam’s father became ill and needed care, she insisted he come live with her and her husband and their two children for his convalescence. Her mother, 25 years older than Miriam, was not able to care for him in the manner he needed. And so, Miriam’s father spent six weeks being cared for by his daughter until he could once again, go home and, with his wife’s help, resume a relatively normal routine. 


Almost 20 years have passed since her father’s illness.  Miriam’s children are grown and out of the house. Her daughter lives in Europe and Miriam relishes the visit she gets from her once a year.  They no longer live in the large house with the many bedrooms and bathrooms but now occupy a small two-bedroom condo and have only one bathroom.


 Last month, Miriam’s mother was told she needed surgery and a long convalescence would follow. A few days before the surgery, Miriam’s husband was taken to the emergency room by ambulance with mysterious stomach pains. Not being able to find the cause, the doctor scheduled many tests for the next few days to help determine a course of action.


Shuttling between her mother’s hospital and her husband’s hospital in the next few days left Miriam depressed and exhausted. It was also just before the holidays and besides the need to cook and clean and prepare for the occasion, Miriam’s daughter was scheduled to arrive in two weeks for her yearly visit.


 Miriam`s husband’s tests were inconclusive. More tests were ordered. Meanwhile, Miriam`s mother made it through the surgery well, but not waiting for the nurse to help her to the washroom, she tried to get off the bed herself and broke her arm. Her convalescence would now require more care and more time.


It was while discussing with the social worker what was an appropriate placement for convalescence, that Miriam`s mother angrily and adamantly refused to even consider being placed in a convalescent facility. She reminded Miriam that she had taken care of her father and now she, her mother, expected the same treatment. She would consider nothing but living with her daughter for the next six to eight weeks as she recuperated. She would not be shipped off to some home.


Miriam was beside herself as she left her mother and set off to see her husband.  She had not begun to even think of the holidays and her daughter’s visit.  How would she juggle the next few weeks with so many unknowns and so much guilt and unhappiness?


In the end, with the support of the doctor and the social worker, Miriam`s mother was told by the medical professionals that her convalescence could not be done at her daughter’s home. She needed the help of the professional equipment and staff.  And so she finally, but resentfully, agreed. 


But what of the rest of the “Miriams” in the care giving population? Not all of them can depend on the understanding of a doctor or social worker to help. Every caregiver must learn to see what his or her limitations are. They must realize that as they age and/or as they go through the rigors of care giving, their physical and emotional ability to give will change. 


Unfortunately, the expectations of those around them will probably not change. It will be left to them to deal with these unrealistic expectations. They will have to choose between their own limitations and the needs of others. 


Making the wrong choice by giving in to the pressure of what are no longer realistic expectations, will hurt both those you love as well as yourself. You will not be able to meet their needs. They will receive inadequate and resentful care at your hands and you will have to cope with your own self-anger for embracing more than you can handle. Everyone will lose and everyone will be worse off than they were before.


You can reach me at annnovick@hotmail.com

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