With January being Alzheimer Awareness Month in Canada and interviewing a woman taking care of a mother with Alzheimer disease (for tomorrow's paper), I am thinking a lot about caregiving. I wrote a few bits in the memoir I've written about the kind of help that really makes a difference to a caregiver -- and surprisingly, it's not house cleaning or laundry or a shopping expedition. It's food. One can live in a dirty house and laundry isn't that onerous and buying new clothes isn't as therapeutic as we think it is. But food takes time and energy and brain cells that are occupied by other things. We gotta eat and so that's what I recommend. Provide food. Real meals. Enough to last a few days.
It won't go unappreciated.
Here are two excerpts from "Safe At Home" to illustrate my point:
[from June 2006 when my mother had surgery to remove cancerous polyps from her colon]
Mum was doing very well. On day four, she was IV- and catheter-free and ordering creamed soup for lunch. She wasn’t experiencing any pain in her abdomen but she said she was retaining fourteen pounds of water.
“The upside is I have no wrinkles,” she told me. “Anywhere.”
By the following night, she would home in her own bed and she was not going to worry about the pathology report.
Dad, on the other hand, had fallen three times since Mum went into the hospital. There had to be a connection. Now that he was getting a steady dose of the anti-psychotic drug, Haldol, he seemed tired all the time and he was back to dozing off before he’d finished his meal. About halfway through the plate, he’d stop chewing and swallowing so I used the trick of stroking his cheek and throat to encourage the swallowing instinct.
He could barely make it down the hallway without stopping to rest but whatever part of his brain was driving that compulsion to pace kept him moving. His walk had become a shuffle, a dragging of the soles of his shoes, and he was pausing frequently to stand and – what? Blank out? Think? Ask God why this was happening to him? Perhaps he stopped to listen for an answer.
I, on the other hand, had no time to stop. To avoid paying four dollars every time I parked at the hospital, which could have been as much as three times a day, I parked at the nursing home and did the ten-minute walk between the two places. At ten o’clock in the morning, I saw my mother. If she was doing well, I left at 11:30 to walk over to the nursing home to feed Dad his lunch. After, I drove home to feed myself, check phone messages, make calls then I drove back again with a large thermos of tea for Mum (she said the hospital tea tasted like mowed grass clippings). At four thirty, I walked back over to the nursing home for Dad’s supper then drove home. After supper, I took another thermos of tea to my mother.
My father had Alzheimer’s and lived in the locked unit of a nursing home and my mother was in hospital having just had surgery to remove cancerous polyps from her colon, and as a result, I was in the best shape of my life.
Great-looking legs, however, weren’t really helping me cope. I remembered that when Araminta and Jason brought George home from the hospital after his surgery, the people at their church had cleaned the entire house and filled her fridge AND freezer with food. I was taking care of two ill parents in two separate facilities and I could count on one hand the number of invitations I’d had to dinner. I didn’t need any hands to count the non-existent casseroles that were not taking up space in the freezer.
Now I saw the futility of saying to a caregiver, “Call me if you need anything.” That caregiver had no time to figure out what she needed until the moment she needed it. She came in the door from feeding her father and dumped his laundry into the washing machine after putting water on to boil for pasta that she’d cover in sauce from a jar because that was easiest. She didn’t even have time to make a big pot of soup from which to eat for a week.
Yesterday there was a phone message from a woman saying that she’d made cookies for me – and could I come by her house to pick them up? After that, there weren’t any messages at all. No one was even calling to see how my mother was doing. Was it something I said? Then again, I didn’t really have time to answer the phone anyway.
[from September 2006; my mother spent almost three weeks in the hospital because of chemo-induced colitis and radiation burns on her intestines. Since Mum had started treatment in mid-August, she hadn't been able to go in and see Dad, and in that short time, he'd declined drastically]
When I opened the front door Saturday morning to head to the farmers’ market, there was a cooler sitting on the concrete stoop. I opened the lid and there was the latest issue of People magazine and Oprah smiling at me from the cover of her magazine. There was no note. I hauled the cooler inside to the kitchen and began exploring.
Underneath the magazines were tomatoes and grapes and a bag of Ghiradelli chocolates. There was salad mix and a quiche and two frozen meat pies. It was the bag of frozen peas at the bottom of the cooler that started the tears. I didn’t have to worry about preparing food this weekend. There was enough food here to last me through Tuesday. This was such a relief.
Even though there was no note, I knew who had dropped off this care package. When Shelagh had called last night, I was in such a bad state, I couldn’t hold a conversation. I told her about Dad and Mum and I think I remember complaining about being sick of eating cold pizza. Afterwards, I’d walked the dog, one of those walks where you just keep going despite how tired you are because it feels so good to be moving, to be out in the dark, quiet streets.
This was the second time Shelagh had come to my rescue since Mum went in the hospital 13 days ago. How did you ever repay someone who was this kind and thoughtful?
By Sara Jewell Mattinson