How Not to be a Caregiver

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In the aftermath of Covid-19, countless people are still trying to find their way back to a normal way of living, of being social – or at least, being back out in the world in baseline ways.

Major companies like Google and Meta are coercing their employees back to the office at least three days a week and are getting plenty of pushback.

As it turns out, nobody wants to put the genie back in the bottle once your wish to work from home has come true.

Apart from the lockdown, the panic, the death toll, the overwhelm, the concern for my fellows, the fear, the anxiety, the mask wearing, the needless anxiety brought on by the maskless, and the discovery that I didn’t really trust people, the lifestyle changes brought on by Covid didn’t affect me that much.

I was already working from home, and, by God’s grace, was living in a spacious flat with a huge and verdant backyard with plenty of spaces both within and without in which to seek refuge. I kept up my long daily walks, my driveway workouts, and when the Y opened back up, started swimming seven days a week at 8:00 a.m.

In April of 2021, I left Atlanta for Buffalo, New York, to be with my mother the last two weeks of her life. The vaccine had only been out since December of 2020 but wasn’t yet widely available. You’ll recall that there was a system for vaccinating, and you had to set up an appointment weeks in advance. Seniors had priority. People with co-morbidities had priority. The younger and healthier you were, the farther down the list you found yourself.

A caretaker of an elderly person also had priority. Because I was about to be a caretaker, I was able to skip to the front of the line. At the Delta Airline museum parking lot south of the city, I drove up and got my shots straight from my car. Talk about surreal. I received my second dose just a couple days before hitting the road, rendering me fully vaccinated.

After my mother made her transition from this earth, I was about to take on the tremendous responsibility of caring for my older sister and preparing her for independent living, managing her health, and becoming social again. Working as a unified team, we succeeded, and when I left Buffalo on July 3, 2022, I was confident that my sister would thrive on her own, as was she.

Over the years, I had heard stories of caretakers’ lives being eaten up by the enormity of the responsibility involved. This happened to a certain degree to a dear friend of mine whose  caretaking duties went on for over 15 years. I had also heard several other stories one or two degrees of separation removed.

But I never thought that it would happen to me.

I, who love new adventures, meeting new people, trying new things. I, who has had only myself to think about my entire life. I, who has had such good boundaries and no problem maintaining them. I, who don’t allow people to waste my time and who has been known to literally turn about face and walk away from compulsive talkers. (You should try it. It doesn’t even phase them cause they’re not talking to you anyway; they’re talking at you because you happen to be the body in front of them at the moment.)

Imagine my surprise when, during that year-plus, I had little interest in making new friends or connecting with old ones. I could’ve taken an acting class and had a blast, but I didn’t.

I was in a writing class and wrote a new piece two or three hours before class each week. And boy, did I write some good pieces. But I couldn’t sustain the writing if not in a class. Because the classes weren’t cheap and the facilitator wasn’t really teaching anything about writing, I backed away from it.

There are probably lots of people out there right now about to don the Caretaker’s Mantle. Ageing parents, ailing spouses and relatives are now a basic fact of life for Baby Boomers.

Before you enter that world, consider that, without help, support, or respite, you’re essentially entering a gladiator pit.

So…without any further ado…

HOW NOT TO BE A CAREGIVER:

  • Make no effort to create a support system. In my case, unless I hired someone, there was no support system. I didn’t hire anyone. I was literally in charge of doing everything myself.
  • Start eating devitalized foods such as entire bags of kettle chips and Bison chip dip (the best in the nation); all manner of sweets, snacks, and junk food.
  • Eat those foods in bed (something you’ve never done before) at night while watching movies and tv series on your cell phone because you put the tv in the closet.
  • Cut down on your fresh water intake and start drinking San Pellegrino Aranciata Rossa sodas, at least twice a day.
  • Start working with a Better Help therapist early on because you figure that’ll be helpful. Then, when the therapist, who lives in Montana, shows up two weeks in a row in her bathrobe, question your choice.
  • Even though you’re noticing that you’re gaining weight and you were in tip-top shape before, ignore it because you’re going to have to give up eating all that crap and it’s the only real comfort, support, and companionship you have.
  • Don’t tell anyone what’s going on in your life and how difficult it is and how burned out you feel. It’s not going to matter anyway cause nobody’s coming.
  • Start eating the best donuts in the city on a regular basis. Turn those visits to the donut shop into an actual activity. Disregard how bloated and gross you feel after consuming all that sugar, flour, and fat – even if they are the best donuts in the city.
  • Even though you’re aware that regularly stocking sandwich pepperoni (even though you don’t eat coldcuts) is a cross over into the land of no return, keep buying it. It’s absolutely delicious and it’s easy to forget that you don’t eat mammals cause the sandwich pepperoni looks nothing like a pig.
  • Give everything you’ve got until you start questioning what else you can give. A kidney, maybe? You’re already spent so what’s the difference? Stay longer than you need to. What day, month, year is it, anyway? You’ve completely lost all connection to your own life, so you might as well keep going.

          HOW TO BE A CAREGIVER

  • Create a support system somehow: at the gym, at a church, join a Meetup, at the coffee shop. I wasn’t in my home city, remember. If you’re in your home city, this is a lot easier.
  • Exercise every day (I actually did this: swimming and hiking daily, year-round.)
  • Use a therapist, hopefully one who bothers to get dressed for your appointments. It’s a crucial tool for maintaining your balance and your sanity and for not staying too long at the fair. You also have an impartial sounding board to whom you can complain and find solutions.
  • DO NOT…I repeat…DO NOT stop doing your own life. You might have to curtail the amount of time you have to do your own things but that’s ok. Whatever you have to doto keep your life intact, DO IT because you might not even notice your life evaporating until it’s too late.
  • Eliminate all sugars and other processed, refined, and junk foods from your diet. These “foods” are fun to eat, they’re a great escape, and they taste good. And, you can keep eating them all day long because you’ll never feel full.
  • Drink plenty of water, at least a couple quarts a day. Get an app on your phone and track your intake. I use iHydrate; it’s so simple, a three-year-old could use it.
  • If you notice your quality of sleep drifting off to sea, evaluate why and find an immediate solution. Sustained, low-quality sleep will take you down faster than an iceberg in the north Atlantic.
  • Have a meditation, mindfulness, prayer, yoga, contemplation practice to maintain your spiritual balance and connection.
  • Have at least one person besides your therapist who can be your sounding board. A friend, family member, etc. Sometimes talking to a complete stranger is helpful, too. Just don’t turn into a compulsive talker. Notice when they’ve had enough. (I didn’t do this but I’ve been on the receiving end and I’m happy to oblige – to a point.)
  • If possible, have an exit plan; a finish-by date. If you have siblings, make them do their part. If your siblings suck, hire somebody to come in and give you some respite and send them the bill. Believe me, nobody’s going to ask you if your life is going down the toilet. They don’t want to know because they might have to step up and do something.

Once I returned to Atlanta, it took a long time for me to get back to my baseline life. Many months. Don’t let that happen to you – because it can, and it will, if you let it.

Today I had a great day. I went to a fringe festival show with a longtime friend and her husband. We went out to eat afterwards in a restaurant whose inside temperature matched the outside temperature – about 88 degrees. After about 10 minutes, I adjusted. I had a wonderful salad with the best Thai peanut dressing ever delivered to our table by a man wearing an eye patch.

I felt normal, alive, engaged, fulfilled. I enjoyed our conversation and I had fun with two fine human beings.

But before I drove over to my friend’s house, I wavered back and forth. Do I really want to go out? Do I really want to go out? Hmm…now I don’t feel like going out whereas three hours ago, I was super excited about going out.

These are odd times, friends. There are plenty of us out there who have to force ourselves out of the house. Not all the time but sometimes when it feels like the energy expenditure might be too high.

So far, every time I’ve gone out when I didn’t feel like it, I’ve had a grand time with other people who didn’t feel coming out, either.

And when we part ways, we’re all one step closer to feeling like our old, social selves.

And that’s a good thing, even in these strange and mysterious times.

Penultimate

Earlier today, after sharing a lengthy conversation with a man and his wife at Alon’s,  swapping stories of caregiving, death,

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