Elder care is a challenge, with a significant learning curve. How do you keep going when the tasks ahead are overwhelming and you are running on empty?
I’ve led a fairly quiet life for 20+ years. Then, 5 years ago the dam burst and my life has been in high gear ever since.
What do I mean by “quiet”? Well, my husband and I don’t have any children, therefore, none of the excitement and drama that goes hand-in-hand with raising children. We have 15 nieces and nephews plus their significant others, as well as 11 great-nieces and nephews. We’ve played a small part in all of their lives, but certainly not to the extent of being a parent with the day-to-day responsibilities and challenges associated with child-rearing.
So, what happened five years ago that changed everything? Well, a couple of things:
Out house burned to the ground in a wildfire (see 20-part series starting with Any Way the Wind Blows)
We built a new house
My parents, an elderly aunt and two elderly cousins health declined significantly, thrusting me into major life-changing decisions for all of them including: major hospital stays followed by stints in rehab facilities, legal challenges, moving all to assisted living and selling 2 of their homes, dealing with their financial affairs because they are no longer able to manage them, making health care decisions and managing their wellness with and without their contributions in these matters
The death of one of them
Personal health crises of two very dear friends
Dealing with our own personal health scares (both me and my husband)
While the following description of a two-day period is not meant to illustrate a “normal” day, it serves as a reminder to me that we all do “what we have to do” to get through life’s trials and tribulations.
First, the background leading up to the two-day event:
My father fell on October 9, 2010 and broke his neck. He was in a skilled nursing facility recovering from a previous fall that had taken place on September 11th. I remember these days clearly because of the historical implications of September 11th. In fact, when he fell that day, he was watching the anniversary specials on television. So, on September 11th, he fell, hit his head on a glass coffee table, cutting his head open and ended up in emergency, then in the hospital and then in skilled nursing. While in skilled nursing in September and October of 2010, he was in an alarmed wheelchair and an alarmed bed because he was considered a “fall risk.” However, due to dementia issues, that did not prevent him from getting out of those and on October 9th, he got out of his wheelchair, took a step forward, lost his balance, fell backward and broke his neck. This all happened in split second slow motion and nothing the care staff of the skilled nursing facility could have done would have prevented it.
I arrived for a regularly scheduled visit that day to find my father on the floor surrounded by paramedics. They had arrived minutes before me and were stabilizing him for a trip to the ER. At the time, we didn’t know he had broken his neck, but the paramedics were great in stabilizing him for transport so no further damage occurred from this fall.
Also at the time, my mother was a resident in the same skilled nursing facility. In fact, my parents shared a room. This was a somewhat unusual occurrence in that they were there at the same time. Normally, the pattern has been this:
My father is hospitalized for something (he’s had multiple surgeries, 3 significant falls and he has heart disease). At his age (80+), once he is hospitalized, he’s there for 3 to 7 days and then released to skilled nursing for rehab. He’s in skilled nursing anywhere from 20 days to 3 months. During this time, my mother visits him every day, spending hours and hours with him, neglecting her own health. By the time my dad is ready to be discharged and sent home, my mother ends up in the hospital herself with her own major health crisis followed by her own stints in skilled nursing for rehab. They usually happen back-to-back instead of simultaneously, and my father is released for home while my mother is just starting her internment.
This has been an ongoing pattern now for 4 years and no amount of coaxing, coaching, and cajoling to the two of them about what they “should and shouldn’t” do has changed this pattern (see Murphy’s Law). The two of them have been hospitalized so many times over the last five years that I’ve lost count. All I can say is that the devotion they have for on another after 62 years of marriage is awe-inspiring.
Anyway, my mother wanted to go to the hospital with the paramedics. Of course she couldn’t because she was an “inmate” at the skilled nursery facility and they weren’t going to let her go. So, over the next several days, she wheedled the staff, jumped through hoops on her own recovery and was given a release date a few days in the future.
In the meantime, my sister was scheduled for her own neck surgery. This was pre-arranged prior to my father’s fall and had been on the calendar for months. So, on the scheduled date, Tiffany (her daughter) drove her to the hospital as planned (a different hospital from where my father was), and during pre-op, she finds out she has an infection and they send her home with antibiotics and instructions that they will reschedule her surgery in a few days after the antibiotics have started to work.
As luck would have it, her surgery is rescheduled on the same day as my mother’s scheduled release from skilled nursing. And, her surgery is scheduled at a “surgery center” 40 miles from her home. So, she called me the evening before and tells me that she can’t find ANYONE who can take her to the surgery center the next day and would I do it?
So, here’s what happened over that two-day period (note: by this time of year – October – I was completely out of both sick leave and vacation because of dealing with my parents’ healthcare needs, so could NOT take the day off from work):
I leave my house at 4:30 a.m. to pick up my sister at her house at 5:00 a.m.
We arrive at the surgery center at 6:00 a.m. and I leave her all alone at 8:00 a.m. to make it to work by 9:00 a.m. So, she has her surgery with no one there for moral support.
At noon, I leave work and drive to the skilled nursing facility to get my mother released from the hoosegow.
At 1:00 p.m., I drive my mother to my father’s hospital (they hadn’t seen each other for several days at that point). We arrive about 1:30 p.m., I settle my mother in my father’s hospital room (I figure she is safe there – after all, it is a hospital!) and I leave to go back to work and arrive at around 2:30 p.m.
I work until 6:30 p.m. (to make up the extra time I used at lunchtime) and drive to my father’s hospital. I pick up my mother, driver her to the drugstore to pick up her new medications, then drive her to the grocery store and grocery shop for her. At this point, neither parent has lived in their home for an entire month (this is before they moved permanently to assisted living last November), so there are no groceries in the house. With medications and groceries in hand, I take my mother home and get her settled.
It’s now after 8:00 p.m. and I drive to my sister’s surgery center 40 miles away and arrive at about 9:00 p.m. Considered “out-patient” surgery, she was supposed to be released that night. When I arrived, she and two nurses are the only people left in the surgery center. She’s having a bad reaction to the anesthesia, so they decided she needs to spend the night. I stay with her for a couple of hours, attempting moral support through her ghastly reaction to the anesthesia. They tell me to come back at 6:00 a.m. the next morning and promised that she would be released.
So, I left a midnight, arrive home at 1:00 a.m., fall into bed and get up again at 4:00 a.m., so that I could get to the surgery center by 6:00 a.m.
I arrive at the surgery center on time. The staff tells me that they have to wait for a phone call from the surgeon before they can release her.
By 8:00 a.m., no one has heard from the surgeon and they could not get hold of the surgeon so I tell the staff I have to leave and go to work, but I can pick her up at noon.
I get to work at 9:00 a.m.
At noon, I drive to the surgery center and she is still not ready to be released.
My sister is released at 2:00 p.m. and Tiffany and the Princesses P pick her up and take her home.
Needless to say, I was completely worn out physically and rung out emotionally on every level from this chain of events. But, this experience taught me that I have more physical and emotional strength than I knew I had.
The picture above at the top of this post is one of our wheelchairs in the bushes. “Wheelchairs?” you question, as in two? Yes, we have two wheelchairs. This is the larger of the two. Before my mother’s most recent hospitalization, I thought it would be nice to take my mother to visit my father, since they are now separated and in two different facilities. So, I decided I should load this larger one into the trunk of my car.
I got it out of the garage and wheeled it towards the car and then realized I had forgotten my keys and couldn’t open the trunk. So, I left the wheelchair outside beside my car and went into the house to retrieve my keys. I came out a few minutes later and not wheelchair!
I go back into the garage, thinking I had lost my mind (wouldn’t be the first time) and just dreamt I’d gotten the wheelchair out. No wheelchair in the garage. I go back outside and am standing there staring, wracking my brain and trying to figure out what happened. My husband, Charlie, says “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know where I put the wheelchair!”
He points into the distance and says gleefully, “It’s over there.”
Following his finger, I saw the wheelchair across the driveway, resting in the plumbago bushes! I forgot to set the brakes.
When times are tough, you barrel through them, even if you are “running on empty”…
(other posts on elder care)