Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The small miracle of the first year

A year ago today, my life changed forever.

It started on Valentine's Day, when I received my first email from the man who was to become my husband. Both of us had been actively searching for a long time, and both had almost given up. Both had made mistakes, and both had an "Oh wow!" moment when we realised God had answered our prayers.

We knew almost immediately that we would marry, but the news of Hunter's immanent heart surgery put things into fast forward. Sort of. From the diagnosis and pronouncement of the need for "emergency" surgery, we waited six weeks for a date. We wanted to be married before the surgery, but a complicating fact was that I had to be out of town for five days in April for a course I was taking. As the date of my flight neared, I desperately prayed for the God who had brought us together to work out the details. If I didn't go, I would lose a year's worth of work.

The call came the day before I was to leave. Surgery was in seven days--the day after I returned. After several minutes of panic and a few phone calls, it was arranged that we would be married at my friend's house the day before surgery. I left and my three wonderful bridesmaids took over everything.

On the Sunday night, I returned home. Monday I went to work. On Monday night, April 30, 2012, Hunter and I were married in a lovely ceremony among seventeen family and friends.

The next day, he had a quadruple bypass.

It's been a year of changes and adjustments, just like any first year of marriage.

He's learned that his clothes disappear every day, and eventually return clean. ("What's the adjustment in that?" you may say. But for a guy who lived alone for a long time, it was disconcerting at first to go looking for the pants he wore yesterday which were "perfectly clean" and find them gone.) He's learned that sometimes I cry. (Tears make him panic.) He's learned to give me notice about a change in plans. (Refer back to "tears" sentence.)

I've learned to check all pockets before taking clothes for laundry. I washed his wallet twice. (And my cell phone. Sigh.) I've learned that poker night with his friends (no money involved, just guys having fun) is a great thing. I've learned that if every I am in trouble of any kind, he's right there for me.

In many ways, it's been like any other first year of marriage, but there are differences. We are older, and through many painful experiences, we have learned things.

We have learned not to sweat the small stuff. Issues considered hugely important and causing many serious discussions and even fights in our twenties  are laughed off now. Not that we never have "discussions", but it's got to matter. Age has helped us set priorities.

We have learned to take nothing for granted. To be thankful for every day we have together. To treat every day as a gift.

We have learned to have fun. Actually, I am learning and Hunter is teaching me. He's always been good at this and I never have, but I am learning to set aside fears and try things. Life is short, and full of experiences. The choice is mine whether I hide from them or embrace them. I choose to embrace.

We have learned to be flexible. The nature of his work means that I'm never sure when he will be home or what a day will bring. That would have driven me nuts at one point in my life, but I have learned to have plan A, B, C and D in my mind, and if none of them work, we will go to E. It's okay. Take a deep breathe.

More than anything, we have learned to thank God. Again and again. We have know the searing pain of lonliness, and God heard our prayer and gave us each other.

"Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." James 1:17


Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Caregiver Wednesdays- Out of control without boundaries

Our dog has a dual personality.

When my husband is home, he is the most compliant, peaceful little fellow. If he is in trouble, Hunter only has to call his name and he stops the bad behaviour. I have seen his already short legs at half mast as he crawls to him, craving approval. His little halo and wings are clearly visible.

When he is alone with me, a different dog appears. Demon dog.

Even though I take him for walks, get up in the night in answer to his barks, and feed him, he doesn't crave my approval. Me, he plays like an instrument.

On Monday, I had the day off and was enjoying a more leisurely pace. While drinking my second cup of coffee, I was preparing breakfast and cut a few slices from a sizable chunk of cheese. Bailey jumped to the counter and seized it, dashing over his self-proclaimed race course around the living room, dining room and through the kitchen, with me in hot pursuit. I ran, I yelled, I fumed. Bailey ate and ran. Finally, he stopped under the table and looked at me. A tiny crumb of cheese fell to the floor. His snack was finished.

A caregiver without boundaries is like me running around the house after the dog.

There's a feeling of helplessness. Things are out of control, and I can't get the reigns of control back.

The "out of control" feeling can lead to depression. "Oh, what's the use. I'll never get this dog to obey me. In fact, I'm useless as a dog owner. I just can't ever get it right."

Frustration can quickly turn to rage, which could lead to abuse.

For all these reasons, caregivers need to establish boundaries in their caregiving situation.

Sometimes you're too close to the situation. Here are some questions that can help you discern whether you need to look at some boundaries in caregiving.

1) Sometimes overwhelming situations creep up on us. In what areas of your situation do you find it difficult to keep balance?

2) Is it difficult for you to hand over the reigns to others? What are your strategies for getting help?

3) Do you know when it's time to say "no"? How do you recognise when it's time to do that?

4) What area of "taking care of yourself" is most difficult for you? What strategies do you use to overcome this?

Do it today. Don't wait until you are in a "chasing the dog" kind of situation!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Caregiver Wednesdays- The "how" of boundaries

Some people are so good at the boundaries thing.

When you approach them about doing something, you know they will carefully consider it.T hey will look at the busyness of their schedule, the demands of their family and whether they are actually drawn to an activity. They may pray about it. When they come back to you with an answer, you have the confidence that they have thoroughly considered it, and if the answer is "no" there is no sting, because you know it was given careful consideration. If they say "yes"you know that they are there for you in that activity 100%. They know how to put up boundaries, and how to function well within them.

I am not that person.

As a people pleaser, I have taken on far too much over the years, and driven myself to exhaustion trying to fulfil my obligations. Then I have gone to the other extreme, and said "no" to everything because I was recovering from my over-extension. I have taken on things that weren't my gift at all, and missed out on opportunities I should have taken.

I'm not good at boundaries.

Because the role of caregiver can be so demanding, this is a skill you have to learn. Especially if you are doing it full time, but even if you are being a friend and visiting an elderly person, boundaries are important. Without them, no one is benefiting.

How do you set a boundary? Here are a few suggestions from someone who has struggled with this.

1) Spend some time at a quiet moment assessing the situation. What are you doing now? What is being asked? How is what you are doing affecting the other relationships in your life?

2) Think about the person you are serving. Is what they are asking coming from a practical need ("I need help to get to my doctor's appointment.") or are they expressing something else? ("I wish you'd visit more often." may mean something like "I'm lonely."

3) Is this something that you should be doing, or should it come from someone else? Sometimes what you need to do is not what is requested, but to widen the caregiver base, so there are more people to help.

4) Listen to what is not being said. Complaints and demands may come from actual need, or they be an indication of someone dealing with their situation. Maybe what you need to give is a listening ear and understanding.

5) Come with your speech prepared. If you need to say "no", think through your reasons and have alternative suggestions. Listen. But don't be manipulated into changing your mind.

6) It bears repeating--Good fences make good neighbours. If you don't set boundaries in a caregiving situation, it can lead to an unhealthy, co-dependant relationship. If that happens, no one is happy, or is properly served.

7) Be prepared for fall-out. Your loved one may not be happy with what you have said. You may have to live with that for a while.

8) Pray. While you are assessing the situation, before talking to the person, while talking to them and after. God will give you wisdom and backbone and patience to endure.

I know.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Caregiver Wednesdays- The why of boundaries

Barbara was at her wit's end. She had made the difficult decision to give up a job in finance to look after her mother. She knew she'd be alright financially, but wondered if she could really fulfil that role in her mother's life. She'd prayed about it, and it seemed the right thing to do.

But now, several months into it, she was frustrated. Beyond that, there were times she was angry at the demands her mother made on her. Then she felt guilty. Then she cried.

Barbara needs to build a fence. Remember: good fences make good neighbours? This applies to many relationships. Anyone in your life that starts knocking down fences and barging onto your lawn is  someone with whom you will have a strained relationship.

Think about personal space. Everyone has a boundary in how close you want other people to come. When I am on a packed subway and mushed against people I wouldn't normally get up close and personal with, I don't make eye contact. It's a way for both of us to create some kind of boundary.

Years ago, I knew someone who got closer to me than I was comfortable with. As she talked to me, I would subltly back up, until I felt the wall at my back. I asked a friend, "Why does she do that?" The answer was simple. Her personal space was closer than mine.

Back to boundaries. Someone like Barbara has to realize that even though she is full time caregiver for her mother, she can't (and shouldn't) try to meet all her needs.


1) Barbara will go nuts.
2) It fosters an unhealthy relationship. Nobody should be at another person's beck and call.
3) Mother needs other relationships in her life. She needs other people meeting her needs and (radical thought) she needs to give to thers.
4) Both Barbara and her mother will be happier with some boundaries.

Next week...the how of boundaries.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Caregiver Wednesdays- Boundaries pt.1

"Good fences make good neighbours." said the poet. Maybe his neighbour said it, too.

I have no fence on my front yard, and my neighbour and I share the space. Their kids run over my part and my dogs run over his. We both make it work, and it's not a big deal. Why? Because we spend very little time in the front yard. We use it to come and go, but seldom sit out there.

The back yard--now that's another story. In the back yard, we barbecue, and they have parties and we sit and watch the stars and their kids play. The back yard has a solid, six-foot fence, Good fences make good neighbours.

I've never been good at boundaries. Boundaries can mean confrontation, and I hate confrontation. But in a caregiving relationship, boundaries can mean the difference between being able to continue at this demanding task or falling apart. There are times when it's appropriate to say "no" or to ask someone to help or to look for other ways of doing something. The subject of boundaries is closely related to last month's topic of caregiver stress. The caregiver who has not learned when it is appropriate to establish a boundary is a stressed caregiver. You can't do it all.

What makes it so difficult is there are no hard and fast rules. Unlike fences, boundaries can move. They aren't the same for everyone, or every day. Caregivers know that the situation changes--sometimes daily. Some days are better than others, and your loved one can do more. Boundaries in caregiving have to be flexible. But you must have them.

Vicki Racker, MD, in an article called Setting Limits as a Caregiver, says, "most caregivers are more effective and open-hearted when they know where their boundaries are, and they protect them. With boundaries, we can find personal renewal while caregiving, and find the strength to cope when life gets chaotic."

How do you know when to set a boundary? What might it look like? How do I know if it needs to change? How do I deal with the guilt I feel?

These are all topics we will explore, but I will end with this story, which illustrates that there are no absolutes.

When I was caregiver for my husband, it got intense at the end. He was in hospital, sometimes for weeks at a time, and I had to keep working. We needed my income. During his last hospital stay, he was moved to the city. I worked all day, and then go to the hospital. I picked up something to eat and took it to his room, where we shared the next few hours. Then I would take transit home (an hour's trip) and begin it all again the next day. Up at 5:00 am, commute to work, work all day, to the hospital, visit and home. Obviously, I couldn't keep that up forever.

During that time, I had the strong sense that I needed to be at the hospital every night. He was alone all day, and those few hours were his oasis. Even when the kids came to visit, I still wanted to be there. I was exhausted. Wisdom would say I needed to set a boundary. My heart said I needed to keep going. What I didn't know was that we were experiencing the last few weeks of his life. Those moments together were precious and important, and I'm glad I did it.

Set boundaries, but listen to your heart.