Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Small Miracle of God With Me

Have you ever been so afraid, your stomach dropped to your toes, your mouth dried to dust and the tears flowed non-stop? Thats how I felt the day I got the letter.

Growing up, I was always the good kid. Its not that I aspired to sainthood, but I had a horror of being accused of some kind of wrongdoing and would turn myself inside out to avoid it. I could be silenced with a look and controlled with a frown. Although this trait modified as I grew older, it never left me. Nothing could turn my world upside down faster than getting in trouble from a higher authority.

I seldom drove into work, but it was necessary on that grey, November day, in order to get there in time to train night staff. I should have left early to compensate, but as often happens, crisis followed incident, and I got away later than expected on a normal day. It had already been dark for an hour, and traffic crawled along the highway when I fell asleep at the wheel. My foot lifted from the brake and I rolled into the car in front of me.

The impact shook my world, literally and figuratively. My glasses flew off when the air bag engaged, and my shaking fingers searched for them in the dark. The man from the car I hit came running back, flailing his arms, yelling what he thought of me into the night. I shook and cried.

The next several hours were a blur of police and tow trucks and driving a rental car home on unfamiliar streets. After a hug and several shaking sobs, my husband and I talked about the implications of my accident. My car was totalled and my insurance would be renewed in another month. What would happen?

I worked my way through this disaster, and managed to buy another car. Because my insurance rate had already been set, it wouldnt affect this year's policy, but there were no guarantees after that. I struggled with fear each time I sat in the drivers seat, but I drove.

Then the letter arrived. I was being sued. The person I hit saw this as an opportunity to work the system, and accused me of every driving sin in the book. His lawyer accused me of drinking, fiddling with the radio dials, using my cellphone, popping drugs and wearing glasses with an out of date prescription. Ridiculous in the extreme, except I struggled with ongoing terror, which diluted the humour for me. I never drink, the radio wasnt on, my phone was in my purse, Id taken no medication and the prescription on my glasses was current. I told the officer I fell asleep at the wheel. That meant my eyes were closed, which seemed to me to be more of an issue than my glasses' prescription.

The person suing me said he had been so damaged by the accident that he could no longer work, and he was suing for more money than I could make in a lifetime. Months passed, and when my insurance came up for renewal, I could no longer afford it. I gave my car away. I wondered if Id ever be able to afford to drive again.

Feeling vulnerable and under attack, I begged God for mercy and help. More letters and more accusations followed. I dreaded reaching into the mailbox.

The insurance company appointed me a lawyer, and with shaking knees, I went to meet him for the first time. Although businesslike and serious, he seemed kind enough. He asked hundreds of questions and required documentation of various kinds. The other lawyer wanted proof from my optometrist that I'd seen her in the last two years.

While all this happened, another drama unfolded in my life. My husband of thirty years had heart disease, and over that year his condition deteriorated until he died. Suddenly being sued wasnt the worst thing in my life.

But the lawsuit hadnt gone away, either. The lawyer wrote to me, asking for the letter from the optometrist for the second time. I wrote back with an apology, saying that I would get it in the next few weeks, but my husband had died and Id been distracted.

I received from him a lovely reply. Something seemed to change at that point. He went from being an appointed attorney to being my champion. He had the other party followed and discovered the man could carry several cases of beer from the liquor store, so was not as injured as he led us to believe. My attorney also coached me when I met with the prosecuting lawyer. He was kind and supportive.

Months passed, and the day came when I received another letter. My attorney explained all charges had been dropped. I was clear.

I wrote him, thanking him for his kindness to me. He replied that in all the years hed been doing this, no one had ever thanked him before. Wow.

Life can be incredibly scary. I dont know if Ive ever felt as alone as I did on the side of the road, in the dark, with that man yelling at me. But even then, God was with me. Through the dark journey of the next year, He held me, carried me, and He sent a wonderful man to be my champion in the frightening world of false accusations and lawsuits. Ive had to go through some incredibly difficult things since then, but the same God is by my side.

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in His love He will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. Zeph. 3:17


Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Care Partner Wednesday--Your Christmas Story

I remember on Christmas morning, my mother would go down to the basement in her nightclothes and light the fireplace. Our tree sparkled with lights and tinsel, and the nativity scene that my father build from orange crates sat on the television. In this cozy glow, after eating a full breakfast, we opened our presents.

Most of us have some kind of memory that we'd like to recreate at Christmas. Family dinners, grandma's plum pudding, walks in the snow, singing carols...the list goes on. Each of us could complete the sentence, "Christmas isn't Christmas without __________."

As care partners, the problem comes with expectations, especially the unrealistic kind.

We may be able to accept that Grandma can no longer cook the turkey like she used to, but we can't conceive that she might not even enjoy attending. We're baffled when Aunt Rita is more excited about a box of tissues and a bottle of hand cream than the cashmere sweater we gave her. And how do you plan when grandpa doesn't remember the names of his grandchildren, and doesn't seem interested?

In your Christmas planning this year, it's important to keep some basic principles in mind.

This year may not be like any other year, and that's okay. It's important to take a long look at what you are expecting, and be willing to modify or give it up. Trying to re-create what you've always done can be a recipe for disaster. Grieve the traditions that matter to you, but be willing to give them up in order to have a peaceful, happy Christmas with you loved one.

Be realistic. In an incident that wasn't related to Christmas,  a family member was looking forward to seeing a movie that had just been released. She asked me if it would be worth trying to take her husband, who had advanced dementia. "Is this something you used to do together?" I asked. She replied that no, he'd never really enjoyed movies. I just looked at her, and without me saying a word, she came to the conclusion, "I guess he wouldn't now, either." Even if a Christmas activity used to be a favourite, that might have changed. Perhaps your loved one loved the bustle of having the family all around him, but can no longer tolerate large, noisy groups. Look at who they are today, and plan accordingly.

Simplify. You don't have to do it all. We put so much expectation on ourselves, almost to the point of ruining the holiday, in some instances. (Of course, this is true for people who aren't care partners, too.) Look at your loved one's abilities and desires, and choose a few activities that are almost sure to be a success. Did you and your mom used to bake together? Choose one or two recipes that are familiar and favourites, and make them together. Even if all she can do is stir or put ingredients you have measured in the bowl, you can share the experience, and the results.

Find the joyous moments. Years from now, all the family meals will melt together in your memory. You might not recall a single present, or what you baked from year to year, but the simple experience that lit up your loved one's face, few words of wisdom or funny quip will live in your memory forever. Spend time, not money or effort. Be together, love, sing and experience the joy of being with your elder.

People change. Circumstances change. Sometimes it's difficult, but we have to change with them. For a few years after my husband died, my son lived at home, and when it was time to get our live tree, he would help me. When he moved away for school, I came to the realization that, for the first time in my life, I needed to buy an artificial tree. It was a difficult decision, and I cried in the store, but after it was up, I realized how much simpler it was. No huge mess of needles to clean up. No expense after the original purchase. It was hard, but now I am sold.

Take back Christmas, and let it be your Christmas story, for you and the elder you love.

Care Partner Wednesday--Your Christmas Story

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Care Partner Wednesday--When Alzheimer's Comes Too Early

Dr. Alice Howland is a renowned linguistics professor, a mother of three grown children, a wife to a loving husband. She was living the dream when her life began to crumble. She forgot a word in a lecture, then got lost on a jog in her neighbourhood. In Still Alice,  Julienne Moore passionately portrays the denial, fear and struggle to come to terms with an impossible diagnosis. In a poignant scene, Alice and her husband are lying facing each other in bed. "I have something to tell you." she begins. "There's something wrong with me."

Any time is too early for Alzheimer's, but if the disease arrives before age 65, it's called "early onset" or "younger onset." It's the same disease, but people with this diagnosis have special challenges.

Diagnosis: It's sometimes difficult to get a diagnosis because doctors aren't looking for Alzheimer's in a younger person. Symptoms are attributed to stress, menopause or depression. It can take longer to know what's wrong, and that period of uncertainty causes its own special hell.

Responsibilities: People in this stage of life aren't elders. They still have jobs, drive cars, have children in high school and university. A diagnosis such as this changes everything, even more dramatically than it does for an elder.

Services: When services are needed, there aren't any available with their peer group. If someone with early onset needs a day program, are they going to spend the day with people in their eighties and be comfortable? Not likely.

Spouses: It's difficult to imagine the pressures on a spouse. Perhaps they go from being a joint breadwinner to the sole provider of the family. For the most part, the needs of their still dependent children are theirs to deal with. They have a job. Friends, who may care but don't understand, drop off. There are few opportunities for relaxation. All of this is apart from the increasing need of their spouse.

Friends: Care partners of an elder sometimes find their position isolating. Their friends care but have no idea how to relate to what they are going through, or how to help. How much more so if the person with the disease is a peer or the spouse of a peer? There's an added dimension, too. Friends sometimes think to themselves, "If this could happen to Alice or John, anything could happen." It may be the first time someone in their fifties is in touch with their own mortality. It's not a comfortable thought, and one solution is to stay away.

So how can you help a family dealing with early onset Alzheimer's?

It's simple, really. Be there.

Depending on the closeness of your relationship, there are plenty of opportunities. If you are friends with the person with Alzheimer's, work hard to keep the friendship as consistent as possible. Do what you used to do together until that doesn't work anymore, then do something else. Do they need stimulation more than anything? Or perhaps they need social situations. Do they need to get out of the house, and do those caring for them need a break? Think of fun, creative ideas to enjoy together.

Listen. Over a cup of coffee, or during a walk together, give them a chance to talk about what they are experiencing and how they feel about it. A listening ear which doesn't belong to their family is a gift.

If your relationship isn't close, look for ways to help the family. A homemade meal, an offer to help with yard work or take the kids to activities one night are all possibilities. Each situation is different, but the common element is caring. Obviously, be sensitive, but look for ways to express caring. Isolation and feeling that no one understands are common among care partners. Use your actions to say, "I may not understand, but I'm here."

Remember the movie? The title was brilliant. Alice was still Alice when she couldn't remember, when she wasn't a professor, when she got lost. She was Alice, a person of value, at every stage of her disease.

As is every person with Alzheimer's.


Care Partner Wednesday--When Alzheimer's Comes Too Early

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Small Miracle of Shining Light in the Darkness

My new favorite poster is a picture of a goldfish wearing a shark costume. It says, "Be brave. Even if you're not, pretend to be." So today, I will pretend to be brave and talk about Hallowe'en.

When my kids were growing up, we did a modified version of Hallowe'en, but they never went trick-or-treating. The first year they were old enough I had a party, but because all their birthdays landed in the fall, I was pretty well partied-out by the end of October. There were a few events at the church that we participated in as a family, and several years we went to Chuck. E. Cheese. They dressed up, they got a few treats and had fun.

My reasons for not allowing trick-or-treating were based on the history of Hallowe'en, it's evil roots, and the fact that I didn't want them to have that much candy. Theology and practical mothering combined. I wanted to protect my children from evil, and this seemed to be a way to do it. Another part of the truth is that I was fearful of the influence of the celebration on them. Much of my parenting was about fear, and it wasn't healthy.

I've changed my mind.

My intentions were good but other than modifying the flow of candy through our house, they accomplished little. My children weren't blind or unintelligent, and they understood the glorifying of death and murder and gore that so much of the celebration entailed. They understood, and it didn't scar them. Being set apart from the other kids, and missing out on the fun because of our faith--that might have left a scar or two.

The words of Maya Angelou have helped me deal with the guilt of decisions I regret in my parenting: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." I know better now, and I'm trying to do better.

Here's where I stand: Halloween originated in pagan festivals in ancient Britain and Ireland. That's historical fact. But I don't live where the pagan festivals are practiced. In 21st century North America, I live in a community where Moms and Dads bring their kids around in costumes and the kids get candy. Everyone laughs and admires what the kids are wearing. Neighbours talk, and community happens.

Four years ago, I decided to try something that, for me, was radical and brave.

When I outgrew trick-or-treating, my mother shut off all the lights in the house and retired to the basement on Hallowe'en. That bothered me. I didn't want to be the person who shut off the lights.  I decided to take my Keurig outside and offer coffee and tea to the adults who shivered down the street. For a shy introvert, it was a radical move. What if people thought I was crazy. Who did that, anyway? But I wanted to be a light, rather than turning off the lights.

The first year, it was a stretch. People looked at me strangely, and only a few took me up on my offer. But those that did left smiling and happy, and that gave me courage for the next year. Four years later, neighbours come looking for my place and their treat. I served 23 cups of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate this year, talked to my next door neighbour, joked with parents and loved the feeling that I was a part of the community. For a tiny investment of money and a few hours of my time, I got spread light and warmth.

It's different at work, too. Years ago, Hallowe'en wasn't acknowledged on the calendar, let alone celebrated at work. Now, we dress up, and the elder's faces light up. We give them hats and other regalia to wear, and they gladly become pirates, clowns, and cats. We take pictures and admire ourselves and generally act goofy. We laugh. A lot. In this community, too, the celebration of Hallowe'en is innocent and fun and a time to enjoy ourselves together.

So, I do Hallowe'en. I'm thankful for the opportunity to shine my light in my world--even if it's inside a pumpkin.

The Small Miracle of Shining Light in Darkness