Meg from Vermont
It's the call no adult child wants to get. My 80-year-old mother was being rushed to the hospital again. After years of being an athlete and energetic, mom's health had been in a steady decline for five years. Over the course of five years my four siblings and I had rushed her to the hospital many times for problems including difficulty breathing, a fall that resulted in a severely fractured shoulder, and heart failure. Every time we wondered if she would recover or if this was "it".
Her heart, that had been so strong for most of her life was failing rapidly. She had a pacemaker, but her doctor told us that with 10% heart function and other complications she was not a candidate for more surgery. There was little we could do but make her comfortable. It was time to think about palliative care and hospice.
Shortly after my father died from Alzheimer's my mother's health began to decline. They were high school sweethearts and after 60 plus years of marriage, the transition to living and caring for herself alone was difficult. Like many families, we were close however we have busy lives and didn't live near mom. This meant we were not able to take look after her full time. Initially we relied on a network of nurses, aides, and a sibling tag- team approach to checking in on mom and making sure she was cared for. We ordered a "I've fallen, and I can't get up" emergency care call button that mom wore like a necklace. It was meant to give us peace of mind, and to be fair it did, however it didn't solve the nagging feeling that we were failing at caring for her. Her health was on a downward spiral with intermittent good days, of good humor and enough energy to go shopping. But by the fall of her 80th year, it looked like the end of her life was near.
After a long visit spent cleaning and stocking her kitchen with healthy food, I went for a walk on the beach near her house to get some air and to figure out how to move forward with her increasingly demanding care. I'd walked this particular beach many times in the past with my dad after we learned of his Alzheimer's diagnosis. One of the last times we walked he was aware and clear thinking enough to know that what lay ahead of him was an emotional and mental struggle, and eventually a fading away of everything he knew and understood. It broke his heart that my mother would be burdened by caring for him. That was not what they had planned for their retirement. As was his nature he didn't dwell on his pain, instead he asked me about a new job I had at a University, as a lifelong educator he was happy to share his experience on navigating the politics of education. We laughed a little, mostly we were silent. He tapped his fingers nervously against his leg as we walked, a habit I'd come to recognize later when his disease had progressed to a point where he was afraid and confused, as a sign of his discomfort.
I faced what many adult children face. Beloved parents who are sick and who we are unable to adequately care for. Even though my mom was with my dad until the end, we all wondered is there anything else we could have done? The truth for me is I was never comfortable not being able to be there for my parents in the last years of their life. Practical realities though made it clear we didn't have many choices and we needed to do the best we could. We hired caregivers and for mom we began to explore assisted living. My mother didn't want to move. I understood. No matter how fancy the community, she couldn't shake the feeling (and neither could I) that she was in God's waiting room.
We made a radical change. The last time my mom was admitted to the hospital and in intensive care, I realized she couldn't go home…and she stubbornly refused assisted living…and was also too proud to live with her kids. I decided to try a compromise. I would bring mom home with me for a few weeks or months. I believed it was the end of her days and wanted to be with her. We had a tiny one room apartment in our garage, that with the help of a contractor friend we renovated while my mom was in the hospital. She was so sick and tired she didn't have the energy to refuse our offer. I promised her she'd have her own space, but we would be close, and she could see her granddaughter. I had no idea what I was doing. I only knew that for centuries families had lived and cared for multiple generations and we would work it out. I understand it is not something that everyone can do, but for our family it was worth the financial stretch, time commitment and emotional energy to make it happen. I asked myself, why else are we here if not to love and care for the ones closest to us? It wasn't easy or convenient and I couldn't have imagined the hurdles we would encounter and overcome.
The total unexpected happened: when we brought mom home she was too weak to walk, and I thought we were going to care for her for the last 3 months of her life. I enlisted the help of friends and family to make her last days comfortable. And late at night, unwilling I guess to see my mom die, I researched who had survived severe congestive heart failure. I figured if someone had survived maybe we could extend her life. I came across the work of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, PREVENT AND REVERSE HEART DISEASE. With little else to go on, I followed his directions and changed my mom's diet to strictly whole food plant-based nutrition. By this time, she had no appetite, and refused most food. We fed her small fruit and vegetable smoothies and soups. Remarkably, after 3 months she appeared to get slightly better. She could walk around her little apartment and soon in the months that followed she was able to walk up the driveway and back. After 6 months the color returned to her cheeks and she visited with and held her baby granddaughter every day. Research shows that eating a whole food plant-based diet can positively impact many of the chronic diseases the elderly suffer from, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and even Alzheimer's. A miracle?
Six Years later, at 87 she is better than ever. Her heart function is significantly better (near normal), she drives, swims four times a week and recently started ukulele lessons. She still lives in the little apartment we renovated, and we have grown as a family navigating the ups and downs of being a daughter and caregiver. Some people say she is a miracle, but we know the real miracle is she went from eating foods that hurt to foods that heal. We also incorporated some specific changes into our routines to help us all be as healthy as possible.
Top tips to help caregivers thrive:
1. Build self-care into your schedule. I can see you nodding, yes, yes. But if you are like most caregivers you'd rather give this advice than take it. This time take the advice- as a caregiver you understand schedules and showing up even when you might not feel like it. Here's where you can put that skill to work for maximum effectiveness. Caregivers are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves. Sometimes it's a weird martyr issue but more times than not, they just don't get how important it is to be committed to basic self-care until it is too late. You'll know you've crossed the line when you are irritable, discontent, tired, and frustrated for much of your day. You may also notice small health changes, you've gained weight, lost interest in exercise especially playing and you have eaten cereal for dinner more than twice in the last week.
2. Eat a plant-based diet: eating a plant-based diet saved my mother's life. It also changed mine, my energy level, my mental clarity and my joie de vie increased when I changed my diet. I lost extra weight effortlessly, and those aches and pains that come from middle age disappeared and I was able to handle stress better. If eating a more plant centric diet is new to you, begin by checking out recipes online to get started. If you begin by eating even 1-2 plant-based meals a day you will notice significant improvement in your energy and health. It's easier to get started than you think.
3. Sleep like a baby: which means to sleep when you are tired, nap if you can. Everyone says get more sleep, and yet few people follow do. Why are sleep habits so are hard to change? For some, that last hour or two at night when you should be sleeping are their only "me" or "we" time that they get for the day. For others their anxiety level rises at night when it is quiet. Not being able to shut off their mind, is common for caregivers' lack of sleep.
Here are a few easy tips to help have a great night sleep:
-Turn off your phone or put it in another room. You know why. It's easy for an hour to fly mindlessly checking Facebook or email. Try it for a week and see how much better you feel.
-Take a hot bath or shower before bed. Heat and steam help you relax and the drop-in body temp after a hot shower or bath may cue your brain to sleep.
-Eat a banana with a little peanut butter before bed. Bananas are a good source of potassium and magnesium which are natural relaxants. Bananas also have tryptophan (like turkey) which converts to the relaxing neurotransmitter serotonin and melatonin
PRO TIP: Be aware of your "RE-DECIDER".
-A re-decider is the friendly gremlin in your head that convinces you to change your mind just as you are about to make healthy steps in the right direction. Re-deciders are charming sales people who tell you just the right benefit of not doing what you planned to convince you to put off change until tomorrow.
-How to spot your re-decider? A re-decider likes to stay up late, drink too much coffee, look at their Facebook feed one more time, check their email, read another chapter of a book, fuss over what they haven't done, reorganize things late at night, eat cake before bed, get their best ideas when everyone else in the whole house is asleep.
-Prepare for your re-decider to show up in full charm once you've decided to make a change and have a simple plan to combat it. One of my favorites is to say out loud, "Hey, I know your re-decider. But I've got this, I'm sticking with my plan, I'll stay up late next week." Saying words out loud may sound hokey but there is a compelling reason- it brings the wonky reasoning that's been tripping you up out into the light and like a vampire, once in the light your re-decider loses much of its power.