About caregivingstinks

We hope to mix hope, tenderness and an occasional laugh with tales of frustration, hard work and bodily waste.

“To The Other Mother”

Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.  (Romans 16:13)

Joey 21 McNally

Mother’s Day is here  – let’s show some love for all the moms!  I want to honor Melissa, not only for giving birth to our two sons, but for the long term momming that went into raising a son with special needs to adulthood.  (re: the picture – no, he doesn’t drink.  It was just a milestone to celebrate his 21st birthday in a place that required him to reach 21.  Strictly a burger run).

I know from years of church experience that piling on the Mother’s Day sentiment can have unintended consequences.  Women who are not birth moms, or who can’t be, or who lost a child, or who are estranged from their kids might perceive a “second class female” label being slapped on them when church services set aside the Gospel and function more like a Hallmark holiday.

I don’t think that means we should eliminate Mothers Day but we should be aware of its limits.  Giving birth is not the only value to a woman’s existence and, frankly, there’s more to being a mom than giving birth and having a baby shower. We need to watch out for romanticizing and minimizing what should be serious, sacrificial and lifelong effort.  (Motherhood in this fullest sense is quite Christ-like).

The full expression of motherhood involves care giving.  I’ve watched Melissa’s role continually evolve as our boys age.  She’s always their care giver, even as they grow in adult independence.  She continues to be a source of “home” for them, even across distance.

I quoted Saint Paul at the top of these thoughts.  In an easy-to-skip ending to one of his letters, where he’s writing a lot of “Say ‘Hi’ to so-and-so” pleasantries, he mentions a fellow Christian named Rufus and then asks his readers to greet Rufus’ unnamed mother, who, Paul writes, has been a mother to me as well. 

What form this took we don’t know.  We know that Paul’s ministry kept him on the road; perhaps Rufus’ mom gave the Apostle a sense of home base and family when he visited Rome.  Paul mentions ailments in some of his letters; perhaps Rufus’ mom gave him respite and comfort.  And Paul’s life was full of hardships and hostile confrontations; perhaps the mothering he received from this unnamed woman was in simple hospitality, human warmth and affirming words when they crossed paths.  In a world that beat Paul physically and emotionally, this lady’s glad hug and smiling “Welcome back, stranger!” would have been the medicine of motherly love (I remember the days when our kids seemed to get better from bugs by just sitting on Melissa’s lap for a bit.)

In her book Teaching Diamonds in the Tough, Cleo Lampos includes a chapter entitled To The Other Mother.  She lauds those who step in to give care in ways that make them mothers to the world’s needy children of all ages,

DiamondsIn our family, my Aunt Lois served as our unofficial foster care system.  At one time or another, Aunt Lois took care of most of my cousins for varying lengths of time and for differing reasons.  Her frame house in mid-Iowa became a refuge for my sister and me for over a year as my mother battled with an alcoholic husband in another state.  Aunt Lois provided stability and protection at a time when my sister and I displayed emotional signs from abuse.  She infused us with hope because we had lost ours.  Aunt Lois became “our other mother.” 

To women like… Aunt Lois, a lot of adults owe debts of gratitude that can never be paid.  The “other mother” saved our lives.

So I take this Mother’s Day on the calendar to give thanks for all of the mothers on the job out there; those like Melissa who gave birth and continue to nurture those lives decades later,  and to all the “other mothers” who give care and bring forth new life when others have the blues…

 

 

Two deaths, one love

Jean Vanier died on May 7th.  He was a gentle presence who moved people to significant action and life changes.  I was privileged to hear him speak about twenty years ago in Southern California.

Vanier founded L’Arche and Faith and Light,  now more than 1,500 communities in which “people with and without intellectual disabilities” live more as families than as professional caregivers and patients.  As Vanier said of L’Arche,

Genuine healing happens here, not in miraculous cures, but through mutual respect, care, and love. Paradoxically, vulnerability becomes a source of strength and wholeness, a place of reconciliation and communion with others.

He translated family-style care giving into “institutions,”  encouraging vulnerable amateurs to practice companionship and respect rather than technique.  His approach has been replicated in communities around the world, and to needs beyond intellectual disabilities.

Today…

Bill… I went to the conference center at the community agency that is the home for our son with autism.  They were holding a memorial service for Bill, one of the four other men with whom our son shares a group home.  Bill died late last month.

The seats of the ample conference hall were filled.

The current staff and residents, including our son Joey, were all there.

Other employees of the agency were there.

Other recipients of agency services came.

Former employees who knew Bill, including the Pastor who led the service, were there.

When given an opportunity to share memories of Bill, there was no lack of speakers, prepared and impromptu.

A message that echoed through the memories recalled the values that Jean Vanier carried in his work and that many caregivers who’ve never heard of him carry in theirs:

We’re not staff and clients, we are more like family.

There was a slide show of Bill’s life and a display of his favorite things.  The whole event reflected “person centered care,” valuing Bill not only as part of the community, but as an enrichment of it.

Bill’s warmth – manifested notably in a thunderous Hi! and sweeping wave of his hand to group home visitors  – was a gift to our family as we went through the emotional time of transitioning our son into his new house.  We trusted the staff and liked the house’s set up, but to experience immediate warmth like Bill’s was an extra that softened the big change in our family’s life.

Bill’s loved ones donated his belongings to the home to use as needed, and Joey inherited a recliner chair that he’d coveted and attempted more than once to occupy.  We will still think of it as “Bill’s chair.”

Jean Vanier, known around the world, and Bill, loved locally, merge into one.  Both reflect a community of love – relationships entered into vulnerably – as the model for care giving.

I came away from Bill’s service red eyed but uplifted.  The community is diminished, temporarily, yet lives in love.

Whatever their gifts, or their limitations, people are all bound together in a common humanity. Everyone is of unique and sacred value and everyone has the same dignity and the same rights.  (Jean Vanier)

…we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

Hi!  (Bill Wilde)

 

Puppy Dog Tales

Yesterday was the long anticipated Sunday night battle on Game of Thrones introduction of our son with autism, Joey, and our new puppy, Henry.

It was, well, autistic?

Henry wiggled up all full of canine cuteness and joy and Joey didn’t make eye contact.

“Joey, this is Henry” we squealed with caregiver cuteness and joy.

“No” came the J-man’s “I’m not interested” reply.

Henry Peter Griffin pose

Reminds me of Peter Griffin after a fall on Family Guy.

Henry sulked.  His 8 puny weeks of life have been non stop adoration by the cosmos.  When we apologized for posting so many puppy pictures on social media, several people replied “There’s no such thing as too many puppy pictures.”

So Henry had his first moment of existential rejection, courtesy of autism.

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It’s not that Joey doesn’t care.  His affect was aloof when it came to Lily, our dear departed Black Lab.    But when we she spent a night with the vet Joey wore a distressed face and kept saying “Lily’s not here.”

Henry just experienced one of the stinky things about care giving.  You put your emotions out and you don’t get the responses you want.  We’ve been relatively blessed, as Joey has been emotionally connected (albeit expressed in some roundabout ways); many families of people with autism would kill to get even some roundabout engagement.

Lily last picture

In her day, Lily wasn’t put off by Joey’s autism.  She would hover protectively after he suffered seizures.  And in my very last picture of her  – wouldn’t you know it – she’s sharing sunshine with Joey by last year’s freshly cut Christmas tree.

 

As for Sophia the cat?  fuggedaboutit

 

Be a voice while waiting for a voice

APRIL IS AUTISM AWARENESS MONTH

A mother with considerable language skill shares about coming to terms with her daughter’s autism:  

As a speaker of English, Italian, French and Russian, the fact that my daughter did not have speech was a constant source of despair…Yes, I still find myself hoping that one day my daughter will speak to me and tell me all about what it’s like be autistic, but for now, I can wait.

The mom makes use of her local newspaper to share insight into autism and the needs of family caregivers.  Being a voice for those in our care and for caregivers can spread not only awareness but opportunities for support and compassion:

Without a support group, I had no guidance on how to deal with issues created by my daughter’s condition in public, so I did the best I could to be honest and take responsibility.

When a stranger would scold my daughter or shout at her for behaving inappropriately in public, I would say, “I’m sorry. My daughter has autism. We meant no offense.”

I didn’t know how people would react, and I was surprised by the response I got. Often the person would say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

But sometimes they would say, “I have three grandchildren with autism,” or “My niece and nephew have autism,”or “My best friend’s son has severe ADHA and is on the spectrum.”

On at least one occasion, a complete stranger came up to me afterwards,, and told me about a member of their family with a disability.

There are a lot of us out there, and if you follow the news on autism, there are more of us every day.

Often we would take a few minutes to talk about the difficulties involved with rearing a child with a disability and the stress, not just about behavior, but also of not knowing where they will be developmentally in 10 years, or 20 years, or after you’re gone.

I learned that I wasn’t alone.

Recently, a group of us in Yankton formed our own “Mothers of Disabled Children” support group. It’s small, and we’ve only met a couple of times, but I already look forward to hearing about what’s going on with the other moms and their kids — without judgement.

It is a great example of communication with the community, both in the happenstance encounters she describes and in the intentional formation of groups and use of local information sources.

 

Rules of Engagement

APRIL IS AUTISM AWARENESS MONTH.

Yeah, this post’s title is a military term.  Rules of engagement tell you when you’re allowed to shoot back.

Sometimes care giving feels like combat, albeit in non-lethal form.

One particular battle is the effort to engage people with autism in collaborative behavior.  I was going to say meaningful behavior but that assumes that people with autism are absorbed in meaningless behavior on their own, which is not true.  Their behavior has great meaning to them, even if we can’t always crack the code and understand it.  And who knows, maybe they perceive our antics as meaningless.

OK, back to collaborative.

Our 25 year old son with autism, Joey, lives in a warm and supportive group home here in town.  Our custom is to pick him up on Sunday afternoons for dinner and an overnight with us.

We try to engage him in play, household activities or just chit chat.  None of these have ever been among his favorite things.  And as we shared a few weeks ago, his priority right now is to negotiate and nag about an unavailable form of entertainment he used to enjoy on his own.

So there’s some creative combat as we try to get him to say or do anything besides chanting “VCR will be here soon.”

Music usually engages him, but he’s figured out that playing tunes on our computers or phones is our effort to stifle the VCR negotiation.  So he either covers his ears and stomps away, whines “No MUSIC” or, wonder of wonders, forms a sentence to say, “I want quiet, please.”  Which is collaborative communication, except it leaves us all staring at one another non-collaboratively.

So I ran and got some picture books from our years of accumulated kids’ books.  We got a few smiles out of him with our funny character voices,  but he would not sit on the couch with us to look at them, let alone read with us.

So Melissa continued to try an engage him in talk or music while I huffed away to empty the dishwasher (does he think I’m engaged in meaningful behavior when I do that?  Do I?)

Then a little light bulb fizzed on over my head.  I said, “Hey Joe, come in here with dad.”

He glowered at me.

“Come on and help dad,” I chirped.  “This will be FUN!”

He uncurled from the couch and stood looking at me.  I indicated the silverware drawer.

20190331_213344“Help dad put these away.”

I handed him a butter knife.  Lo and behold, he put it in the slot with the other knives.

“Good job with the knives,” I oversold the moment.  Then I gave him a salad fork.

He put it in with the other smaller forks.  That was impressive, as he could have just mixed it up with the larger dinner forks.

I commenced praising him and called out my delight to Melissa.  I was going to move on to spoons, but he made an annoyed face, sounded off with his go-to word, “NOOOO,” and returned to the couch.

We counted the night a success.  Caring for people with autism requires rejoicing in small victories, connections that might seem trivial in what we perceive as normal life.

We’re still refusing to chase after another VCR.  But we are adopting a puppy.  And we’re provisionally excited, because Joey made eye contact and whispered “Yes” when we told him about it and Melissa showed him pictures like this one:

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This little guy is named Henry.  We hope he will help us with some fun engagement with Joey.  That is, once Henry’s done eating Melissa’s glasses.

So, what forms of engagement reach the one(s) in your care?  Always open to new tactics.  What works with one person with autism doesn’t necessarily reach the next one.

Very often, the most loving care is to keep showing up, trying again or trying something new.

And sometimes just showing up and letting them be.

Are you a family caregiver or know someone who is?  Consider getting or gifting our little book for this Autism Awareness Month.

 

Antiquetism

Our son’s 25th birthday is at hand.

Joey at DavesHe’s picked out a fave place for dinner.  They serve up his favorite burger & fries and a mound of vanilla ice cream sporting sparklers for birthday dessert.

But on the gift front, we are stalled.  We were messaging with his older brother last night, and at a loss for ideas.

His gift choice for most of his life has been movies – – – in VCR format.  (The link takes you to a piece from the Wall Street Journal, which, if you can get past the subscription sales pop-ups, speaks fondly of the technology as antique and having reached its demise.)

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Actual morgue photo.

You can still find VCRs for sale, but they’re increasingly expensive and impossible to maintain or service.  Our son is a button pusher extraordinaire, and the contraptions give up the ghost to that or to the funk of his very old video collection.

We are feeling for him.  Melissa points out that this has been one of the principal pleasures of his life, and now it’s gone.  He’s chafing at our suggestions of watching his movies on his computer, but that seems the best way to go.  He’ll trash or lose discs, thumb drives and other such media.

Anybody else made this transition?  Wide open to suggestions, both on replacement media and techniques for helping him embrace it.

Annuals

Our publisher’s site has another excerpt from our book up for ya.  It posted with some typos (since corrected) which was kinda funny because it is an excerpt about things getting out of our control…

Flowers Olde RectoryHere in South Dakota, the weather extremes must be navigated. If you plant before spring locks in, a frost can occur, and the annuals are history. In the midst of a broiling summer, a thunderstorm can sweep in and dump inches of water. You have mud puddles where your planting once shined. The blazing sun in the bright blue sky, like the pattern for our state flag, fries fragile flowers. The result is that we’re on hiatus from planting flowers here.

Joey’s autism does yeoman work of blowing up my fantasy of predictable order. Just when something seems to work, it breaks down. For example, Joey loved the water. One of my first memories of him appearing “normal” in public was at a beach where he ran out to the water and let the waves chase him back, all the while laughing just like the other little kids. But it wasn’t just the ocean. Any water made caring for Joey easier. Then he stopped liking water.

Give it a read.  Hope it is helpful if you’re in the midst of a “things are getting away from me” mood.  They are, of course, getting away from you.  But you’re OK.  No, not FEELING OK.  You’re OK because you are, against all the evidence, the very best resource that the universe sends to those in your care.

Maybe Next Year

Growing up in L.A., I was a fan of the Los Angeles Angels when they were a brand-new American League expansion team. When I was a kid, they played in the stadium named for the “real” team: the Dodgers.

But in my childhood, they were a “maybe next year” team. Maybe next year they would win more games than they lost. Maybe next year they would climb up from the bottom of the standings.

We have a “maybe next year” tree by the street in front of our house. We needed a tree out there to block some of the summer sun that routinely fried our lawn. We also craved fall color, so when a landscaper showed us pictures of a maple called a “Fall Fiesta,” we said, “Wow, look at all those fiery leaves! Put one in right now!” So he did. And all the budding leaves fell off, and the tree went dormant. We looked at our bare little tree all winter, praying that dormant was something different from dead. The tree budded in the spring. Of course, it hardly cast any shade, little thing that it was.

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The tree done good!

The next year was better. There was noticeable fresh growth on top. It grew taller. Its leaves seemed fuller. It didn’t shield the lawn from the sun, but it cast a respectable shadow where the dog liked to pee on hot days. There were some deep red leaves in the mix for autumn. Each year adds.

Like waiting on a plant to bloom, taking care of an autistic person requires patient hope. Your heart, and maybe your mind, will break if you are into precise timelines. “Next September our kids will achieve ‘X’” must be held loosely. “X” might happen in October, or November, or the following spring, or September two years out, or not for a very long time.

Like hopelessly loyal sports fans or amateur gardeners, caregivers have to keep telling themselves, “Maybe next year.” And in the next year, or tomorrow, or a few seconds from now, a once-abandoned hope arrives as a surprise.

Gardeners like ourselves must learn and relearn “deferred gratification.” We might want to stick a stalk in the ground and see a tree the next day, and we want to think that one or two sit-downs with an exercise book will have our kid reading literature in time for kindergarten.

But when it comes to caring for someone with special needs, it is important to hold a goal patiently. If it is a good goal, it is worth holding onto in heart, mind, and habits over many seasons.

Like travelers using the four cardinal directions on a map, people who follow Jesus find spiritual orientation from three cardinal virtues: “faith, hope and love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV). Hope keeps us looking to the horizon, to what’s next. We hope for what we do not see or have, but believe what can be out there. Hope allows us to act with purpose, believing that our efforts are worthwhile and taking us toward a good destination. It means long seasons of waiting, of doing the right stuff over and over even when a desired result isn’t coming into view.

When we come to terms with hope, we find that it isn’t really about a particular event, thing, or outcome, but it’s about coming face-to-face with the one who is calling us forward.

Edited and shared by the publisher, from my book.

Holidays and Expectations

Ah, the holidays.  Happy memories of childhood magic float into our thinking, only to crash upon rocks of present reality.

This can be acute for caregivers.  We want to enjoy the season; we want to make magic for those in our care.

48362608_10217973652521354_2826689720354865152_oWe’ve been fortunate.  Our son with autism loves Christmas.  I’ll just share this picture-worth-a-thousand-words…

But he’s also done numbers on our memories and expectations (and property and bodies) over the years.  As I wrote in Raising a Child With Autism,

Joey has taught us a lot about saying goodbye to things we valued and enjoyed. We had a set of stoneware mugs from the bed-and-breakfast where we honeymooned. He threw one and shattered it. We kept a little mesh bag of Jordan almonds from a place setting at our wedding reception. He ate them.

The smiley kid by the Christmas tree?  You mean that happy child?

As I went on to write in the same chapter of the book,

Taking care of one off-the-wall, scary child of God means that a bunch of our nice stuff will get trashed. We can go down with our things and drown in a lake of resentment. Or we can find the love in our hearts that makes the well-being of that one person worth all the losses. More than this, if we open our eyes of faith, we can see God’s love for us.

Prayers that your holiday – holy day – catches even a bit of the holy.  A little goes a long way.  Little town of Bethlehem, a baby in a manger, from what seems small comes divine blessing.

Little you in your little part of the universe – you are a blessing to those in your care.

There’s nothing like glue for the holidays

I came across a piece from Canada’s National Post that describes family care givers as the “glue” that keeps national health care in one piece:

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Man, ultimate? Waterproof?  In&Outdoor?  Wish I was this bada**

“Family caregivers provide the vast majority of care that happens in-between appointments with physicians or in-between hospital stays or different interactions with the health-care system,” said Christa Haanstra of the Change Foundation, an independent health policy think-tank dedicated to enhancing patient and caregiver experiences.

“There’s a lot more health care happening in the home, provided in large part by family caregivers,” said Haanstra, noting that caregivers are often invisible in the health-care system, with their contributions going unrecognized as well as unrewarded.

“We really think about them as the glue that keeps the health-care system together.”

The article goes on to describe the cost to the care givers:

…61 one per cent admitted they took on the role because they believed they had no choice, with many at times feeling trapped, helpless, frustrated and overwhelmed.

The survey found 36 per cent of caregivers felt depressed and 33 per cent were resentful of their role, with almost half overall saying caregiving had negatively affected their ability to have personal time, engage in travel or enjoy a social life.

One-third said they had experienced financial costs due to caregiving, including out-of-pocket expenses, time off work and turning down career opportunities. Eight per cent lost their jobs due to caregiving responsibilities.

Beyond the statistics are the personal accounts.

(76 year old Don) Mahood was Mary Charlotte’s 24-7 caregiver, until his wife of more than 50 years was moved to a long-term care facility about a year ago.

“At the end, I had to dress her, bathe her. I had to do everything, she couldn’t brush her teeth,” he said. “When I look back, I don’t even know how I did it myself.

“I was worn to a frazzle.”

Though caring for his wife was a labour of love, the disease put an end to their plans to spend part of their retirement years in Florida. Mahood also had to give up activities such as playing hockey, and his social life faltered as long-time friends dropped by the wayside.

The winter holidays are here.  There will be funds appeals of all kinds, and Facebook memes of appreciation for those who work while others party.  And all of those are good things – not knocking them at all.

But don’t miss that rapidly drying out bit of glue that helps keep society together – the amateur, shanghaied-by-circumstance army of folks in homes all around us, trying to keep things festive and “normal” in situations that ain’t.

To mix metaphors, I’ll recall what Jesus said to his disciples, You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.  (Matthew 5:13)  Care givers around us know what it’s like to lose their vigor and be trampled down by routine.  We look like ourselves but we lose ourselves.

Reach out.  Help the glue stay sticky and the salt stay salty.  Some practical ways to do that are suggested by another care giver and blogger.