Caregiver Health Risks

Not sure we needed research to tell us this but maybe it will awaken some compassion in others who haven’t walked down (yes DOWN, as in stumble, fall, get up, repeat) our path.

Caring for others ain’t good for your health.  And if you fit certain profiles you’re at greater risk:

Participants with emerging chronic health problems experienced the biggest declines in health, with rates of hypertension, arthritis and rheumatism, digestive diseases, chronic lung and heart diseases more than doubling.

Being older, female, not receiving a pension, not feeling financially adequate and having depressive symptoms and functional limitations at the start were also associated with worse health among caregivers at the final follow-up.

deadI don’t have most of those factors working against me but stress about not feeling financially adequate is kicking my posterior.  Well, that and turning 60.  I get short of breath and feel overall weakness after bouts of anxiety – it’s like I can feel my own death settling in.

So, you know the drill.  You go to a doctor or other professional or even a friend you perceive as wise and you lay it all out and the reply is,

Hey, take care of yourself.

Take time for you.

Exercise, diet, sleep.

And of course your anxiety goes back up because these are exactly the things that are getting wiped out of your life and why you asked for help in the first place.

I go to the Bible often because it’s not the pie in the sky that many assume it to be.  Much of it is written to and for people caught in rotten situations.  There’s precious little “here’s how to fix it” and much more empathy and simple encouragement to hang in there, because who you are and what you do has meaning.  Here’s a good bit:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.  And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.  (1 Peter 5:5-11)

Yes – there are wretched things happening to you and to many folks just like you.

No – it won’t go on forever.

Yes – There are evil voices trying to talk you into despair.

No – those voices aren’t the final say.

Yes – there is divine power on your side.

The Greek word translated cast (cast your burdens) is a verb associated with throwing loads on pack animals.  Which is to say that when you pray – when you try to talk to the divine power about what you’re going through – you do NOT need to be elegant, gentle, proper, pious or whatever you think that talking to divine power entails.

Dump the load on God and insist – insist – that he carry what you can’t.

Did you catch the next line?  God will because he cares for you.

God can be the caregiver to caregivers.  Because the divine power does not get sick and die from taking care of us.  God has no risk factors.

Well trained in dysfunction

You’ve been practicing these habits for a long time and it will be hard work replacing them.

So said a good counselor after hearing another summary of my neurotic accommodations to life’s challenges.

While “normal” life invites us to try out personal training in dysfunctional thinking and behavior, care giving pretty much necessitates it.

Are you angry?  Practice holding it in because if you get loud or take a tone it will upset the person in your care.

Are you a people pleaser with crummy boundaries?  Keep pulling down your fences and pushing open your gates because you’re Just So Needed.  Where will those loved ones be without your sacrificial efforts?  I mean, the whole world might come off its axis if you stop.  And It’s All Your Fault.

Are you the addictive type?  Eat, drink, smoke or otherwise imbibe comfort, ‘cuz you ain’t gonna get it from healthy relationships (of which, it should be said over and over, you’re manifestly unworthy.)

20170715_131800A friend sent me this pro wrestling poster from our younger days.  Pro wrestling is a good simile for what I’m talking about here.  Yes, they train hard.  But it is to produce a product that is fake.

Hey, it draws cheers from the crowd if you do it right.  Even if all the pretense might leave you crippled.

My big discovery this week is that things are worse than I thought.  Why do you try to play God and take the world on your shoulders?, I’ve been asked more than once about my care-giving-supplemented anti-health training.

But that would be easy to address, wouldn’t it?  I mean, it’s a simple confession that my pride is taking on stuff beyond what a normal being can do, so the path of repentance is clear: identify the over-the-top stuff and leave it to God.

But what I realized this week is that I’m not playing God: I’m worshiping a false god, an idol.

Trying to make everybody happy and ensure good outcomes, the focus of my relentless training, IS NOT SOMETHING THE REAL GOD CLAIMS TO DO.

It is a fake god, a demon.  I’m not stepping into the middle of the universe to play God, which reality quickly corrects.  I’m wandering around in a phony universe, a simulation that maintains the lie and never delivers on what it promises and promises and promises.

Although a humiliating discovery, when I was able to express it I felt about 500 lbs. lighter.  Some restoration of health and sanity is already underway.

I wish I could say that it was like an exorcism and now the idol is gone and I’m back to reality and can’t we all just get along?  But there’s much more to do.

My working name for the idol is “FEAR.”  Fear goes back a long way in my life, taking up residence (at least as far as I can consciously regress) in childhood trauma that I’m not going to dump here.

But it now pervades everything. It warps decisions, it mocks every thought and stalks every experience.  It casts a smoggy haze over relationships.  Decades of care giving, with all the could-go-wrongs and worries that accompany it, helped FEAR embed and enlarge in my soul.

So I need to change my exercise program.  I need to pull down and smash the stones of which this great idol is built.

When people were dazzled by a great ancient temple, where political power and profit had displaced prayer and the presence of God, Jesus of Nazareth said, Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another! (Mark 13:2, New Living Translation)

I’ve been repeating that – not one stone left on top of another – as the voice from the FEAR altar snarls in my consciousness.  My resistance training now must be pushing and pulling down worries and expectations over which I have no control, and stepping up to action where I can be responsible.  Saying NO more often.  Speaking for myself instead of bouncing back what I think someone expects me to say.

I hope this reaches some folks at the start of their care giving years.  Please, please, please: don’t smash yourself.  Smash the stones that are piling up – the false expectations that ask you to do things that aren’t necessary and/or by which you hope to gain some kind of elusive approval from the universe.

Smash your idol before its temple gets built.

Jerusalem Temple Stones Matt Kennedy

Jesus was right about that temple.  Matt Kennedy took pictures to prove it.

Upside Down

Well, not literally.  I’m not flipping the car or other antics described in the last post.

The publisher of my book about the care giving experience occasionally posts excerpts on the web.  One came up today, and it flips into that “upside down” feeling,

I guess it can’t be any other way. There is no magic cure for autism. You have to take in lots of advice and experiment with different approaches because what lifts the life of one autistic kid could be fruitless or even counterproductive with another.

upside down me

Care giving: actual footage.

The universal manual of “normal” parenting fails to help. Normal parenting is to yell if you spot an emergency in progress. But if we’d raised our voices and warned Joey, “Hey, put that down. You’ll put your eye out,” we’d be living with a Cyclops by now. You learn to use soft, reassuring tones to say, “Honey, you’re standing in front of an oncoming bus there. How about standing with Mommy instead?” You find yourself looking at the world upside down.

Care giving is a practice in which common sense and conventional wisdom take frequent beatings.  Which is why I try to share some spiritual perspectives here from time to time.  Misery loves company as it stands on its head, and it also cries out for help that can bring things into perspective.

And just like that…

ditch

He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire.  (Psalm 40:2)

…I was at the bottom of the ditch between north and southbound lanes of the Interstate.

I probably fell asleep at the wheel.  I know that one moment my car was heading north and the next it was turned west, running over an orange construction cone.  I managed to control the vehicle, not slamming on brakes and steering to roll with the the terrain.

I bumped down into the culvert, nosed the car north and, as it was running and did not seem damaged, was working to ease it back up onto the blacktop when I became stuck in the muddy bottom.

Smart phone, auto club, yada yada yada.  Just like that, I was winched out and driving home.  After a County Sheriff showed up and told me he wouldn’t ticket me for reckless driving and just chalk it up to stupidity.

Yeah, have a nice day.

Talking with my wife at home, I found out I’d been snoring the night before.  Full disclosure: I have sleep apnea and use a CPAP.  Came on just like that in my late 50s.  The mask must have slipped in the night and I was probably oxygen and sleep deprived.  The sun through the windshield warmed up the car and just like that, I was westbound on a northbound Interstate.

Just like that, we are old and do old folks’ stuff.  We fall asleep at embarrassing times and drive less aggressively but also less competently.

My wife talked about me needing to recognize my age and not turn around from a late night meeting and drive (which I had) to run right back to work early the next day (did that too).

Just like that, we were into a discussion about formerly easy household tasks that now seem like hard labor, changing diets, things with which we used to roll that now cause impatience, and other old people gripes.

Now, these are not unique to caregivers.

What strikes me is the way we didn’t accommodate the changes and evolve with them as we went along.  Just like that, they’re all in our face.  We didn’t age gracefully or go through midlife crises or any of that.  We went flat out as caregivers and just like that the role mostly went away and just like that we looked around and found ourselves aged.

So back to yesterday’s mishap – down in the ditch, just like that, my inner teenager represented as a compulsion to Instagram the picture of the tow truck setting up to pull me out.

I was struck by the cross-shaped apparatus being deployed atop that green hill not-so-far-away.  It’s the sign of life that Christians see by faith, and Jesus planted it right where we live, among the visible, sensually perceived signs of decay and death.

So my heart, mind and spirit are still in working order (assuming that meditating on the cross while being towed from a ditch isn’t a sign of mental degeneration, which can also arrive just like that.)

Anyway, as you come to the end of a season of care giving, you will find that a bunch of changes set in while you were so busy.  Be gentle with yourself as you recognize and adapt to them.

And don’t drive when you’re tired.

And if you’ve neglected it, commence a gentle turn toward things eternal: In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed.  Do not cast me off in my old age; forsake me not when my strength fails.  (Psalm 71)

Dress Rehearsal

With our son’s new life in a group home comes our reclaimed freedom to have company without having to provide tag team care giving.

In recent weeks we’ve welcomed an eclectic group of friends to come over for a Friday night Bible study.  We look into topics brainstormed by the group.

Last night we looked into death.

As you might imagine, that took us in a number of directions.  One point that seemed to resonate was that life is full of dress rehearsals for death.  We suffer losses, not only of people we love but also of dreams, relationships, health, money, fantasies and you-name-it.

Nothing is held permanently and nothing is 100% under our control – As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil, which he may carry away in his hand.  (Ecclesiastes 5:15)  That death-like denuding goes on all the time, in the midst of life.

play

Jared Cole photo from here.

 

For caregivers, it happens with a vengeance when we hear the diagnosis that turns us into, well, caregivers.  An envisioned future with a loved one dies and we die to the life we were living to that point.  The call to care giving is a blaring trumpet, announcing a cavalcade of casualties.

The Christian spiritual path is one that takes in such deaths as part of life, as dress rehearsals for the physical death that is the lot of all living beings.  I die every day!, flamed the Apostle Paul.  Yet he affirmed that this was not the final word, but always a preparation for a new and unexpected life to flower, 

You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.  And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel… (1 Corinthians 15:36)

And we can find that the dress rehearsals – those death-like losses life brings – can connect us to a death enacted for us, to empower and transform us in the here and now, not to endure losses with a stuff upper lip or daydream about a heavenly pie in the sky,  but to become life-giving blessings to those in our care; indeed to the whole creation,

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20)

Let me say it again: the Christian life isn’t stiff upper lip or pie in the sky but, as one of our friends pointed out last night, passionate commitment to life with all its hurts

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.  (John 11:33-35)

and a divine gift to help us move the world with love,

I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.  (John 14:12)

Entertain the thought that care giving is one of these greater works that Jesus promises to load with heavenly power.

And keep rehearsing, even through the death scenes.

A different kind of death

The days after parents hear their child has a disability or special need can be difficult days… Most parents go through a mourning process. The expectations and dreams they may have had for their child die and new ones must take root.  (Sandra Peoples)

003Easter is about an empty tomb.  The expectation that “It’s all over, all is lost” gives way to new life so amazing that, at first, it’s beyond words,

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  (Mark 16:8)

May the surprise of Easter give you new hope – new LIFE – in place of whatever you’ve had to give up.  Don’t worry if you can’t hang words on it right away.  Just live it and the One who gives it will help you understand.

Voices

Those in our care have values, pleasures and priorities.  As family caregivers, we are often best able to recognize and interpret those to the world should the people in our care have any communication impairments.

But there are many who receive care who are quite able to speak up for their own lives, like this young man,

Seriously, I have a great life!  I have lectured at universities, acted in an award-winning film and an Emmy-winning TV show, and spoken to thousands of young people about the value of inclusion in making America great. I have been to the White House twice––and I didn’t have to jump the fence either time…Surely happiness is worth something?

Sometimes we have to be advocates.  Sometimes we just need to listen, affirm and encourage.

As many Christians around the world observe our Holy Week, we do well to remember that the One we honor and proclaim listens to voices we ignore or shut down,

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.  (Mark 10:13-16)

…Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside.  And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”  (Mark 10:46-49)

Jesus walked through our world announcing that no person was inconvenient or unwanted.  He spoke up for the voiceless and heard the cries that others sought to silence.

He still does.

Quicker to hear, slower to speak

In Raising a Child With Autism, I wrote,

Joey is not what we made or failed to make him.  He’s always carried strengths of his own that we can admire as precious gifts from God.

More people with autism are expressing their own points of view.  For caregivers, these can be challenging but are precious to our efforts to provide care that is loving as well as “effective.”

Dan Jones is an adult with autism who shares his experience and insight via books and articles.  In a blog piece on Applied Behaviour Analysis, he praises ABA for providing tools that give people with autism behavior choices in school, the workplace, and other social settings.  At the same time, he raises a caution,

Another issue with ABA is that it is just ‘identify the behaviours that we don’t want the child to do and change them, identify the behaviours we want the child to do and get them doing those behaviours’. As mentioned, it misses the ‘love’ element, the respect for the child and what they are communicating by their behaviour and their inner world and emotions.

Care giving needs that love element.  There are all kinds of efforts we apply to teach skills and eliminate unpleasant and even dangerous behaviors, but we should not overlook the day to day relationship exchanges that can help those in our care express and embrace things that enrich their lives.  In another bit of Raising a Child With Autism, I recall how

Several doctors praised us for our son’s emotional connection, affection and happiness. Those who live with autism, whatever they might feel within, are challenged in their ability to express it and seem aloof if not completely detached from the feelings of those around them.    We didn’t have special knowledge or strategy to cultivate Joey’s warmth toward us. We just stayed close to him early on.

Melissa sang to him on days when he didn’t seem to hear a note; as a young adult he can enjoy an entire musical at the local playhouse.  We talked to him as though part of our conversations even when he didn’t make eye contact or walked away; now he can attend social events even if he just stands smiling on the edge of the party.  We made his place at the dinner table even when he had the habit of taking a bite and then running a repetitive pattern around the house (we would shrug and say, “Hate to eat and run…”); now he eats in restaurants.

There’s a nugget of spiritual insight in play here.  In the New Testament, the Letter of James encourages those who would be loving people to

…be quick to hear, slow to speak… (1:19)

Those in our care might not be able to express their hopes and disappointments, joys and hurts, dreams and fears with words.  But their’s is a language of the heart that can be shared over time if we slow our anxious antics enough to hear it.

I’m no Mary, he sure ain’t no Jesus…

When Joey was a toddler and we were at camp, the thought flooded my head like perfectly heated steam, while the sun poured into my skin like soft lotion. Some distant, bitter stranger, more like a stick-figure with a disproportionate index finger pointing at me was saying “That is blasphemy, you fool and you will writhe in the pit of Godless Hell.” My conscience made no sense of that brittle, screeching thing.

My thought was that Joey was Jesus and I was Mary. Well, not really. It was more like it felt so perfect, that the love was so pure that it had to be the same love. I thought of my other two children. Did I love them less? I loved them as much, no second thought. Immaculate Conception? Did any reader who barely knows me remain in their chair at that thought? Lastly, Joey had never spoken but one word: “tickle,” and at the time I did not know he would not begin to speak until he was almost five years old. Nothing exceptional about either of us, to the outside world, rather unnoticeable unless misbehaving. 

Misbehaving? I shall not digress much but a doctor has mended a gash in my cornea after one of Joey’s meltdowns. As for me, it took a couple of exceedingly large women walking slowly, diagonally across a mall parking lot, no crosswalk, not looking, got an earful from me and yes, I was sober. To my husband’s chagrin, I was shotgun. 

Back to camp. Joey was 2 years old. He had been diagnosed with severe autism 2 months earlier. Out here in the open, running, clapping or flapping his hands in the fresh-cut grass, he had very few sensory issues. An “older” mother, I was 41.

Now I am almost 62, Joey is 24 and I am thinking perhaps God needed me to love him as deeply as Mary loved Jesus to get through the years of violence and injury he brought, mostly to me because I was physically the weakest, emotionally the most vulnerable, and although autistic, he was smart-enough to know it.

And if that was not enough there were the “outsiders:” every  wise-ass parent who saw a neuro-typical looking child like mine behaving badly and concluded it was my bad parenting, or the parent of another autistic child who had all the answers… I should not have immunized him as I did my other 2, I should have spent tens of thousands of dollars for some amazing camp run by people who looked like the people who used to hang at Haight-Ashbury which would “cure” him. Lastly, the 6-figure paid government employees who knew nothing about education but decided what kind of help my son and other children like him would not receive. Those meetings were tortuous hours.

I still feel the overpowering love that I can only guess Mary felt for Jesus, who was helpless to the world. Of course it is completely different. Of course it is not.

 

I’m a little teapot…

Melissa and I just bought  this whistling teapot:

20180308_072440

Her social media comment says it all.

The autistic kid moves, the tea kettle whistles after 22 years

We’ve chronicled some of the sensory issues that bedeviled Joey and through him the whole family.  We had to banish whistling teapots from our home for 22 years because the sound distressed him to the point of meltdown.

Hey, it wasn’t all bad.  I mean, I had plenty of opportunities to avoid cleaning the house because the sound of a vacuum put him over the edge.

But the little blue teapot is another sign of our lives being liberated from the concessions, adaptations and drudgeries of care giving.

Hang in there, wherever you are on the care giving journey.  I’ve been slogging through the Biblical Prophet Ezekiel.  The first 39 chapters are a gloomy tale of people living in exile, familiar life erased.

Then one day life starts to come back together.