Advocacy and Affirmation

The world around us lurches from crisis to crisis, which is a condition many family caregivers would call “the usual.”

We find ourselves doing a bit of advocacy for our son, Joey. I need to stay away from TMI out of respect for his housemates, staff and service agency. Long story short, the long quarantine without their day programs and social visits is creating anxiety among the residents. One of them is having meltdowns, and our son is sometimes a target of these.

The staff floated some solutions, including moving Joey to a different room to allow greater staff control of the situation. We (Melissa and me, mom & dad, GUARDIANS) looked at each other and were in immediate agreement that this would only increase Joey’s anxiety and, in plain talk, wouldn’t be fair.

So we’ve dug in our heels and are arguing for other solutions. It’s not pleasant. We know that the housemate who is melting down is NOT a bully, but a person unable to process and express his frustration in more socially appropriate ways.

It’s weird to be in this place again. We thought that we were done with advocacy stuff once Joey was out of the school system. And, to be honest, we’re a bit spoiled as our experience of his service agency has been overwhelmingly positive.

But, as we said in our letter, We do not want Joey to have to leave his current room downstairs.  We are confident that this view is an accurate reflection of Joey’s desire. That is, even with great people caring for him, we know him best. We are still his parents by blood (and sweat and tears) and his guardians by law. So advocate we will.

The title of this piece mentions affirmation, and there’s been some sweet stuff on that front. During the quarantine, we’ve been making and delivering dinner to the group home every Friday. Here’s a big pan of spaghetti and meatballs, plus some sides, on the way last Friday.

The house staff put together a thank you, to which all of the residents affixed their signature or mark:

Gestures like this are solid gold. Care giving can feel fruitless and thankless, and this bit of affirmation lifted our spirits. And they topped it with a special card from Joey recognizing our 30th wedding anniversary:

Joey’s not that lyrical or loquacious, so we know the staff put some heart into the message. But that’s a real live Joey signature endorsing it, and no doubt he affixed the stickers.

Affirmation sneaks up sometimes. I’m a daily Bible reader. We all need sources of inspiration and encouragement, and as a Christian I find mine there. But it doesn’t always tell me just what I want to hear – many days I read right into a discovery of my worst self in action and that hurts. However…

…in the days just before delivering that spaghetti dinner to the group home, my reading schedule took me to Ecclesiastes 11:1-2,

Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.

That is, what you give away comes back to you in some way, and those who care for the needs of others are under God’s care in the crises that come again and again. I really perked up at “a portion for eight,” since that’s our planning number for the Friday dinners.

I also bumped into Jesus’ words in Luke 14:13-14,

But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

It hit me as an affirmation and made me misty eyed. We started doing these Friday dinners just as a way to stay connected. Our motive was not all generosity – we wanted an excuse to at least see and wave to Joey. Yet in Jesus’ words I recognized that care giving, by its nature, can make us the hands and feet of the divine Lord, doing the things that please God as we serve others for Him, not for what we can get out of it.

For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just... caregivers know that the rewards are not always here and now; if we expected that, we would go mad. Heck, many of us are already about half past crazy. But it is a profound affirmation to hear that the Creator of all things notices us and can make a glorious future for us, whatever crises, failures and let downs we lurch through here and now.

Since You Can’t Take Mom Out To Dinner…

Not to discount the work of husbands, dads, brothers and other caregivers, but women are the historic majority of caregivers.

Mother’s Day is at hand in the U.S., and it’s shaping up to suck. Everybody’s been stuck at home together with school closures, work shut downs and furloughs and quarantines. Restaurants are closed, so mom doesn’t get a dinner out (and the restaurants lose another important date for staying profitable and keeping folks employed).

Now, I’m a decent cook and could whip up one of my wife’s favorites at home, but I’m at work most of this coming Mother’s Day AND she’s under the weather and talking about a menu just makes her queasy.

Adding insult to injury is our local son stuck in his quarantined group home. 3 miles away and we can’t get mom and him together. Henry the Golden Retriever better make extra effort to be a good boy this Sunday.

So,with all this woe duly wailed, I’ll at least offer this online tribute to care giving moms, in particular my Melissa. Enjoy some pics of her adding love and joy to our lives…

She brings a smile when Joey’s grumpy.
She goes to restaurants where she can’t eat most of what’s on the menu because it makes Joey smile.
She raised a Naval Officer!
She shares love with our friends’ kids, too!
She indulged me in a Sake Bomb after we moved Joey into his group home, even though she was feeling less festive than I.
Even though Joey doesn’t drink, she took him to a grown up venue for his 21st birthday burger!
She’s adopted a number of other family members over the years.
She married me and May 26th will be 30 years (that’s Pearl Anniversary if you’re sending presents).
Join me in wishing her a sweet Mother’s Day!

Reach out this weekend and show some love to some of the locked in moms and other caregivers. There are plenty of women out there who, by caring for those not their own flesh and blood, should be honored as moms just the same…

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

“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…

 

 

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

 

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.

Changes

We went to our son’s annual Individual Service Plan (ISP) meeting last week, the first since he moved into a group home.  What the staff said made our hearts glow,

It’s been one of the best transitions we’ve ever seen.  It was hard to think up things for the agenda.

It’s really been that good.  He’s taken to the new arrangement and is healthy and happy.

Here on the empty nest home front, we went for some changes of our own.  When we started this blog we put up our masthead picture of the backyard dog run.  It was built by the previous owners.  Our dog never took to it, whined and barked enough to bug the neighbors and became an inside pet.

Anyway, the old picture captured the increasingly weedy and decrepit dog run with a neighbor’s well groomed yard just over the fence.  It evoked that care giving feeling that says, We’re all messed up while the world just beyond is going fine.

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The old dog run got more and more weedy, run down, rabbit and who-knows-what-else infested over the years.  We decided it was time for it to go.

 

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In came a dumpster and out came a friend with sledgehammers and a power saw and assorted other demolitiony goodness.

 

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And, voila, our yard is nice and orderly like the rest of the world.  Guess we’re not caregivers no mo’.

Of course this blog has sounded off before about how we are dealing with all kinds of deferred maintenance on ourselves as individuals and as a couple.

There are good PTSD sites out there and this won’t try to do what is already being done better.  It is enough to say that the fallout from care giving sticks around long after the work is done.

But doesn’t the yard look nice?

Recovery reversal

Our son with autism has Seizure Disorder in his overall diagnostic and safety data.  The seizures came on with puberty and were terrifying intrusions in his teen years.

Now he’s in his 20s and the seizures have faded but not gone away.  They show up now and again with much less intensity.  Well, for him.  Not for us.

It used to be that a seizure knocked him out for a good 24 hours.  He would sleep and snore or at least breathe heavily until a groggy reentry into our world.  ‘Twas up to us to stay alert and watch over him.

Last night he was here for dinner and a small seizure broke through.  He knew it was coming; he knelt on a big beanbag chair in our front room and hugged the dog, protecting himself from the risk of a fall.  (Confused the heck out of the dog, though, as our son seldom interacts with the pets).

We thought, Wow, that’s sweet!  He’s hugging the dog… Then we noticed his forearms were rigid and vibrating.

It ended quickly.  We rolled him on his side on the beanbag chair but he was up and talking in a few minutes.  He went on to have full dinner and a pleasant evening amusing himself and deflecting our efforts to engage him in anything that seems like work (that’s normal – a sign that he’s fine).

Today he was all smiles, had a big breakfast and is off to his day program.

We, in contrast, continue to recover.  Neither of us slept well, as we hovered on the edge of sleep listening for sounds of another seizure.  I took a sick day from work to recover.

It is good that he’s moved on to his group home, because we are so absolutely aging out as caregivers.

Today I feel for the folks who care for (and age with) their spouses, who don’t have group homes or agencies to take over the work.  As one said,

They looked at my diet. They looked at my life style, my BMI and they are like “There is no reason for this!” I am almost diabetic and there is nothing to indicate WHY I should be – STRESS!!!!! That is one of the worst things on a body – my body can’t take much more STRESS! Despite the yoga, the chammomile, the meditation, the walking and support -being a caregiver is MONOTOMY PLUS and horribly stressful. There is no cure.

Pardon my language, but…

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)

Strong mind, weak back

When advocating for our son’s placement in a group home, one of our arguments was our increasing age and the upcoming physical challenges of ’round the clock care for an adult with autism.

Now that he’s placed, our incredible wisdom is validated.

This week, Tim was diagnosed with something called “frozen shoulder.”  As the Mayo Clinic reveals,

Certain factors may increase your risk of developing frozen shoulder… People 40 and older… (Note: Tim’s about half past 40).

Even with Joey in a good group home, our age impinges on what we can do for him.  We just bought the new bed he needs, and Melissa’s call to the mattress place went something like,

My husband can come pick it up, but he’s got a shoulder thing.  Can someone there help him get the mattress on top of the van?  And can you tie it down for him?

Which is to say,