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)

The national need grows

Sobering stats in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Soon, Minnesota and the nation will reach a demographic crossroad. In 2030, the first wave of the baby boom generation will turn 85, an age when people are twice as likely as those even a decade younger to need help getting through the day.

Family sizes have been shrinking for decades, which means there will be fewer adults to care for older relatives in the years ahead. By 2030, the ratio of informal caregivers to those in most need of care will be at 4 to 1, down from a peak of 7 to 1 in 2010. By 2050 in Minnesota, which has one of the nation’s longest life expectancies, there will be fewer than three family caregivers to care for each family member over age 80.

And this isn’t just in our homes, but in the institutions we assume will handle the need:

The need is great and getting greater.  Many care giving agencies are recruiting help.  If you know folks who might have an aptitude for caring (qualities like compassion, patience and resilience), the opportunity for meaningful work is out there.
I was invited to speak at a care giving agency in April, and the staff brought up the encouragement of others to enter the field as an important contribution the wider community can make to their efforts.

The Dignity of Risk

Tim had a chance to speak to the staff of a non-profit community support provider.  Many of the attendees wore blue in support of Autism Awareness Month.

ABS Blue April 2018It was a chance to remind these care giving allies how much they mean to families like ours.

Tim shared a story from our book, recounting how we threw a little party to offer a personal goodbye to one of our son’s music therapists before we moved to another state. He noted that educators, medical providers, therapists and all kinds of other direct support folks don’t hear from families unless and until something is wrong.  Our interactions tend to be steeped in bad news. We need to find ways to say thank you and, as the New Testament puts it, encourage one another and build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

As we shared in an earlier post, community support agencies have the heart and vision to provide all kinds of help to people with special needs and their families, but are hindered by lack of staff.  When Tim asked his audience what things families, churches, community groups and other neighbors could do to enhance their work, responses included

  • Identify people suited to care giving and encourage them to consider it as a career
  • Help the public understand the work of service providers and why they do it
  • Provide meaningful interactions and opportunities in the community for the people receiving services
  • Express gratitude to caregivers
  • Engage in advocacy work on behalf of community support agencies

One of the people present spoke of care giving as possessing the dignity of risk.  Caring for people with special needs means going down unfamiliar paths, trying out the untested, sometimes trusting intuition in opposition to common sense, and learning to center efforts on the person in our care instead of our own expectations of “what’s best.”

Families have this risk, dignity and all, dropped upon us when our loved one is diagnosed.  We accept the risk out of love and duty.

We are blessed when folks who don’t have to accept it choose the dignity of risk as a way of life.  May their tribe increase.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.  (Luke 10:2)

“I need help, please.”

I need help, please was a bit of expressive language that some good teacher or therapist helped our son with autism to use years ago.

For a person like our son, navigating an array of impairments like fine motor and personal care skills, the request is vital for opening a bottle of juice or getting to the bathroom on time.  (Of course he also learned to use it to enlist mom and dad for remedial action; I need help, please could signal a wardrobe change or a bathroom cleanup.)

It’s a sweet phrase in our family life.  It’s entered that volume of cute things the kids used to say, so my wife and I might raise our voice to a childlike tenor and say it if we can’t  find some item around the house.

But it came to mind in a more serious context this week when I asked a clergy friend about his Easter service at a residential care facility.

He shrugged and said, Well, there aren’t that many there to attend because they don’t have enough staff to house the population they used to.

help

From here.  They need help, too.

I need help, please.

People with special needs need family caregivers.

Family caregivers need professional allies in public and private agencies.

Public and private agencies need good human and financial resources to support individual and family needs.

The need for help is broad, but energy, money, time, staff, space, love and other resources can be in short supply; either hard to find or quickly exhausted and slow to replenish.

It’s a tough and perennial problem, even for the ultimate caregiver,

And Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  (Luke 10:2)

One plan and many question marks

The staff at our son’s new group home are encouraging us to have him there full time instead of just weekends.  People with autism benefit from (heck, generally insist upon) predictable order, and Joey needs greater regularity in the new place.

But for our part, Melissa (mom) had a good insight for keeping him close at this time of the year.  Joey loves Christmas, and to let him spend time in familiar company, decor and activities showed him “that things he loves are not going away.”

He’s having a very merry Christmas.   I can’t remember one more smiley and less moody.  Last night his brother and sister-in-law took him to dinner, and this picture reveals how much that meant to him.  He’s not one to smile for the camera, after all… Joey Tim Carly

Later they went out to visit some old friends and he was not happy to see them go.  He opened the drapes and watched them get into the car and even verbalized feelings about wanting them to come back in.

We get it, this inevitability of change.  But it is going to be some hard going in our hearts in the short term.

below zero

 

Accenting the emotions is an Arctic cold front sitting on us for the time being.  At first it was just our usual hard winter cold with blue skies and bright sun, but yesterday it went to bleak gray along with… with… well, I’ll let my Chevy do the talking.  I could start a post with “It was a dark and stormy night” and be only a tad melodramatic.

Work is kicking my butt.  We set a sales record in my little department but my body is not what it was and the aches and pains never seem to go away.  I’m not sleeping well stewing about Joey and work and bills and and and and.

But that’s another point in favor of making Joey’s transition happen.  Melissa and I are not getting younger and our skill set and energy for care giving are not going to improve.

The church family from our last place in California is suffering through several members’ deaths in recent months.  These were folks around our age and younger, and two were without warning.   So that’s more pull on our hearts and our minds are grappling with this life’s impermanence and fragility (yes, yes, another point in favor of getting on with Joey’s transition).

Then there’s the coming transition in our marriage.  Don’t even have my heart and head fully wrapped around what empty nest will be like.  How will we be when all the decorations come down and Joey is moved out and the flurry of holiday happenings is over and we’re sitting here staring at each other across years of deferred relationship?

Might as well end this with that question mark, since there are so many things in process, unfinished and unknown swirling through our lives right now.

No respite, no completion?

Most of what we blog here is about the current stresses and strains of care giving.

This morning I blundered into an article that shows how it can clobber our future.

The sandwich generation — those who have children and at least one living parent — is having a hard time saving for retirement because they are spending a good percentage of their money taking care of family members.

The steady flow of emergencies (they’re often the normal state of things) generated by care giving can lead to job loss or change and the temptation to cash out retirement savings for quick cash,

As of May 22, approximately $26.3 billion in total savings has been cashed out of the retirement system this year, according to the National Retirement Savings Cash-Out Clock. If nothing is done to stem the outflow, this cash-out “leakage” of assets from the retirement system will reach $68 billion by year-end.

This is a major financial health crisis affecting millions of Americans — and industry research indicates that younger workers in the lowest income brackets, as well as women and minorities, are at the highest risk of cashing out. Confronting this crisis requires a concerted, unified effort by plan sponsors and record-keepers to create conditions that facilitate seamless plan-to-plan asset portability for all participants.

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Sure, piggy banks are traditional, but who’s gonna rob a sharky bank?

The article offers some good suggestions, both for caregivers and for their employers. Go have a look – it’s not all gloom and doom but it calls for some work.

And ain’t that just what care giving is all about?

Not Fabio but he’ll do

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After all my work to get in shape, this cover was rejected.  Dang, wish I’d a thunk up that title, though!

The cover design credit for Raising a Child with Autism goes to Elaina Lee, who worked with our publisher on the concept.

Our initial suggestion was that the cover be more cartoonish and humorous – maybe a confused guy holding a leaky hose over a withered plant.  Our working title was Blooming Idiots, intended to reflect the on-the-job, trial and error (lots of error) learning  that comes through care giving.

But our publisher had a wise insight as release date drew near: Can you imagine a Facebook status or tweet something like, “Just read a #book about #autism called Blooming Idiots” ? People are going to think you wrote a book that calls people with autism idiots.

Darn it, we liked that title.  But the publisher was spot on.  Sampling the title around to potential readers indicated that it provoked a negative reaction, as if we were using the R word.

So, we tried to go artsy and suggested stuff like Our Family Garden.  But that made it sound like a book about, well, gardening.

Finally, the publisher decided to go with a straightforward approach, and Raising a Child With Autism went on the cover.

That didn’t lend itself to our original cartoon concept, so the cover art team went with a sweet image of weathered, older hands and tender toddler hands holding some earth with a sprouting plant.

We had problems with it.   One was that it was too gentle.  Our hands and Joey’s hands didn’t always work cooperatively.  Care giving verged on combat much of the time.  Plus part of our story is how Melissa and I labored together as a couple, and the cover concept featured just old guy hands and no mommy presence.  The artists went back and tried to capture that, but the result was too busy and would have cluttered the cover.

book-coverSo Elaina Lee creatively and rightly shifted the focus to the child, and that’s the cover you see.  No, that’s not Joey.  He would never wear a hat because of his sensory issues.  He is seldom that still and focused.  And as we share in at least one chapter of the book, he can be pretty hard on plants.

But he does smile, he does delight in simple things and our reward as care givers comes through those kinds of realities.  So there’s a sweetness in the cover that rightly draws the caregivers toward the person in their care, and the hope and joy found in new life blooming.

Interested in your thoughts on the cover.  What does it say to you?   And how would you symbolize your experience of care giving?

Trying to cancel a pity party

Care giving pushes a person toward their outer limits.  The repetition of unpleasant tasks and the human desire to receive as much or more than we give can make the caregiver sad, surly, stressed out or all of the above.

Throw in some of life’s normal irritations and it’s time for black confetti, diabolical tunes and spoiled snacks – a pity party.

A wise friend once advised me to get ahead of the onslaught by asking myself, “If I were the devil, what would I do to upset Tim?”  This week, it’s been an overload of all the life crud I’d rather not deal with;

  • Bureaucracy – got a call from the pharmacy that insurance was declining to refill our son’s array of medications, which include anti-seizure and anti-aggression chill pills.  So I had to dig through piles of forms that all look alike, call automated “customer service” numbers, hack my way to a live person who wouldn’t talk to me because of HIPPA (he, they’re my son’s meds, not mine), etc.  Hate doing this on my best day.  Got it fixed but it left me frazzled.
  • Money – I get to pay bills AND do taxes on my upcoming days off.  WooHOOO!  Yay, Me!!!!!
  • Conflict – part of my work has me representing my superiors to two dug in groups that refuse to resolve a conflict and keep trying to manipulate me to to choose between them.  My superiors simply want them to make up or get lost.  I don’t like delivering bad news; I’m a decent care giver because I’m flexible and it is not easy for me to be bossy; I like peace and hate being around people who’ve lost their rationality.  Today I get to call the two faction leaders and tell them, “You’ve exhausted the patience of my superiors.  You’re both gone.”  Even more delicious was the whole night anticipating these calls.

pathetic-7Pity parties make us passive and hapless.  The make us throw up our hands in woe and just let circumstances continue to crush us.  What to do?

  • Stop bundling the problems as one big mess.  Mentally separate them.  Take them one at a time.  They are not related.  They are not God’s wrath coming upon you.  And they will go away the sooner you stop pity partying and take them on one by one.  Don’t look at them all at once or the whole universe will look like your problem.  Give each one its time and place, curse it if you must, and then get down to dealing with it.
  • Delegate.  Can someone else help?  I just realized that someone else is going to see the feuding hard heads face to face before I do.  So, I will still make the bad news phone calls, but my colleague can deliver the formal letter from our superiors.  One less bit of stress and wasted time.  Don’t play the hero; accept offers of help or better yet, stop waiting for an offer and ask for it.
  • Practice spirituality.  Stuff that’s hard can be turned to your advantage.  As a follower of Jesus, I’m aware of the words  In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’  (Acts 20:35).  Yes, care giving is about giving more than you get back.  In our animal flesh, that’s a big negative, but in the mystery of the Spirit it’s a way to find blessing, that is, deep and abiding happiness.  So wrestle with the invisible possibilities instead of just slogging through the pathetic feelings.
  • Take your times of rest and recovery.  Sometimes this means just turning away from the problems when you’ve done what you can do.  Other times it means to celebrate because you’ve knocked something off the list.  Rewarding yourself for a victory will help you go out and win other battles.

I’m sure there’s more stuff to list but you know what?  I’m tired of thinking about it and I’m going to drink coffee and get those stupid phone calls out of the way.

Hope your weekend is good.  If you have a pity party planned, cancel it.

Sleeping on the couch

No, Melissa and I are not having a fight.

Joey moved out to the couch this week.  He does this every year when the Christmas decor goes up.  He likes to snooze by the light of the Christmas tree.  I blogged a picture of that two years ago.

The rhythms of family life are meaningful.  Autism craves order in both macro and micro forms.  So not just daily routines but seasonal and annual cycles can be our friends.

Another important aspect of Joey’s annual relocation is that physical environment, even with some quirky changes, can make a difference in the quality of life for a person with autism.

Here’s a useful page from Australia about Workplace Modification.  Practical adaptations, such as work table heights, wider aisles for wheelchairs and the like are obvious (or should be).

But so are aesthetic or other tweaks that make the work space more enjoyable.  One agency we visited here had Christmas lights rigged to come on each time the worker completed a particular task.  (Note: such adaptations are highly individual, because the flashing light that gives pleasure to one person can be a seizure trigger for another).

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Not Joey’s actual feet.  Reenactment by a trained professional.

 

Holidays are times when most of us modify our homes.  They are an opportunity to discover changes that make life more comfortable and pleasurable for those in our care.

 

 

Up to my eyeballs

Yeah, the blogging’s been on hold.

There’s a book about this stinky care giving coming out later this year, and the publisher is actually sending me stuff to do.  Stuff with deadlines.

Blooming Idiot Title PageLook, here’s a screen shot of the title page —>

See any typos?  Let me know.  I have a week to hunt them down and report back to the editor.

But wow, to see the book in a publisher’s font instead my own laptop documents is a bit of a lift.

All of which is to rationalize more not-blogging on my part.

But seriously, when the book does come out, I hope and pray that it will be a blessing to you and to other care givers you might know.  Meanwhile, back to deadlines, and chores, and waiting for a staffed apartment to open up for our son…