Archive for November, 2007

Snake’s Belly: The Depression Series I

November 9, 2007

“I feel lower
than a snake’s belly.”
So spoke my father
four years ago.
Mom had Alzheimer’s.
He was caring for her alone,
not wanting to place her
in an institution.
She was often cantankerous, if not combative.
She required intensive hands-on care
as her physical health declined.
Dad was being stretched to his limits,
emotionally, physically, even spiritually.
He sat on his porch as she slept nearby
and spoke to me in his coded language.
It was easier for him
to refer to a limbless reptile
than to confess, “I’m really depressed.”

All of us have the blues from time to time,
caregivers like anyone else.
But that’s not the same as depression.
Depression occurs when this experience of the blues
becomes a way of life,
infiltrating our days,
taking over our nights.
Study results are clear and consistent,
but they’re not commonly acknowledged.
Becoming a family caregiver
increases the possibility of depression.
Those who care for their parents at home
experience depression at twice the rate
of non-caregivers.
Those who care for their spouses at home
are six times more likely to have depression
than their non-caregiving counterparts.
Caring for a loved one who has dementia
is particularly depression-prone.
Sleep deprivation contributes to depression.
So do poor eating habits,
failure to exercise,
and lack of one’s own personal time.
So does social isolation.
So do increased financial concerns.
As we all know,
all of these factors are more common
when someone in our family
requires a lot of our daily attention,
whatever the cause.
So the first words for family caregivers
who find themselves depressed are these:
You’re not odd—
you’re like many, many others.
You’re not abnormal—
you’re experiencing a predictable human response
to a real life struggle.
And your situation is not hopeless—
there are things that can be done
and ways that life can improve.
We’ll deal with this more
as this series continues.

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Not Random

November 7, 2007

“Practice random acts
of kindness.”
It’s reported Anne Herbert,
writer and peace activist,
wrote this first on a napkin
in a restaurant in 1982.
Her playful phrase developed into a whole movement.
Now there’s a foundation by that name.
There are books and T-shirts and websites.
We hear of drivers paying the tolls
for the cars in line behind them,
practicing kindness randomly.
Diners pay for others’ meals anonymously.
People clean snow off the autos of strangers.
These are serendipitous gestures,
filled with good feelings.
Beth Mcleod in her significant book Caregiving
guides our thoughts in another direction:
I submit that family caregivers are proof that we are, all of us, much more capable of goodness than we imagined: not by random acts of kindness but by very deliberate ones, thoughtful and consistent and true.
I profoundly agree.
While there’s a loveliness to random kindnesses,
there’s also a sense in which
these are easy kindnesses—
easy to practice, easy to enjoy.
The acts of kindness practiced by family caregivers,
by caregiving friends and neighbors,
are of an entirely different character.
These acts are, if anything, more inspiring
than the popularized random ones.
These caregiving kindnesses are not occasional
but ever so regular.
They’re not done impulsively but methodically,
not quickly but thoroughly.
They occur not once
but over and over and over again.
Many caregiving acts of kindness are done
when the caregiver is tried,
when they’re frustrated or anxious,
or when they would much rather
be doing something far different.
Plenty of these acts are completed
when the one receiving these kindnesses
may not realize what is happening,
or understand all the effort,
or appreciate the selfless dedication.
I agree with Beth Mcleod:
all these deliberate acts of kindness
by caregivers all around us—
including the one or ones in our own home—
are more significant, more noteworthy,
and ultimately more beneficial
than those random and haphazard ones
celebrated by the media in recent years.
I celebrate faithful, steady acts of kindness.
You know very well the kind I mean.

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The Dance

November 5, 2007

The three siblings
had not been together
in over 30 years.
Dad is 87.
Uncle Bill is 89.
Aunt Rosie is 85.
Karen flew with her father from Georgia,
John drove his mother from Columbus,
and we four Miller children hosted everyone
in Warsaw where Dad lives.
It was a wonderful day.
At the last minute I created a slide presentation
with my laptop and video projector
so the three guests of honor could better see
the fifty old-time photographs simultaneously.
They reminisced for all of us in that room,
identifying faces and speaking names
as they built their common history
and told their common story.
Below is one of those photographs.
Dad, Bill, and Rosie are behind.
Grandma Miller, already a widow, is in front.
I am the baby being cradled, 62 years ago.
Last night I lay awake thinking about
being in that room with those 15 family members
as the people in that photograph looked back at us.
The on-screen four who stared at us
(my baby eyes were closed)
had already cared for their ill husband and father
for several years at home before he died.
Aunt Rosie would later do the same for Grandma Miller,
taking her into that family’s small home
for quite a number of years.
The generation that I represented on screen
is now carrying on in similar ways,
as is the generation below us,
finding our way through this chapter
of our caregiving lives.
We do what we have been taught,
and what we have been shown.
We’re also learning what no one can teach us
but we can only come to experience—
what it’s like to care for
while also being care for,
though our caregiving takes different forms.

A photograph was made yesterday
of three generations smiling into a camera,
feeling pretty contented and blessed.
God willing, thirty years from now
maybe I’ll see that photograph again
and witness those 15 smiles staring back at me,
including my own.
My daughter Christen will be about my present age
and her son Grayson will be half that,
and I’ll be busy learning about caregiving
in yet another almost unimaginable way.
Grayson will be asking questions
about who those faces belonged to,
and what we were doing that day,
and, steadying myself against the walker
that Christen holds for me,
I’ll tell him.
It’s quite a thing, this dance of life,
this waltz of caregiving.

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