What It Was Like To Finally Say Goodbye

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Superman Has Finally Returned to Krypton

Last Saturday, I visited dad, as I have every weekend since he moved here in 2015. When I arrived, he was sitting in his wheelchair with his head slumped over as if he was fast asleep. I have found him like this before but usually, I am able to awaken him. I tried everything – I took him outside where it was cool weather, assuming he would wake up and complain…I placed his dog, Coco on his lap….nothing. No response at all.

As I left him at lunchtime, I learned from the staff that he had been this way all morning and that they couldn’t get him to eat breakfast. I assumed he would wake up and eat lunch, so I left. I called later and learned that he also didn’t eat lunch, so they put him in bed. From that point on, he never left the bed. He essentially went to sleep and never awoke again.

He went 4 days without food or water before he passed. He was sleeping comfortably, so no morphine was administered until the very last day, when his breathing started to look a bit labored. So at 4 pm they started him on morphine. By 9:30 pm, he had passed away.

My brother visited him at around noon and reported no response at that time. He tried playing Frank Sinatra in his ear…nothing. When I arrived at 6 pm, I saw his breathing had become a little “weird” meaning he was breathing short breaths strictly from his belly. That was when I was told that they had started morphine. At that point, I decided to have “the talk.”

The Talk

I leaned over to him and said “Ya know, you’ve lived a long and happy life. It’s time for you to go. It’s okay. We’ll all be okay. No need for you to suffer any longer. You have my permission to go.” And then 3 1/2 hours later, he passed away. I had heard of others who had tried this approach, so I figured I had nothing to lose. It has been torturous to watch his decline, knowing that I could do nothing to stop this train wreck.  I was happy that he didn’t seem to suffer in the end. He literally appeared as if he just went to sleep and never awoke again.

I was happy that I was the last person to be with him. He and I were a team. I don’t even know what I will do without him in my life. Even though we haven’t been able to communicate in the traditional way for about 1 1/2 years, I knew he knew who I was and appreciated everything I had done for him. I was his cheerleader just as he had been mine my entire life. It was time for him to go.

How Did I feel?

Relieved. Happy. Satisfied. Sad. Elated. Depressed. Anxious.

A mixture of emotions. The truth is, I mourned for my dad with every visit. Every step down in his capabilities, I mourned. I cried countless times after I left him. So many tears over so many years. When the time finally came for him to really pass on, my first emotion was “THANK GOD, HE IS NOW FREE.” It’s ok to have mixed emotions. This has been the hardest thing I have ever undertaken. The most time consuming, the most emotional and the most labor intensive. It really was a full-time job. But I did it. And although I probably complained throughout the entire time, I wouldn’t have changed places with anyone. To have witnessed the full circle of life not only prepares me for what is to come but also was such an honor to have been able to give back to my father, who gave so much to me. R.I.P Dad. Mom has been waiting a long time for you to arrive.

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It Really Does Take A Village

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This is a marathon, not a sprint.

The average length of time that a caregiver takes care of a loved one is 7-8 years. Most caregivers go into this experience thinking it will be for 2 years.

This is more like a marathon, not a sprint. I began taking care of my dad remotely about 3 years before I finally moved him out East. Most caregivers, including me, set off down the path of caregiving without much thought.  Of course, I will take care of my dad. He was a wonderful father and gave so much to me and to his community.  He deserves nothing but the best. Without thinking about the long-term consequences of that decision, I moved him out East to be closer to me…and assumably to be closer to his two sons and his niece and nephew who are up in the Boston area.  Surely being closer to all of us would be a good thing. He would get to see them more often because they aren’t as far away.

I knew that I would be doing the lion’s share of overseeing his care because I am the only one local, but I also assumed that my siblings would pitch in and help with this monumental job of taking care of our father. One of my brothers set up a secret facebook group which allows me to privately post status updates on how dad is doing, to post videos of him, keeping all of them in the loop on how dad is doing. I regularly update it and it is a better way of communicating with so many interested parties than to be bombarded with phone calls wondering how he is doing.

HOWEVER

I believe this facebook group has enabled my two siblings to become complacent. They see how well dad is doing and are able to keep up to date on his progress remotely. It is further exacerbated by the fact that dad really cannot communicate on the phone anymore so they cannot call him to keep that connection alive.  They really need to visit him in person. And to really see how he is doing, they need to visit for a few days, not a few hours a couple of times a year. Every day can be different with the Dementia experience. On one day dad could be pretty verbal for a short time and then be unable to communicate the rest of the day.  If you pop in for a few hours, you may catch him on a good day. This is wonderful, but it doesn’t give you a true sense of the magnitude of the job of caregiving day in and day out.

SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?

If you are not the direct caregiver because you live out of town, that does NOT let you off the hook of providing care for your loved one. What it means is you have to help in other ways. You should be calling the direct caregiver regularly and asking them how you can help. You should be doing things like sending notes thanking them for taking care of dad and telling them how much you appreciate it. You can be sending short notes to your father letting him know that you are thinking of him (since he cannot speak on the phone).

You have no idea how much of a sacrifice this is for the direct caregiver and their family. Unable to work, the family sacrifices current income and is not able to contribute to their own future retirement. Vacations become difficult to manage because you are your loved one’s voice and their advocate.

A large percentage of caregivers do not survive the person they are caring for. This is a highly stressful experience, both physically and emotionally.

I have it much better than someone who is caring for their loved one in their home because my dad is in an assisted living facility. However, that facility is taking care of just his basic needs. To care for him as he deserves, there is much more to be done. I am there 6-7 days a week normally. I spend hours with him. Most of the time he cannot communicate, so I am his advocate. I make him feel connected and feel like he is communicating (even though he does not make any sense) by doing improv with him (Oh really?  Tell me more!).

I walk him and do stretching exercises with him. These are just the basics.  Then there are all of the doctor appointments that can sometimes kill a half a day. Because of his mobility issues, I sometimes have to enlist my husband to help get him to the appointments, so now two of us have killed half a day.

This is what caregiving involves:

  • Medicare advocacy
  • Doing his laundry
  • Managing the inventory of his medications
  • Taking him to doctor’s appointments
  • A daily commute (sometimes more than once a day)
  • Trips to the VA in Philly
  • Trips to the VA in Coatesville
  • Fixing his wheelchair
  • Managing his hearing aids and batteries
  • Management of incontinence supplies
  • Healthcare advocate (acting as the liaison between about six doctors, none of whom communicate with each other as that is how our healthcare system is set up)
  • Parkinson’s expert (staying up to date, participating in webinars on the disease)
  • Paying his bills
  • Shopping for him (new clothes as his trousers frequently rip from people grabbing his waistband to hoist him to a standing position)
  • Constantly thinking about new ways to stimulate him mentally
  • Researching and finding specialized therapy, and being at every single therapy appointment (because he cannot communicate for himself and he tends to participate better if I am there)
  • Researching and locating a geriatric massage therapist and being at each massage to facilitate
  • Monitoring how he feels since he cannot easily tell the staff when something is bothering him, but I can tell
  • Figuring out the logistics of transporting a body interstate and pre-paying for his future funeral…and there is probably more that I am not thinking about.

I UNDERSTAND THAT YOU HAVE BUSINESSES AND JOBS.  I GET IT.  BUT YOU ALSO HAVE A FATHER.

You are missing out not only on the opportunity of spending time with him, and the rewards that come from knowing that you helped to take care of your dad after all that he gave to you. And you are also fracturing your future relationship with your sibling, the one who has shouldered most of his care.

I want to be clear, one of my brothers has been generous and recently took me to see my favorite artist perform when she was in town and sent me a gift card for a massage about a year ago. My cousins have each visited a couple of times.  My step brother and sister-in-law have visited a couple of times for short visits. For that I am grateful.

What I need is more than that.

Let me be brutally honest.  I need a week off.  I need a few days off now and again.  Not once a year, but periodically. I need my siblings to step it up and participate in the care of our father. Last night, I attended a session on caregiving sponsored by the facility where my dad lives. The examples they gave talked about how one sibling did the majority of caregiving because they were local but the others alternated visiting every few weeks to a month to give that primary caregiver a break. A break. What a novel concept.

I appreciate the fact that they came to dad’s recent 90th birthday celebration, but again, they came for 2 1/2 hours and then left to go home. That is not helping in the caregiving.

This takes more than a village. It is more than a full-time job. I want my village to wake up to the reality of what is at stake. This crisis in our family can either make our sibling relationship enriched and stronger or it can tear it apart.