Monday, February 28, 2011

Change of Scenery

Life can become so routine that a simple change of scenery can help us gain a new perspective. The change doesn’t have to be drastic; it can be subtle.

I usually work on my netbook in the living room. I have a desk that sits near the patio doors and it is an inspiring place to sit in the summertime. Or, I might use my lap desk and work from the comfort of my couch. This weekend, I decided to work in the kitchen, which has a view of the house next door (people watching), the road (car/tractor watching), a field (cow watching), and my sister-in-law’s bird feeders (bird watching). Geeze, it sure seems like I’m doing a lot of watching, doesn’t it?

So why would you care about my change of scenery? It makes a difference only as it applies to you. If you are a caregiver, a change of scenery is probably something you crave—like a tropical isle far away from your responsibilities. Doesn’t that sound good? Although it may sound like paradise, it most likely seems impossible.

Maybe a complete getaway isn’t on your possibility radar, whether it’s because of your responsibilities or an economic issue. What you can do is something a little simpler to provide a change of scenery. As a caregiver, you need respite. You need time to regroup and refresh so that you can continue to be a good caregiver.

Sometimes, just an afternoon getaway with friends and family, or to just have some alone time can give you a new perspective. A fresh view can revitalized your thinking and make you a better caregiver.

I visited with a caregiver who said she wanted to watch her dad so her mother could have some time away. She had offered, even pleaded with her mom, to let her help. Her mother insisted that she hire a caregiver, but couldn’t find one she trusted.

“What can we do?” the woman asked me. “She just won’t let us help, but I think she’s about to collapse.”

“Try a different angle,” I suggested. “Tell her you want to spend some alone time with your dad. Let her know this is something that would make you happy. Does he like to ride in the car?”

"Oh, yes,” she said. “He loves to go for drives.”

“Take him for a drive and stop at a park for a picnic. It will make him happier, and will give your mom some time to do something she likes to do.”

Had I talked to the mother, I would have encouraged her to take help when it is offered. If a caregiver keeps a list handy, it is easy to find something for family and friends to do. Do you need something from the grocery store? Would your neighbor like to mow the grass? People really do want to help, but they don’t know what to do.

If you are the person offering help to a caregiver, who don’t ever accept—look around to see how you can help. Can you help with some chores? Do you know of an activity that fits the interests of the person with dementia? Did he like to fish? Maybe you could take him fishing to give the caregiver a break. Did she like to cook? Bring the ingredients and make cookies together while you shoo the caregiver away.

I was healthy and in my forties when Jim developed dementia. Our children were grown and my employer allowed me some flexibility so that I was able to keep on working. I had a lot of family support from both Jim’s family and mine. When I needed to hire professionals, I used respite funds from my local Alzheimer’s Association chapter to help offset the expense.

At times, caregiver responsibilities were overwhelming for me, and I couldn’t even imagine how someone in his or her eighties could take care of a spouse. Alzheimer’s can last for years and too often the caregiver gives out before the person with dementia. This is especially true of the selfless caregiver who never takes a break. Being on duty 24/7 can break anyone, no matter how strong.

If you are a caregiver who never takes a break or enjoys a change of scenery from time to time, ask yourself this important question, “Who will take care of my loved one if my health fails?” In this situation, caregiving is all or nothing. If you do it all, you could very easily get to the point where you can’t do any of it. You are headed for a personal mental health crisis if you become mired down with responsibility and give up the activities you love. If you are in crisis, what good are you to your loved one who depends on you?

Copyright © Feb 2011 L. S. Fisher

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Backyard BBQ Beneath the Stars

The thing about an almost 70 degree day in February, the barbeque grills come out from hiding. Football season may be over and there’s no excuse to tailgate, so we just tailgate in our own backyards.

This kind of day is a gift of a summer day in the dead of winter. Smoke drifts to the sky, the odor of hot and spicy, tangy sauce, sizzling hot meat, or grilled vegetables brings the scent of summer.

“It’s like a summer night,” I said.

“Yeah, except there aren’t any bugs,” my friend observed.

“I can’t argue with that,” I said. I walked to the edge of the deck to gaze up at the full moon and twinkling stars. “I’ve heard that city lights can keep people from seeing the stars.” As I stood there looking up at the sky, I thought about how seldom I take time to admire the beauty of a night sky.

With all the things that change in our lives, people coming and going, days filled with work, evenings filled with commitments, and nights that seem way too short for sleeping, the night sky remains unchanged. Some of the beauty twinkling above could have burned out a million years ago, but their light and essence can still be admired on a February night in 2011. Looking at the sky is like looking at history—theirs and mine.

The sky looks the same as it did when I was a child lying on one of my grandma’s quilts thrown on the front yard of my grandparent’s little house north of Stover. The sounds of music filled the air as my uncles played their guitars and sang country songs to blend with a backdrop of cicadas, bullfrogs and whippoorwills.

Those were simple days. As a child, I never knew the pain of loss or the taste of failure. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had never known anyone that had died. I guess I just thought we would live forever and the days of summer would stretch to the edges of the earth to infinity. Sickness, pain, and sorrow seemed as many light years away as a distant star.

When I drove home after the backyard barbeque, I turned up the volume on my XM Radio. My son had driven my car and left it on Channel 10 which plays old time country music. I was just considering turning it to a different channel but couldn’t resist listening to the Grand Ole Opry staring Hank Williams, Senior, not Junior. I just caught the very end of the show and listening to the hillbilly twang, reminded me of how everyone spoke when I was a child.

The program went back to other old time country music. One thing about country music—it’s usually tells a sad story or laments lost love. Too often the songs on Channel 10, are ones that Jim sang.

Merle Haggard sang the lyrics, “always wanting you, but never having you” and I had an ah-ha moment. Although I always assumed the song was about unrequited love, I suddenly realized it could be about lost love. How many of us know the empty ache of realization that we will never, ever be able to hold a loved one in our arms again?

We can feel that sense of loss when changes brought about by dementia have erased the person we knew. We feel the emptiness of knowing he is still there in some ways, but vanished in others. Jim’s music had always been such a part of him that when he lost his ability to play his guitar, we both lost a chunk of our lives. It was a change we didn’t want.

Maybe when too much has changed, we should look to the sky to remind ourselves that our lives are only a small speck compared to eternity. The sky looks the same to me as it did when I was a kid and looks the same as when my grandparents were kids. When everything changes around us, we need to take a deep breath of fresh air and take comfort in watching the same moon glide across the heavens and knowing that we can’t count the stars.

Copyright © February 2011 by L.S. Fisher

Saturday, February 12, 2011

February: The Longest Shortest Month

According to the calendar, February is the shortest month. Based on my experience, I consider it to be the longest shortest month of the year.

There’s something about the winter that makes it easier to have a bad day, or even a bad week. Slick roads, snow piled to the sky, and frozen water pipes become the rule instead of the exception. I have a lot of company when I say that February has not been good for me.

Last weekend was great with some good family time. I started the workweek with my day off—sounds good so far doesn’t it? Everything was going great until I washed a load of clothes and the water backed up into the basement. I figured something was frozen up and the forecast was for a week of freezing weather.

The week went downhill from there. I was behind at work because of last week’s blizzard and to top it all off, computer programming glitches stalled my progress and our annual audit fractured my concentration. I spent a week battling a constant headache, nerves and depression. I was behind schedule and no matter how hard I struggled, I could not catch up. For the first time in thirty years, I didn’t meet my deadline.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that my tough week was only a hiccup compared to the months and years of trying times when I was a primary caregiver. When I remembered February 2001, I felt like mentally slapping my own face for being so downhearted over the past week.

A decade ago, Jim had been kicked out of the nursing home and spent the entire month of February in a hospital for “regenerations” while we scrambled to find a new home for him. The hospital changed Jim’s medication and he was not doing well. Medicine that was supposed to level out his moods sent him into a constant state of agitation and he took his hostility out on anyone around him. My sons and I made the two hour (each way) trip nearly every day to check on him.

It was hard to convince the doctors that Jim wasn’t normally a violent person and that he had changed drastically since they had prescribed an antipsychotic drug. We knew that as long as Jim stalked the halls in a mean mood, we would never find a nursing home to take him. I even checked into “behavior units” and didn’t like what I saw at all.

I can honestly say that February 2001 was a bad, bad month. It was a time of uncertainty and constant worry that I wouldn’t be able to find a safe environment for Jim.

One day after a particularly harrowing outing, my oldest son and I insisted that the doctor take Jim off the antipsychotic drug. Jim steadily improved after the medication change and as February came to a close, a local nursing home gave him a second chance. It was months before I conquered my fear that some kind of incident would happen, and we would have to find another place for him.

After putting things in perspective, I realize that although the last week was challenging, it was not overwhelming in the scheme of things. Five days later, life is looking much better. My son fixed the drainage problem and today is supposed to be a balmy forty degrees. Snow is melting so fast I can hear it dripping off the roof. I’m back to my optimistic self and confident that everything is going to be okay.

I can surely conquer this month. After all, February is the shortest month and this year isn’t even a leap year. With Monday being Valentine’s Day, I’m pretty sure I’ll have enough chocolate to make it doable.

Copyright © L. S. Fisher, February 2011,

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Blizzard and Early Spring

On Tuesday the blizzard brought the Midwest to a screeching halt. We were warned and most of us worked on our severe storm plans, but others remained clueless. When the blizzard came to town, businesses closed down and sent their workers scurrying to the shelter of their homes, or to the homes of family and friends to wait out the storm which surely would not be as bad as predicted.

Only it was, and then some. Instead of falling like a normal snow, the wind blew it sideways. And it snowed without respite through whiteout conditions, and before you know it, we had a real old-fashioned blizzard. It was certainly a good time to be indoors looking out the window at the snow that seemed to be on a mission. It was quickly dubbed Snow-maggaden, Snowpocalypse, and my personal favorite—Snownami.

After the blizzard raged all day and throughout most of the night, the world was covered with snow dunes. Ripples cascaded across yards and small objects collected drifts that stood several feet tall. The snowscape greeted the day with an in-your-face claim on the land. The world lay silent in awe of the volume of snow that dared snowplows to find the roads buried beneath its pristine covering.

Interstate 70 was closed from Kansas City to St. Louis, and the rest of the state’s roadways lay impassable. Snowplows plugged away at clearing main highways first. Other roads were cleared by farmers on their tractors. Even most state roads had tractor plowed single lanes, but no traffic during the morning hours because vehicles were snow covered lumps in driveways and alongside the roads.

People were snowed out, people were snowed in. It brought out the best of people with neighbors helping neighbors and the worst in people who couldn’t understand why stores were still closed in the aftermath.

Then began the slow, tedious process of digging out. Newspapers and television stations posted pictures of good Samarians wielding shovels and using tractors or trucks with blades to clear driveways and walks for others. By Friday, my country road had been cleared the width of a car. I was at work when I received the good news that my son, grandson, and a friend had spent hours clearing snow from my driveway and the walk to my door.

Locally, an elderly man died Friday when he got stuck on a side road and tried to walk home. His body was found in a snowdrift. Nationally, an eighty-eight year old Louisiana man with Alzheimer’s wandered from his home in search of the bathroom to change his clothes. His jeans and shirt were found outside the door, and a few hours later his body was discovered. Perhaps one of the most disturbing parts of the story is that although the man had been in a nursing home a few years ago, he seemed to get “better” and was moved back home. Inclement weather is dangerous for anyone, but for confused people it can be deadly.

Here we are a week later and snow is still piled up along driveways and roadways. The only bright spot in this entire scenario is that Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow which means an early spring.

I hope that Phil’s prediction isn’t just true for Pennsylvania since the sun was shining bright in Missouri the day after the blizzard—Ground Hogs Day, of course. Spring cannot be too early for me! I’m tired of the snow and the cold weather, but it seems like the snow and cold aren’t ready to move on just yet. The forecast is for more snow and cold this week before a warming trend next weekend.

The calendar, like life, has its seasons and some are more challenging than others. One thing that can be said for the blizzard, it reinforced how blessed I am to be surrounded by family and friends. Thanks to them, I’ve come through the snownami unscathed, although, I admit it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if another “fifty year storm” holds off for at least that long.