Wednesday, November 19, 2014

November is Caregivers Month: Caregiving Isn’t for Sissies

November is Caregivers Month, and I thought it was a good time to share my caregiver story.

I was eighteen years old when Jim and I were married in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was on R&R from Vietnam, and I was on Christmas break after two semesters of college.

We struggled financially for many years. Entertainment was hamburgers at Griffs, an occasional drive-in movie, jam sessions, fishing, camping, or traveling in one of our old vans and sleeping at rest areas. We were short on money, but took pride in paying our bills and putting a little aside.

Jim was always there for me. He was my strength, my companion, and my best friend. Jim had bouts of depression, and I worried about him. Our marriage never wavered; our love for each other was never in doubt.

We finally gained financial security and built our home. Just as we thought life was going to be easier for us, Jim began to have cognitive glitches shortly after he turned forty-nine. His forgetfulness didn’t seem as strange as his loss of mechanical skills. The man who once fixed our van with a piece of baling wire, couldn’t change the oil.

For years, we had gone to bed an hour early and read. It was our quiet time, our time together. Jim lost his ability to read. He became eccentric in the way he dressed, and compulsive about taping every program on TV.

By the time he was diagnosed, I realized the Jim I had loved for twenty-five years was turning into a different person. The man who had always been protective of me and so aware of my needs, began to turn inward. Surely there was a simple explanation—a stroke, a vitamin deficiency, depression. The day the doctor told us that tests results showed Jim had dementia, I asked, “What could cause that?” The answer was shocking: dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.

We knew that whatever happened, we were in this together. We cried for hours as we faced the new reality. We were not satisfied until tests exhausted all other plausible possibilities. Somewhere along the line, I realized that I was going to have to get a grip on the grief and make some sense out of this tragedy.

My first step in the right direction was to learn as much as I could about Alzheimer’s and caregiving. Knowledge became power and helped bolster my confidence. I took caregiving classes, read numerous books, watched documentaries about Alzheimer’s.

I became an Alzheimer’s Association volunteer and advocate—first locally and then nationally. Most people thought I was crazy to take on volunteer work when caregiving took so much of my time. Jim only slept about four hours a night and I spent a lot of my sleepless nights working on Memory Walk, or writing letters to my legislators or to the editor of the local paper. Alzheimer’s made me feel out of control, and being a volunteer gave me a purpose and direction at a time when I desperately needed it.

Jim wandered off constantly and to keep him safe, I put him in a long-term care facility. My caregiving did not end when he went into the facility. I was comfortable bathing Jim, providing his personal care, feeding him, and watching TV with him. We would stop at Dairy Queen, go to the park or just drive around.

Aphasia made Jim silent, but that also meant he was a good listener. Sometimes a sparkle in his eyes let me know that he understood at least part of what I told him.

Jim had more company than anyone else in the facility. Our sons and extended family made sure he had a steady stream of loved ones to check in on him and spend time with him. Throughout the ten years of Jim’s dementia, we learned to cope and adapt to the myriad of changes Jim went through. The one constant that never changed was our unconditional love for Jim.

I lived life in the present without looking back to what he had been because it made me sad. I learned to not think too much about the road ahead or I would worry about what was coming. I could hug him close and kiss him. I could place my head on his chest and hear the irregular beat that was so distinctly Jim’s heart.

Jim left this world in 2005, and I miss him still. I miss the youthful Jim, and even more, I miss the Jim he would have been in old age.

copyright © November 2014 by L.S. Fisher


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Salute to Veterans

Today is Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day. In 1919, President Wilson established November 11 as the day to remember our veterans with these words:  “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”

In 1968, the Uniform Holiday Bill moved Veterans Day so that it became part of a three-day weekend. But unlike other holidays, the significance of the 11th hour of the 11th month was not to be deferred to a three-day weekend. After three years of total confusion, President Ford wisely decided that tradition of this patriotic pride should be returned to its original date. On October 25, 1971, he returned it to November 11 regardless of the day of week.

We dedicate this one day to honor those who served our country. We honor them for their sacrifice.

My dad fought in World War II. He often talked about how soldiers were drafted for “the duration.” What a scary thought that must have been. They were shipped off to war with no idea of when they would come home, or if they would come home. World War II had 297 deaths per day. A total of 405,399 American soldiers died in this war. This entire country was vested in that war. Everyone sacrificed and did their part. People were given rationing stamps for everything from tires to food. Manufacturing of automobiles and home appliances were stopped. And racing fans—all auto racing was banned, including the Indianapolis 500 for the duration of the war.

Jim Fisher, my brother Tommy, and nine percent of their generation served in Vietnam. Jim served nearly a year, and my brother Tommy came home after three months when he was wounded.

Jim’s wounds were harder to see. He was wounded in spirit and had an untreated cervical spine injury. A total of 2,709,918 were sent to Vietnam and 58,202 died. Sixty-one percent of them  were twenty-one years old or younger. Five of them were sixteen years old.

Unlike previous World War veterans, Vietnam veterans did not see a hero’s homecoming. They came back individually. Some were lovingly met by family members, others came home to be spit on and called “baby killers.” Jim never forgave “Hanoi Jane” and was thoroughly disgusted with Hollywood’s portrayal of “crazed” Vietnam veteran killers in TV shows  and movies. He suffered from PTSD, and I can’t help but wonder what part the aftermath of Vietnam played in his early-onset dementia.

Many Americans reap the benefits of our country without personal sacrifice, and it seems that disparaging our government has become the norm. We whine about how awful things have become and borrow trouble on a daily basis. We have split this country along party lines rather than being united in the common good. We’re too busy placing blame for what goes wrong and taking credit for what goes right. We salute the flag with our hands over our hearts, but too many hearts don’t believe in the United States of America. We take freedom for granted, and by doing so, we are figuratively slapping our veterans’ faces.

Today, November 11, is a day to not only honor our veterans, but also to truly appreciate them. Going to war to preserve our freedom to complain, whine, and gripe is not a small feat. It involves sacrifice, dedication, bravery, and often leaves scars externally and/or internally.

Today would be a good time to count blessings and be thankful for the freedom we have here in the United States. It is an opportunity to be grateful, truly grateful. Veterans Day is one day to find every veteran you know and say, “Thank you for your service.”

copyright © November 2014