Deep Holes

It’s always nice to find people who don’t think you have a big hole in your life to fill just because you don’t have children.  This week, I found a note in my journal from 2014 sharing what someone had said to me when I mentioned I didn’t want to help with their children’s program: Don’t you have that deep hole to fill?  Maybe I was living in Tennessee at the time?  Maybe it was a memory?  I couldn’t remember but ironically, across the page, I had written about my last day working for the oldest woman I knew who chose not to have kids.

Around this time last year, my friend — this oldest woman — was still alive.  In fact, I had secretly told myself that I would stay in Denver until she passed away but after a few near misses and 92 stretching to 96, I figured there were other ways to make life decisions.  Do you ever play those games with yourself?  Several friends in grad school had worked for this friend over the years.  We formed a little bubble of support by fetching her groceries, clipping her cat’s nails and emptying the trash.  In fact, we shopped together at the very grocery store where I now live and where she once told me how desperately she wanted a man but then turned down a very kind gentleman in a bike helmet who was retrieving an apple fritter from the donut display.  I still have some of the voice messages where she yelled at me and then called back to apologize.  In another message, she called me after I stopped by on a date to get her read on the latest person in my life.  What matters, she told me, is that you’re happy.  

As far as I’d been told, this friend had been an artist in Greenwich Village, NY in the 1950s.  She’d wanted to be a sculptor but her flatmates couldn’t take the banging.  So she became a painter.  Her friends were ethereal and poetic — my guess is that they were somewhere on the mental illness spectrum but she never judged them, except for one whom she reported smelled.  This was before things had names any more complicated than “neurotic”.  Her longtime partner was a marine biologist 20 years younger than her.  They hadn’t had kids — she didn’t want them.  

One thing about my friend was that inevitably there was some problem to solve in the strange apartment which was her life.  And she regularly threw things out that didn’t work for her, such as her cordless phones which I found in the trash.  

“You want to get rid of these?” I asked, pointing into the trashcan as if she didn’t know the phones were in there.  She nodded and I pulled the trash bag to take it downstairs.  I acknowledged they never worked: “Those were a pain.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “A f*cking pain in the ass!”

“Did your mom say f*ck?” I asked her.

“No, I really had to tone things down when I came here.”  She continued, “When you come back, I have something I need your help with.”

Like I said, there was always a curious problem to solve.  This time she asked me to look through her books for one in particular, a book on ornithology.  It’s big, she said.  But it was an odd thing to look for — she had never shown any interest in birds.  The sliding door to her 10th floor deck was always locked because she was terrified the cat would jump and she rarely even looked out the window.  But I would search for whatever it was she needed and finally found the thick, old book on birds she’d been looking for. 

“Oh, you’re good at finding things!” she said gleefully and took it from my hands.  

It kind of helps if you are able to see things, I thought.  As a painter, my friend hung her reading glasses around her neck at all times.  They were less than clean between snacking and painting.  She carefully opened the book I’d handed her and revealed that she’d cut out the inside to hide her jewels, just like in the movies.  

My friend’s attention to some details but not to others was shocking.  Things in her apartment would go entirely unnoticed, like when we’d share lunch from the deli and she would serve our sandwiches on little decorative plates.  The first time she brought them down out of the cupboard, I thought she was kidding.  The little plates looked like souvenirs from the 50s, white with a red drawing of the Notre-Dame, say.  And off the back catching on her arthritic fingers hung the little chain that you were supposed to use to hang it on the wall.  No matter!  It would be for toast!  Or a sandwich!  I could use one too.  What’s the big deal?

On the last day of working for her, she asked me to cut her hair — something that would continue on well into her days at the skilled nursing facility where she eventually moved.  I tried to be fancy about it and laid a towel over her shoulders.  She couldn’t remember last time she’d had her hair cut in a salon.  I apologized all over the place trying to manage expectations but really, she wasn’t picky. The last woman she’d hired for a haircut was drunk.  “I could smell it on her…awful haircut!” 

That’s what I wrote about it my last day working for her.  

For years, I visited my friend as regularly as I could.  We fought about whether or not she should use Benadryl prophylactically for her runny nose.  I tried to bring her outside but she often wanted to stay in.  She kept her belongings in a little drawstring bag around her wrist because that was the only way she could keep track of things once she could no longer get out of bed.  Many of us brought her things she’d ask for only to have her tell us why she didn’t need them after all.  Being the oldest woman I knew who didn’t have kids, she did alright.  In fact, I came out of passing my exam to become a licensed clinical social worker and her family had left me a voice message that she’d finally died.  Yes, I absolutely read into it that her work with me was done for now.

I look back over the lines in my journal.  Every once in a while, I feel an urge to write something down about her and make sure I don’t forget what she meant.  It’s just so funny that it’s across the page from a question that obviously bothered me enough to write it down: Don’t you have that deep hole to fill?  Probably not in the way you meant that question, I think.  Or I can imagine my friend’s response: Hell no, she would say.  

* * *

Western Care Partners guides families and individuals through the internal and external decisions that come with getting older or living with a chronic disease.  We provide therapy, warm referrals to services that may help and facilitate discussion with your family.  Every situation starts with a brief free consultation — contact us: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

©Western Care Partners, LLC 2020.  All rights reserved.


When Being told "You're Right" is Wrong

I should’ve caught the warning sign when my client, a woman in her 60s, and her long-haired adult son pulled out a glam shot album of him posing with a white tiger cub.  Nearest I could make out, they were living for free in a friend’s barn in the most rural part of the county.  I was new to social work and had no idea what the album had to do with our meeting.  A little unsure about whether or not I could take the lead, no one at this point had told me that looking at a client’s model shots wasn’t part of my job.  Aren’t we supposed to establish rapport?  They’d traveled at least an hour to our office but the album of shirtless tiger shots should’ve been a clue.  

I feigned interest as I flipped through the album.  The son, who was a teen in the photos but now my age, watched expectantly.

So you were going into modeling?  I had had friends in junior high who expected to go into modeling and their parents had supported them in getting a portfolio together, complete with fur backgrounds and fuzzy-edged glamour shots.  The tiger cub clearly took this to the next level.

The son was somehow not chagrined at all by his mom sharing these photos in what was meant to be a meeting (I had just remembered) about housing.  Somewhere along the line, from what I could tell, they’d burned a bridge or several.  Living in the barn started as a problem because it was full of junk and mice but then it turned out that the landlord wanted them gone.  And they felt they deserved free housing immediately or at least seemed to think I could give them an edge to get to the top of the subsidized housing waitlists.

I explained their options and took meticulous notes on where they should apply, documents they’d need to collect.  The bad news was that, while the mom was over 60-years old and could qualify for subsidized housing, the son was too young without a disability to qualify to live with her.  They would have to enter the lottery and get a Section 8 voucher, then find a landlord who would accept it.  

“But we can’t live through winter in a barn!”

They proceeded to tell me all the reasons it wouldn’t work.  I will admit by this time, I was sensing an air of nothing ever being good enough for the mom, to the point where she might have had a history of turning down every option until the only option was a barn.  And she was pulling her son down with her.  It was one of the first times that no option I explained was going to work for them and I didn’t yet realize I could say, “Well, it shows you have a certain amount of confidence in that you know none of these ideas are going to work for you.”

And so I listened, offered an idea, heard why it wouldn’t work, put it on the list and listened some more.  Not only did I hear their every reason why something wouldn’t work but they ran me through all their emotions about it as well.  At the end of the meeting that went long over our planned time, they agreed to make one phone call.

“You’re right,” they said.  

“It doesn’t hurt to get on some lists,” I told them and they nodded.

I was relieved to see them take their tiger album and leave the office but wasn’t sure what good our meeting had done.  They did seem somewhat relieved.

It wasn’t two weeks later when my coworker told me a woman and a longer-haired younger guy were waiting in our conference room.  Maybe her son? she said.  Tiger album guy, I told her.  Oh, it’s on the table, she told me.

When I entered the room, the mom met me with all the things that were going wrong and why they had come back — driven over an hour — to see me.  I was so nice and the only one who had been able to help them so far.  They played the flattery card well.

The mom paused for a breath in her list of complaints and reached to open the tiger album and show me how much potential her son had had to be a model.  But I realized it was the same story — no offer had ever been good enough for them.  I put my hand on the cover and said we weren’t going down that path right this moment.  How had they made progress on their list? 

The mom made excuses until I asked if she’d called the housing line I gave her.  There wasn’t a direct, “no” so I continued: had they picked up any housing apps or asked to be on any waitlists?  More excuses for why they couldn’t quite yet.  What happened to me being right about what they should do?  I wondered.

In the end, the mom and son (and the tiger album) left, no longer under the illusion that I could help them and telling me as much.  I had been at most emotional support, validating how unfair life had been to them but I fell short when I couldn’t and wouldn’t pledge allegiance to the cause and solve their problems.  My weird and bright lightbulb moment was to realize that hearing, “You’re right” doesn’t necessarily mean someone has bought into any kind of agreement on which direction you’re headed.  “You’re right,” is actually a good way to buy time from being held responsible and it’s an easy way to duck out of a conversation with all the emotional support but none of the tasks.  An even bigger realization was that “You’re right” in an argument feels great but may not really mean you’ve won or the other person’s changed.

I’ve since read a lot about the art of negotiation and am fascinated because, as therapists and counselors, we’re always curious about what makes people decide to change.  How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?  Well first, the lightbulb has to want to change.  What is it that sparks the decision?  How do you get to consensus?  And what makes a change sink in to become a new reality?  As it turns out, change actually happens when someone tells you, “That’s right” and gives themself chance to let that decision sink in.  Shazam!  New change, new behavior.  

The tiger album family wasn’t the last time I was taken for a ride in being emotional support for someone not really interested in anything but that.  The nicest people in the world can tell you they are looking for their lives to be different or better, and sometimes they’re not actually game for the hard work this takes.  It can be frustrating if you think someone is 100% bought into the plan and then you find out it’s not what they want for themselves.  Talk with any one in the helping professions and they’ll have a story of the plan being almost all the way in place when a person changes their mind.  It’s an art to hold it loosely and realize maybe we’re missing seeing that a person wasn’t all that bought in to begin with.  

* * *

Western Care Partners guides families and individuals through the maze of resources and emotions that come with getting older or having a chronic condition.  We provide psychotherapy, warm referrals and facilitate decisions.  Every situation starts with a brief free consultation — contact us: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

©Western Care Partners, LLC 2020.  All rights reserved.


5 Lifehacks to Help Boomer Parents

 Maybe you were already considering your next move on how to help a parent before COVID-19 came stomping into your life.  Or maybe the person you love doesn’t need any help but it’s a strain to not hang out whenever you want to.  

Generationally speaking, the Baby Boomers are feeling a certain pinch with this pandemic.  For the first time, they are publicly lumped into an “at-risk” group based on “old” age. Then, they are told to socially isolate — which is like asking a Boomer to cut off their leg given that they are one of the first cohorts to treasure close relationships with their kin.  In the meantime, GenXers, Millennials and the newly-named Generation Z cohorts are minding their distance and trying to figure out how to be connected/helpful from afar. Yes there is video-chat. Yes Amazon still delivers but how do you help when there’s a medical situation? What if there’s a form that needs to be signed and returned?  Who’s going to fight that Comcast bill? And all this on top of everyone’s brains doing what they need to do to be comfortable with all this uncertainty.  

While tips and tricks are in abundance right now, here are five ideas I haven’t seen on any lists of things to make coordinating and connecting easier from afar.

1. One word: AdobeScan.  This is a free app you can download to your smartphone which lets you take a picture of any piece of paper and turn it into a PDF.  You can also sign forms and email them directly from your phone. How many times have you heard, “I got this thing in the mail that doesn’t make any sense” but you can’t help because you can’t see what they’re seeing?  With AdobeScan, you can easily scan, email or text a PDF of whatever you’re looking at to someone else.  It’s WAY easier than trying to zoom in with your fingers and read a piece of paper from a photo.

2. Conference Call – the original life hack.  Unless there’s a POA (power of attorney) form on file (and the agency can actually find it), no one is going to talk to you over the phone about your parents’ account or file.  So when something seems wonky with a medical or insurance bill, one thing you can do is call together. Get the number from your parents, keep them on the phone and click “Add Call” on your phone.  Dial the number and merge the calls together. Work your way through the phone-tree until you reach someone. Explain that you are calling about whomever’s account it is and you have them on the phone.  The rep should ask for verbal permission to discuss the situation with someone else on the phone and then you can have a conversation together. If you have to leave a message, make sure to have your parent say they give permission for the rep to discuss their case with you, and then leave your number.  This is especially helpful if someone has hearing loss or cognitive issues.

3. Beef up your Video-chat.  If you’ve ventured into the wide, wonderful world of video-chatting, you’ve probably realized this is a great way to “be there” even if you can’t “be there”.  One particularly easy video-chat option is OneClick Chat which allows you to create a “room” that can be entered by clicking on a link you create for your family.  Yes, everyone feels a little awkward but it’s so good to see each other so why not remember this moment by taking a picture of everyone AKA a screenshot.  Check out these instructions for a Mac; instructions for Windows.  From there, use a website like TouchNote to turn the screenshot into a postcard that you can send directly to your friends and family.  Who knows — this might be 2020’s new idea of a family photo!

4. Give the Gift of Schedule.  We are all trying to figure out what to do with our time these days.  A lot of us used to depend on just calling when we thought about our parents but with all this time alone, it’s a good idea to set a recurring date on your calendar for calls and video-chatting.  Part of what makes COVID-19 hard is the uncertainty of it all, so having a date and time to count on gives people something to look forward to and a sense of schedule again. In the times between calls, consider a family text thread or an online game app like Words with Friends to stay connected.

5. An Important Card in the Spokes.  Your health is like a wheel and all the different things that keep us balanced are the spokes.  Mental wellbeing is a vital spoke in keeping the wheel turning but sometimes one we don’t talk about.  Keep in mind that “flooding” or bursts of emotion out of nowhere are the brain’s way of making itself comfortable in the face of uncertainty.  Another thing we do when a situation is uncertain is try to find control again. And if we can’t control the situation, we go for the low-hanging fruit and try to control the people around us, especially with unreasonable expectations.  Right now more than ever, the U.S. has relaxed regulations to increase remote access to mental health services. Bringing in the expertise of a therapist for you or a family member can shed light on anxieties, remind us that our reactions are normal and ease the expectations we have of each other so that we can remain connected.  

To learn more about Western Care Partners’ services, including counseling, click here.

* * *

Western Care Partners guides families and individuals through the maze of resources and emotions that come with getting older or having a chronic condition.  We screen for services, facilitate decisions and provide counseling to support you through the difficult situation of needing more help. Every situation starts with a free phone consultation — contact us: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

©Western Care Partners, LLC 2020.  All rights reserved.


A Very Unique Bird...continued

Once Mary knew where I lived, it wasn’t long before I noticed her walking past my house more often, that blue eyeshadow and a puffy red jacket which came down to her knees.  Her hat was bright robin’s egg blue and crocheted like something you’d find in a hospital gift shop. I’m sure she bought it to match her make-up which only consisted of the eyeshadow. She wore light-colored jeans that were old and soft with elastic at the waist.  On appearance alone, she was hard to miss. 

Whenever Mary happened to catch me outside, she’d want to talk.  What better place to yell back and forth than over the chainlink fence?

“Oh, haha!  It’s you! Haha!  How are you?” she’d say as if it always was a surprise.  The fence came up to her armpits. She’d place one hand over the other on the chainlink and lean forward, as if to hear me better even though I knew she couldn’t.

“I’m good, Mary. How are you?” 

“This is where you live,” she ignored (or didn’t hear) my question.  “I keep an eye on it. I keep an eye on it for you.”  She pointed at me.  I couldn’t tell if she was keeping an eye on my house or on me in particular.  

“Thanks, Mary.”

“Yeah, so what was that red truck doing last night?  What was the red truck doing here?  This morning too.  And this weekend.  You have a boyfriend? You have a boyfriend, Jill?”

“Mary!”

“Oh, you don’t want to talk about it, haha.  Okay, well I’ll keep an eye on the truck. I’ll keep an eye on it.  You have a boyfriend?”

“Mary!”

“I know, I know!  Ah-haha!” she’d laugh and pat the air with her hand like my response was exactly what she expected.  “You don’t want to tell me. Well, you must be happy.”  

She’d wave her hand more as if to tell me everything was okay and continued walking down the sidewalk.  

After I visited Mary the first time, I realized we’d need more time to make some phone calls about a medical bill problem she was having.  Somehow Mary had two identical bills for a visit in January — one from the hospital and the other from the hospital’s radiology group. Both were for the entire cost of a mammogram and neither one showed that the claim had been sent to Medicare.  I walked down to Mary’s house one morning to help her call the hospital’s billing department.   

I could tell from how Mary paid the bills that her husband had managed the household finances in their marriage.  Mary knew how to write the checks and had a simple budget but in terms of trouble-shooting when there were problems, she was in over her head now.  It wasn’t something she was likely to learn at this point in her life either. In social work, we sometimes call this a “severe division of labor”. Mary’s role was cleaning and cooking; her husband took care of the yard and finances.  When he died, Mary didn’t have the skills to do more than make sure the bills were paid. Now I was trying to explain to the person on the phone why I was helping Mary.  

“Mary,” I said very loudly.  “This woman wants to know if I can have permission to talk about your bills with her.”

“What?!” she crawked.  I pointed at the bill. 

“Can I talk with this woman about your bill?”

“Of course!  I thought that’s what you were here for!”

“Mary,” I pointed at my cell phone.  “You have to TELL her so that she can talk to me or otherwise she’s not allowed to.”

Mary leaned forward and placed the side of her face on my cell phone as if she was talking on it, even though I had it on speaker phone.

“Hello?!  Hello?”  I could hear the woman speaking loudly but Mary couldn’t. 

“You can talk to her. I hired her to help me…” Mary looked at me.  “Well, I guess I didn’t hire you because you’re free! Hahahaha!”

“Mary.”  

Between keeping Mary on track and explaining to the representative that Mary had two bills for the same scan, we were on the phone for 45 minutes.  The women at the hospital agreed to look into the situation.  Mary was in the backroom of the house trying to find something.  

“Mary,” I called.  “I have to go back to work.”  I made a note on her bills that the hospital would call me at work once they figured out where the error happened.  

Mary came back into the room quite proud of herself and holding something in a white plastic grocery bag.

“Here! This is for helping me. This is for helping me out!” She handed it to me.  It was a large bottle of Dove body wash.

“Aw, Mary, thank you.”  We were hired with state and federal dollars, though, which meant no taking gifts from taxpayers though.  “I’m sorry but I’m not allowed to take gifts.”

“Take it,” she said and pushed it into my arms.  “Take it; it’s for you.” 

“I can’t,” I said.  “I’m not allowed to.”

“Take it!” she demanded.  “Take it!”  And then Mary shoved the body wash into me as hard as she could with one hand and pushed me with the other.  I realized that I was being shoved by a woman in her 80’s.

“Okay!” I finally said.  She’d pushed me back a few steps.  “Thank you.”

Mary smiled out from underneath her blue eyeshadow as if nothing had happened.  

“Have a good day!”  

In social work, people come in and out of your life.  Even the most favorite clients only stay for a period of time and then they leave.  You learn to hold it loosely. Still there’s a lightness that you feel when people you’ve connected with appear in your life again.  In the case of Mary, it had been awhile since I’d seen her in the neighborhood. I thought of her often and knew she hadn’t moved because her son still drove his Corvette too fast down our street.  I checked the obituaries just in case she’d died without me knowing it. Then in the early summer, I received a phone call.

“Jill?  Jill? I’m in a bad way.  A bad way, Jill!” I knew immediately from the pitch of her tone that it was Mary.  She sounded distressed.  

“What’s going on, Mary?”  I tried to make my voice loud so she could hear me.

“Well, I had to go to the hospital…the hospital, Jill!”

“I knew you went in January — did you have to go since then?”  She told me the story.

“I was really tired at the pancake feed.  You know the pancake feed?” Mary had been a dearly loved volunteer at the Masonic Lodge for years.  “I was cleaning dishes, so many dishes. They made me sit in a chair. Then I just passed out!”

“Oh no!  Did they call an ambulance?”

“Yeah, they took me to the emergency room.  I was there for three or four hours, Jill….three or four HOURS!”

“Did they figure out what was wrong?” I asked.  Poor Mary!

“Yeah.  I had an infection in my eucharist!  My eucharist, Jill!”

I was so thankful she was alright but I couldn’t keep from smiling.

“Your eucharist?!”  

“Yeah,” she sighed.  She was still trying to wrap her head around the situation.

“Maybe your uterus?”

“That’s what I said!  I said that: I had an infection in my eucharist!”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m feeling better but my yard is a mess.”

“Can your son help?” I asked, knowing that her son was not particularly helpful.

“He just ignores me.”

“Well, should we see if we can find a volunteer for you?” I could hear Mary getting tired but was glad she thought to check in with me.

“This lady stopped by and said she could help,” Mary told me.

“Do you trust her?” 

“Well, yeah, but I couldn’t understand her.  I couldn’t understand her, Jill….”

“You couldn’t understand her?”

“She spoke Mexican!”

“Spanish.”

“What?!” 

I couldn’t tell if she couldn’t hear me or just was in too much distress to listen. 

“Okay, but Mary, do you think she can help you?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Okay, will you call me if that doesn’t work for you?”

“I will.”

“Okay, take care of yourself, Mary.  Call if you need anything.”

And I knew she would.

* * *

Western Care Partners guides families and individuals through the maze of resources and emotions that come with getting older or having a chronic condition.  We screen for services, facilitate decisions and provide counseling to support you through the difficult situation of needing more help.  Every situation starts with a brief free consultation — contact us: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

©Western Care Partners, LLC 2020.  All rights reserved.


A Very Unique Bird Indeed

It wasn’t the fact that Mary’s eye shadow almost matched the Comet she had failed to clean off her toilet seat or that our first call almost got me fired.  Mary — all 100 pounds of her — always stood out because she was my neighbor, she spied on my house, and because she was the first person over 80 to shove me.  That’s not even half the story.

Sweet, sweet Mary was hard of hearing and I’m not even sure how she found our number in the first place; that was, the information and assistance line for the Area Agency on Aging where I worked in Washington State.  It was my first full-time job after joining the masses of being laid off in 2008.  I had no idea what I was doing as an advocate but figured I had a decent moral compass, had read the employee handbook and so far, boy, it was fun to help people.  

Writing can never do justice to the sound of Mary’s voice on the phone.  Her voice sort of wailed, like a seabird, and because she couldn’t hear very well, you could hear her throughout the office every time she called.  Bless anyone else who was trying to hold a conversation or train of thought when we heard from Mary. It simply was not going to happen. If I turned her down on the headset, she couldn’t hear me so every time she called, we resorted to holding the phone away from our heads and yelling.  

“Hello?  Hello?!” a voice crawked the first time she ever called.  Really, there’s no other way to describe it than to make up a word between croak and caw, in the kindest of ways.  “This is Mary. Can you help me?!  I can’t get this man out of my house!” 

Of course this was alarming given that she sounded older, was yelling and I had no idea where she lived.  I quickly realized she wasn’t catching what I was saying back to her.   

“I told him to leave!  Can you? Just tell him to leave.”  I could hear someone talking urgently in the background.  

“Who won’t leave your house, Mary?”  I yelled. So much for niceties and demographics….are you over 60? what do you need help with? do you mind telling me what your income is?  But she had an immediate need.  The phone line went quiet.

“Hello?” I shouted.  A man answered in a normal voice. 

“Hello.”

“Oh, sorry about that.”

“I’m a rep with Ballad Health Shield insurance,” he told me with an annoyed edge.  (It was awhile ago so I’ll make up the details.)

“Get out of my house!” Mary yelled in the background.  

“I help seniors sign up for Medicare plans.  Part C.  Mrs. Sanderson invited me in. She’s going to pay a lot more if she doesn’t have a supplemental,” he was obviously feeling justified about being there.  This was in the early days of Medicare Advantage plans but I had never heard of someone not leaving a woman in her 80’s alone.

“It sounds like you need to leave,” I said.

“She INVITED me here to buy a plan,” he told me with finality.  Mary was still telling him to get out in the background.

“And now she doesn’t WANT to.”  My coworkers were looking at me.  “She TOLD you to get out of her HOUSE.”  

I had looked up Mary’s phone number in our database and realized she lived in my little neighborhood of 50 or 60 homes squashed between the train tracks and the highway.  Danged if I didn’t want to head over there and kick him out myself.  

“Look, I don’t think you understand…” he tried to tell me.

“I understand that she doesn’t WANT you in her house.  That’s what she just told you and I am telling you now.” I took a breath while Mary continued on in the background.  Apparently she didn’t need to breathe.  “If you don’t leave, I will call the police.”  

I was trying to read the case notes as quickly as possible to get a handle on her situation.  Mary had called our office for various things before but it was my first phone call with her.  She’d requested Meals on Wheels and a volunteer to help with home repair, it looked like. The notes said she volunteered with the Masonic Lodge down the street.  I wondered if she was the little older woman who walked by my house, blue eyeshadow for days, her hand bouncing up and down on my chain link fence, looking forward but definitely keeping an eye on things.   

“Who are you?” the man demanded and I told him.  

“Well, expect me to file a complaint.  I have every right to be here — she INVITED me.”  

With that he must’ve put the phone down and left because Mary came back on. 

“He wouldn’t leave.  Oh my goodness!  He wouldn’t leave!  Oh my!”  

While I tried to help Mary calm down (not a small task), it really sounded like she didn’t have much of a support system.  It didn’t help that the only way she could hear me was if I lowered the tone of my voice and spoke loud and gruffly, my “angry eyes” voice.  Even then, her hearing me was only kindof-sortof. Once she calmed down, I tried to ask Mary if she had Medicare but she was discombobulated.  I asked her if I could come over tomorrow and meet her in person; then we could figure all of this out. She agreed and later that afternoon, my boss emailed to find out why the heck she’d received a nasty complaint from Ballad Health Shield about me.  I was duly reprimanded.  

The next day I visited Mary for the first time.  She lived exactly 15 houses away from me and was as loud in person as she was on the phone.  The home entered through her living room and above the mantle hung a huge oil painting of a grey standard poodle.  Mary didn’t always finish her sentences when she was excited or distressed so in-between her, “Oh my god, I didn’t know what to…..Oh, he wouldn’t leave….” and “Thank you for being here, oh thank you so much for coming!” I picked up that she lived with her son who was away at his job washing used cars for a local dealership.  I also picked up that, except for mowing the lawn, he was not able to help her much. When I asked her about it, she dodged the question.

 

“Oh, that’s not his thing…the housework.  That’s what I do! Haha! If he did it, I wouldn’t have a job!”  

It was months before I realized that Mary’s son likely had a developmental disability.  In order to keep him from being institutionalized — the standard back in the day — Mary and her husband had kept their son home from school and cared for him.  The son’s first love was his corvette which I often griped about when he revved it down our quiet street.  

Mary’s house was fairly clean with mid-century modern furniture and a heavy 70s dining room set.  She could barely pull the huge wooden chairs away from the table, gasping as she tried to also tell me about a photo on the wall.  

 

“That….” she grabbed the chair with both hands and tugged.  “…is my husband and THAT….” she pointed to a young handsome Italian man leaning his arms around their shoulders on the deck of a yacht, “…is Riccardo!”  

“Oh, you like Riccardo, huh?  Did something happen with you and Riccardo?”

“Oh!  Well, I’m blushing….haha….you can’t say that.  He is handsome!” Mary could barely get a word out, she was so flustered.  

“Mary,” I said her name often as she seemed to have a hard time staying on track.  “We need to make sure you have the insurance you need. Shall we work on that?”  

For the next hour, we made phone calls and verified that, in spite of her inability to keep the conversation on track, she had actually enrolled in a good Medicare plan and seemed to have a couple of ducks in a row.  There were a few strange medical bills that we still needed to figure out so I promised to come the next week and help her.  

 

“I just can’t get anything done on the phone!” she yelled, not meaning to but also not able to hear herself in her head. 

I pointed at my chest.  “That’s what I’m here for.  We’ll figure it out next week.”

Mary nodded.  “You have to go home now?”

“I do,” I told her.

“Where do you live?” she asked.  I knew this was coming. Ever have it where the person you least expect has a spidey sense about the questions you most don’t want to answer?  I figured I could lie or I could come clean and let her know I lived down the street. It was a small town and she was bound to see me sometime if she hadn’t already.

“My house is just down the street actually.”

“We’re neighbors?!” she 

grabbed my arm.  “I’ll check on your house when I walk. Which one is it?”  So I told her. I didn’t want to linger too long on the subject and started walking toward her door.  

“Nice to meet you, Mary.  See 

you next week!” I pretty much shouted.  I pointed to her mantle and an extravagant urn sitting just to the side of the oil painting.  

“Mary, is that where you keep your husband’s ashes?”

“No way,” she shook her head.  “That’s my dog. My husband’s in the closet.”  She grabbed my arm again and laughed.

This was just the beginning.

(To be continued….)

* * *

Western Care Partners guides families and individuals through the maze of resources and emotions that come with getting older or having a chronic condition.  We screen for services, facilitate decisions and provide counseling to support you through the difficult situation of needing more help. Call or send us an email for more information: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

©Western Care Partners, LLC 2020.  All rights reserved.


Fresh Heart: The Art of Not Losing Yourself

I recently asked a client with memory loss, “Who knows you best right now?”  She was very aware of her journey through the early stages of dementia and we were trying to get her feet back under her.  The pieces of her identity which were tied to managing the household, caring for her partner and keeping in touch with family were gone.  She teared up a little and put her hand on her heart, “I’m not sure….” she said.  

“Well, could I tell you who I see?….” I asked.  She nodded and then I told her the pieces of her that stood out to me.  She was talented at making conversations flow smoothly and recognizing when people were kind.  Her sense of taste in clothing tended toward comfortable and outdoorsy with a love for wool. She had beautiful eyes that picked up on everything happening in the room.  We talked about her always being a mother no matter what. I noted that her sense of humor was still very much intact and a lot of the pieces she had always managed alone she was now able to accept help with.  Not easy things but she relaxed as we talked, as if she finally had something to hold onto again.  

Memory loss, however, doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  In the same way, her partner was also experiencing the loss and he admitted that his path included a great deal more anger and grief.  His own disabilities took up a significant amount of mindspace and he said he’d been slow to realize she could no longer initiate the tasks she once did to keep their household afloat.  In fact, he said, it was hard for him to even identify who she was if she wasn’t doing all the things she had once done….as if doing things, he recognized, was the only thing that makes us who we are.  His grief centered on the person who knew him best now wandering aimlessly around the house. Their marriage hadn’t been perfect and he was struggling to figure out how to make things work when they both weren’t at their best and maybe never would be again.  He thought the hardest part would be that she was unable to help him without guidance but the real difficulty, he said, was that he lost his favorite person to talk things over with and she could no longer spontaneously show affection.  

Years ago now, the Area Agency on Aging that I worked for participated in a pilot study for a new model of “family caregiver support”.  The gist of the program was to screen the primary care provider in a situation for burnout and then provide referrals to support the dyad.  

We knew from our work as advocates that the role of caring for someone looked different in every single household.  Some clients called us for a listening ear; others called to figure out how to pay for care. What was new in our experience was the pilot’s evaluation tool for assessing what kind of stress the person experienced in taking care of someone else.  Four pages into the eval, however, a simple tally showed that people were feeling the stress or “burden” from providing care in at least one of four basic areas — financial, social, physical or emotional.  It followed that we could provide resources to address these four areas and, if we provided resources that specifically addressed the kind of burden someone was feeling, the more likely that this support would be successful.  Little did we realize that the organic work we were doing to advocate for clients could actually fit into a system.  

Being a pilot program, the rules and reporting we adhered to were a bit clunky.  We quickly learned how to enter the information so that the system would give us the referrals that we knew would help clients.  One client told me that the only thing that really drove him bonkers about his wife having dementia was the physical task of having to change the sheets every day because she couldn’t remember to put absorbent briefs on at night.  He scored high on the physical tasks of being a care partner being the most burdensome so we started looking for someone who could come to do laundry a few times a week.

Another woman who cared for her husband who had Parkinson’s carefully told us all of the pieces of her situation that made her frustrated but mostly that she couldn’t see her friends at water aerobics anymore.  For her, the stress was related to the social side of things and giving up time to be with friends. As much as we talked about other supports, it was when we found someone to stay with her husband so she could go to the pool that she gained this piece of herself back which made all the difference in the world.  

With the woman who needed to be reminded of who she still is, her husband finds the emotional tasks like having to initiate conversations and hugs to be the most taxing.  He wonders how he’s going to be able to go on. I remind him that it takes courage to bring in someone like me when their relationship is being pushed to the max with loss after loss, that they both are feeling a little adrift at the moment and we need to find things to ground the emotional piece.  Some distant flickering sense of self is not giving up even though they both think they can go no further. I mention that it takes a significant amount of confidence to be frustrated with a situation and not ready to try something new but perhaps we could talk about ideas to make day-to-day challenges more bearable.  It comes to mind that these are ideas we all can use:

1.  Find the notes — you don’t need a whole symphony. As a supervisor once told me, sometimes we need to find and acknowledge between us the good bits of life, the little things that are sweet, the pieces we can like about what has changed.  When we feel like we’re starting from the lowest place, this is a more gentle way of reminding ourselves: what is one note or drop that is still good, that I still love about myself, about this person? We’re not talking about looking on the bright side, but giving our brains a chance to acknowledge what’s not lost for this does give us “fresh heart” to keep going.

2.  Don’t let yourself miss the party. We all do this.  We imagine that if that one thing (usually someone else) were different, we too would be a different person and be able to be happy.  And then we obsess about everything that’s missing and wrong, as if this could make it better. Think of it this way….you finally get to the day of a party which you’ve been planning forever.  All of your favorite people are there, your favorite food, your best playlist ever. Then you see a family member whom you really don’t like roll up. Who told her the party was today?! you think, and all of a sudden dealing with this uninvited guest becomes the whole focus….They are going to ruin the whole thing!  So you think through your options.  You can try locking the door but she’ll likely bang on it ‘til you notice her.  (Not a good way to enjoy your party.) You can hold the door shut for a while while she yells and tries to get in…but, guess what?….then you’re standing at the door while the party continues without you in the kitchen.  Finally you realize you have a third option which is to just let her in, acknowledge that she’s going to dominate the conversation sometimes, probably eat more than her fair share of snacks….but you’re not going to make her the center of attention and there’s no way in hell you’re going to let her be the reason you miss the party.  And guess what?! your friends don’t want you to miss the party either. Letting ourselves overthink what’s missing in our situations is missing our own party. 

3.  Update your owner’s manual of you. When we go through things that change our relationship with ourselves and others, it’s easy to feel incongruent with who we are on the inside.  Maybe we go through the motions but say things like, I just don’t know who I am anymore….For the client who felt lost because of early stage dementia, we needed to find a way to remind her of who she was, both as an individual and in coupledom with her husband.  We decided she needed to update to her personal owner’s manual and installed a bulletin board in the main living area. Then we enlisted all the help of those close to her to make lists and find pictures of anything that reminded us of her.  With help, she made a list of “Things I’m Really Good At” like deadheading the flowers, not leaving the stove on (a dig at her husband’s expectations of dementia) and (she said brightly) losing things! We listed “Important Themes in my Life” like trusting God and praying, always learning, and having a beautiful living space.  Part of her “owner’s manual” came to display her artwork after she took up coloring to calm her mind. The husband started leaving her notes to watch her read them even when she couldn’t remember to hug him anymore — a sweet moment he needed in order to feel connected still. The bulletin board became their little window into seeing all the unique pieces that made her her and them them, convincing me that everyone needs an owner’s manual like this.

In her book, Counting on Kindness, Wendy Lustbader beautifully describes the dynamics that go on when we lose pieces of our health and must depend on others to help us.  “Fresh heart” is what she calls it when we can focus on what is there now and how it balances what is not, even when it’s something we never wanted or hoped for.  And she rightly calls it courageous to see what is in front of us, saying, “The word courage comes from the Latin cor for heart.  We give ourselves fresh heart by pulling our attention away from what has been lost.”  

Finding ways to stay visible when our identity is shaken and remembering who we are, bit by bit…taking note of what is still there in a world that tends to hide any kind of loss — it’s making sure we don’t miss the party when the party is ourselves.

* * *

Western Care Partners guides families and individuals through the maze of resources and emotions that come with getting older or having a chronic condition.  We screen for services, facilitate decisions and provide counseling to support you through the difficult situation of needing more help. Call or send us an email for more information: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

©Western Care Partners, LLC 2020.  All rights reserved.


Does this Sandwich Generation Come with a Pickle? - Part 2

Continued from Part 1: In some cases, being invisible has tremendous benefits….[it] is like having a superpower…until you need to be seen, until you need your hard-earned knowledge and skills and expertise and grey hairs recognized….Invisibility is a wonderful thing — as long as we don’t lose sight of ourselves in the process.  

We forget that parts of us can become invisible but it’s happened to every one of us.  We forget because who we think we are changes especially when we’re called on to care for someone else or adjust to a new health situation.  It doesn’t mean those parts have disappeared but it can be easy for certain parts to become invisible to others. When we’re trying to adjust to a “new” self, it’s like trying to get our feet under us again and we simply can forget who we are….until you run face-first into this invisibility which I did rather recently.

When families are caring for someone who is living with a complicated medical situation, the supplies to care for that person are expensive.  Extremely. Ostomy supplies, special tubes and tape for ports, even incontinence products can rack up hundreds of dollars in out-of-pocket costs.  Some of these supplies are covered by insurance but if there’s a delay in coverage or approval, the family is often subjected to purchasing supplies privately.  Then a client’s situation can change which means that the supplies change… which leads to a surplus of supplies that cannot be returned. They’ve either been paid for by insurance or, often, the family has enough medical paperwork to manage without having to try to find a receipt and return four boxes of nitrile gloves, several bottles of senokot, pepto-bismol and a scale to Walgreens.  Which was how I ended up with 14 cases of vanilla-flavored nutritional formula — sustenance for people with a G-tube — in the back of my car.

Knowing that a case of this formula can run approximately $185, a family whose care situation had changed asked if I could find someone who would appreciate the extra cases they could no longer use.  Insurance could not take them back, and if they were bought outside of insurance, where the receipts were was anyone’s guess. So I agreed to find them a home, over $2600 of liquid nutrition. What I failed to realize was that agencies serving people who have a G-tube cannot accept this as a donation because it’s considered a prescription.  It wasn’t like an extra walker that I could just drop off at a medical equipment closet. This “prescription” clause knocked out about 90% of my ideas for how to donate the stuff. Then I realized I knew another family who cared for someone with a G-tube — puttin’ the pieces together!  I decided to call them up.

“Morning,” I said when they answered the phone, excited to tell them my big find.  “I know this is random but Michaela has a G-tube and you guys use the supplemental formula, right?…”

The mom confirmed that, yes, her daughter still used the formula, in fact the exact same brand — and it was very expensive.  

“Well, I was calling because I have 14 cases in the back of my car and I wondered if it was something you guys could use.”  I was thinking in my head (which I should know better than to do), this is going to make their DAY!

“Oh, that’s cool,” said the mom.  

“Do you want it?”

“Mmm….it’s vanilla-flavored?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Oh….well, that’s really nice of you but Michaela only likes banana creme….”

Now, unless you’ve known someone who eats through a G-tube where the formula goes straight into the stomach, you wouldn’t know that you also can taste food even if it bypasses your mouth.  It’s incredible. And! you wouldn’t know how expensive it is. And you definitely wouldn’t turn down 14 cases of the stuff because it was the wrong flavor. But you sure can do that and this mom did, in spite of both she and her daughter being on Medicaid.  

I ran face-first into invisibility and this is where I commend the mom.  When we experience a challenge, sometimes it’s easy for us to become invisible in terms of what we want or need.  Challenges run the gamut. It could be caring for someone who has memory loss and having to stay home more because that person can no longer leave.  It could be enduring the healing process after a surgery and needing someone to help you. Or it could be living on disability income with Medicaid providers coming into your home to care for you, including help with a G-tube.  All these things can make parts of you invisible, especially to others and, unfortunately, even to ourselves.  

Take being the care partner to someone with dementia.  You run the risk of becoming invisible to yourself if all of your energy goes into being the brains for two people — the cooking, the cleaning, keeping the person occupied with something that’s stimulating but setting them up for success with something they like to do….there’s just not enough brain to go around!  And at the same time, it takes cojones to stay connected to others and not lose yourself.  When it comes to healing after a surgery which can take way more time for our bodies than for our brains, others may think they can make up their own schedules of when they care for us.  The part of us waiting around for their help feels invisible, searching for the words to say this gives the impression that their time is more valuable than our own. Then try being low on the socioeconomic scale — the right to choose what you don’t want can definitely go unseen.  Unless you are not invisible to yourself and know enough to say what won’t work for you, like the mom did with the formula.  

It is so easy to lose ourselves by adjusting to what someone (or society) thinks we should do.  A dear friend calls it “shoulding” on yourself and makes a point to set up a “should-free” zone where she can calmly ask herself if she wants to be limited or limitless.  Because it’s choice that makes us human — that’s the pickle — whether someone agrees with what we choose or not. When we give ourselves choice, we stay visible.  

Next week: What does it take to stay visible to ourselves?

* * *

Western Care Partners guides families and individuals through the maze of resources and emotions that come with getting older or having a chronic condition.  We screen for services, facilitate decisions and provide counseling to support you through the difficult situation of needing more help. Call or send us an email for more information: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

©Western Care Partners, LLC 2020.  All rights reserved.


Does this Sandwich Generation Come with a Pickle? - Part 1

I don’t mind being touched when I’m taking a yoga class as long as the instructor asks first.  Generally, that’s how yoga rolls: early on in the class, the instructor asks you to raise a hand or a leg if you don’t want him or her to provide hands-on adjustments.  They take note, thank you and go on with the class, not touching if you don’t want to be touched. This is yogini best practice.

Occasionally, I go to yoga with my friend Mich.  She happens to also be one of the funniest people I know.  We used to go to a particular yoga studio and crack each other up before class.  Amidst other students taking their mat placement very seriously, she would whisper about how she’s going to invent mats the size of picnic blankets with a dotted line around the edge that says, “Personal Space”.  Or how we could tape two mats end-to-end to make one super long mat and then roll the entire thing out across the floor, pretending to be oblivious to the other students getting a little protective about their space.  

At one point, Mich had a favorite instructor.  We’ll call him Denver. She loved Denver because his sequences opened the hips and expanded the ribcage.  Denver shared insights about hindu deities and the history of the body. Mich felt refreshed and even inspired by his classes.  One night, she encouraged me to come to class with her. Mich can have a picky side soI thought, Denver must really know what he’s doing.

We rolled out our mats and sat down.  The class was full when Denver shut the door and plugged in his iPhone to play some soft music.  We exhaled, inhaled and joined our voices in a single Om.  Mich was right that Denver could move a class through a sequence that inspired you to hold beautiful poses longer and longer, poses where you put your hands on the mat and twist one leg up above your body.  Then suddenly, I felt someone grab my thigh and try to help me square my hips. Denver!?  I couldn’t believe it!  The cardinal rule of yoga instructors is that they ask before they adjust you….and Denver broke it.

There’s nothing worse than coming out of a yoga class pissed.  On the walk home, Mich talked about how great the class was while I was annoyed with not being asked before I was touched.  Besides, it wasn’t even that helpful of an adjustment.

“Hmm,” Mich said.  “He didn’t touch me.”  

Several weeks later I landed in another class with Mich, taught by Denver, only to have the same thing happen again.  At Mich’s suggestion, I even tried to follow her instructions on how to make myself unnoticed — something Mich had practiced.  Somehow you just put out the energy that you don’t want to be messed with. Mich told me she actually practiced going to parties and counted it as a success when no one remembered she was there.  I, on the other hand, get called onto the stage if there’s any kind of audience participation even if I don’t volunteer. I tried to put out an energy of I’m not here and Don’t touch me in the yoga class but nothing worked; in fact the harder I tried, the more adjustments I received.  Mostly I just came off as crabby to the other yoga students and I’m sure Denver thought, Boy, that woman really needs to be here!

— 

In the past few weeks, three women who are approximately 20 years older than me have told me that they feel invisible, that getting older had rendered them unseen in the world.  Their stories are similar in that they are dismissed after being noticed, usually with a hidden message that’s disrespectful.  

One of these women who has gorgeous grey hair and a strong, lithe body told me that she began to feel invisible when men her age started dropping the “young lady” line…as in, “Let me get that door for you, young lady”.  It’s empty flattery that is tiring to know how to respond to, and feels like men not seeing her as someone with a lifetime accumulation of knowledge and experience that she’s worked hard for. Instead the comments point to her age, minimizes it and leaves who she is invisible.  She doesn’t have the energy to point out that calling a gentleman her own age “young man” would easily be taken as disrespectful, sassy and out-of-line.  

Another woman mentioned that she doesn’t like to go to bars or restaurants because she either gets ignored when trying to order a drink or is given over-the-top special treatment that embarrasses her in front of other patrons.  She doesn’t feel seen as a human — as if her wrinkles and grey hair make it so that she is either too seen for what she is not and needs extra help, or not seen for who she actually is.

The risk is that this invisibility has an effect on the psyche of a whole population.  In this case, all three women are caring for their parents and juggling full-time jobs.  They’re in their prime income-earning years before retirement and also learning how to have friendships with their kids who are now adults.  If they don’t have biological family per se, they are often “logical” family to someone in their community. This population is educated, smart, dependable and trying to not lose themselves in the process of caring for so many others.  They are very aware that they need to hold very tightly onto their own inner beauty. It’s so all-consuming that you’d think this sandwich generation would at least come with a pickle.  

According to Dr. Gabor Maté, family physician and author of When the Body Says No, this caring combined with the belief that we’re invisible is a life- and health-altering combo, and not for the better.  One of the things they don’t teach in medical school, he shares in a talk about caregiver stress, is that who gets sick and who doesn’t is not accidental.  Based on his experience as a family doctor, Maté holds that suppressing our feelings, especially when caring for another person, can become a behavior pattern that leads to chronic stress and then to chronic illness.  Two components play into this. One: taking too much responsibility for how everyone around us feels and hiding our own needs.  And two: believing that we must never disappoint the people around us.  Just as the immune system serves to protect our body from disease, our emotions also serve to protect us — and stifling one affects the other.  

In some cases, being invisible has tremendous benefits.  Which superpower would you rather have?  Be able to fly or be invisible?  If you’re invisible, yoga instructors don’t randomly decide to adjust you in your poses without asking first.  Some of us can go to parties and not need to talk to anyone, a bonus if we’re having a bad day. Being invisible is like having a superpower until you need to be seen, until you need your hard-earned knowledge and skills and expertise and grey hairs recognized.  And then it’s hard to remove the veil and say, I’m here!  Yeah, me….I’m here doing all the things and I could use some support and recognition.  It sneaks up on us, the not being seen for all the work we think we’re doing to hold the world together.  Invisibility is a wonderful thing — as long as we don’t lose sight of ourselves in the process.  

To be continued….

* * *

Western Care Partners guides families and individuals through the maze of resources and emotions that come with getting older or having a chronic condition.  We screen for services, facilitate family conversations and provide counseling to support you through the difficult situation needing more help. Call or send us an email for more information: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

©Western Care Partners, LLC 2018.  All rights reserved.


How to Take Christmas into your Own Hands at 83

I’m not an expert on the subject of crows but it didn’t surprise me that Ty was.  Within five minutes of me coming through the door, he was already giving me the impression that, 1): he always told the truth and 2): there would be some very good stories during my time as his social worker.  It was early spring.

Ty offered me a chair and sat across from me on a little striped sofa from the 1950’s.  He was 83-years old and over six feet tall. He had the good looks of someone who loved his life and probably surprised himself when an old man appeared in the mirror.  

Dorrie, his tiny wife, sat primly in a wingback chair next to me, hands folded in her lap, nodding at everything Ty said.  She had heard all of his stories but I was a new visitor and so she conceded to listen again. Their modest farmhouse was situated on three acres surrounded by tulip fields which Ty described to Dorrie every day because she couldn’t see them anymore.  

Dorrie perpetually smiled even when she told me how her vision had slowly disappeared.  When she could only see shadows, she made Ty call around to see if they qualified for extra help in the house and eventually they found me.  I made a visit to help them piece together a plan.

I looked around their space.  Ty definitely did his best but I could tell housework wasn’t his jam.  The shortwave radio he’d built himself took up most of the kitchen table.  The windows could’ve used a wash and the living-room looked like someone had sprinkled a layer of sawdust on the floor.

Ty cut right to the chase and asked me what I needed to know, how long I’d been a social worker, and if I’d ever raised a crow.  Dorrie nodded and Ty grinned. I took my cue and asked him what he knew about crows.

To begin, Ty went back, way back, by letting me know that his great-grandfather had been banished from Massachusetts for bad language but not before they branded a letter “B” on his forehead. I asked Ty if he could move a little closer in history. According to Ty, his family ended up in Washington State when his great-grandfather joined the navy. Ty was one of those strapping young men who came of age during the Great Depression and found himself taking any job he could to make ends meet.  In the port of Bellingham, he landed a job on the tugboats with Bellingham Tug & Barge Company. Bellingham Tug & Barge sold to Foss in the late 1930’s.  At the time, Ty was a deckhand on the Tyee, “the most powerful tugboat in the United States”.  (This still didn’t explain the crow.)

In the days of logging, the Tyee shepherded gigantic log booms through Puget Sound for milling.  These booms — huge floating rafts of old-growth timber — float low in the water and were hard for other boats to see.  It was the job of the rear tugboat to keep a kerosene lamp lit on the end of the boom. It was Ty’s job. The tug would run close to the boom, Ty would jump down on the logs, relight the lamp and then scramble back to the tug.  Except for the night that he couldn’t. Puget Sound grew stormy and the tugboat couldn’t get close enough to pick Ty up again. He spent the night on a log and decided the boat business was not for him.  

For the rest of his life, Ty was a land surveyor.  He loved the outdoors. He surveyed for the oil industry back when you had to survey on foot through forests and plains, figuring out where it would be worth drilling for oil.  In most instances, his job was to drill holes, fill them with nitroglycerin and blow them up to see if there was potential for oil.  

Eventually Ty became allergic to nitroglycerin — which was ironic now that he was carrying small tablets of it in his pocket in the event that he had another heart attack.  Not ready to retire, Ty moved into teaching. Even in his 80s, he still taught at least one class every year at a local community college. This was one more reason they wanted to find someone to stay with Dorrie, to keep her company while he was gone.   

“Dear, the crow…” Dorrie interjected sweetly.  

Ty nodded and explained that the reason he was asking about crows was because one had recently pecked on their kitchen window and, they thought, it was probably related to the crow they’d hand-raised years ago.  As a surveyor, Ty had found a fledgling that fell out of the nest before it could fly. Not finding the nest, he gently put the bird in his pocket and carried it home.

With a little bottle-feeding and love, the crow eventually learned how to fly. The crow, however, associated the family as home.  He hung out on the porch and tapped the window whenever he got bored.  

Dorrie smoothed out her dress and smiled a little more.  Eventually the crow did leave, right around the holidays.  They figured that he’d started a family of his own. Crows, it turns out, mate for life.  

Then one day, the crow came back with his mate to tap on the window.  Dorrie brought bread out to the porch and the crows dined before flying off.  Now, years later, the “grand-crows” of the original pair still turned up on their porch and pecked on the window.  They were skittish around Dorrie and Ty but somehow instinctively knew that the couple would offer them bread.  

It was getting on in the hour and as much as I was enjoying their stories, I suggested we review the things they needed help with: someone to stay with Dorrie, help preparing meals, maybe housekeeping.  

“By the way,” I mentioned, pointing to the carpet.  “Why do you have sawdust on the floor?”

“Tell her, dear,” Dorrie grinned. 

Ty looked at her with a twinkle in his eye and said: “That’s from where I had to take the Christmas tree down.”

“You had to cut your Christmas tree down inside the house?”

“Uh-huh, with a chainsaw.”

I shook my head and Dorrie laughed quietly to herself.

“I overestimated how heavy it was!”  Ty pointed to the ceiling where an eye-hook was installed perfectly in the middle of the living-room.  “I couldn’t lift it so I ran some parachute cord through that eye-hook, tied it to the top of the tree and pulled it up to standing in a 5-gallon bucket.  Then I filled the bucket with qwikrete to hold it in place. It worked like a charm!”

I’m sure the whole family admired his ingenuity, however, when it came time to take the tree down, Ty wasn’t strong enough to move the whole tree and a 5-gallon bucket of concrete outside.  

“So….You cut your Christmas tree down with a chainsaw…” I said.

“Yeah,” Ty nodded and looked at Dorrie.  Smiling, he continued: “We could really use some help with the vacuuming….” 

* * *

Western Care Partners guides families and individuals through the maze of resources and emotions that come with getting older or having a chronic condition.  We screen for services, facilitate family conversations and provide counseling to support you through the difficult situation needing more help. Call or send us an email for more information: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

©Western Care Partners, LLC 2018.  All rights reserved.


Deciding About Having Tough Conversations During the Holidays (We Vote No)

If there’s one topic that can polarize a conversation, it’s the idea that we need to have direct heart-to-heart conversations about a loved one’s future over the holidays.  

. . . 

Here’s a little nugget of truth: I wrote that sentence two days ago and couldn’t think of anything else to write that would possibly be diplomatic or helpful.  After chewing on it for awhile, I think this topic is one to approach with the mindset of how can we make something hard a little bit easier. How can we let holidays — this time of year and other times too — be a celebration?  

You may have heard some rumblings on the interwebs or even overheard strangers talking about how kids and parents need to have certain conversations sooner than later…Conversations about what you want toward and after the end of your life, where the important paperwork is located, who will make decisions if you can’t, and et cetera.  You can download questions, visit websites with conversation starters, even buy workbooks that walk you through the five wishes straight on ‘til morning. As a dear friend and advocate once told me, all of us need to get our affairs in order.  I am one-hundred percent behind the idea that these conversations need to happen.  

Now, there are two camps on the topic of whether or not to initiate family decision-making and tough conversations over the holidays.  For some of us, the inner compass needle points straight at we’re all together so let’s talk about this stuff now.  And for others, the obvious is why the heck would you bring up such a heavy subject over the holidays?  We could spend days analyzing how personality types, birth order and family history all play into this.  What I see is that the holidays are a time when some families get together physically but the main worry is how they’re going to connect emotionally.  And to be honest, it is really hard for families to make decisions together when holidays are involved and emotions are naturally heightened.   

In light of many of us really wanting to do good by way of our families, here are some ideas to keep in mind for whatever holidays you celebrate:

  1. Avoid Turning Holidays into Emotional Holidays

When I was working in hospice, the daughter of one of my clients had had numerous significant losses in the month of February.  It was tragic really. She’d gone through a divorce in February, she’d once been assaulted in February, she’d had major surgery and the list went on and on.  Now her father was dying, she’d lost her job and guess which month it was? February. It was no wonder that she dreaded February every single year.  

In grief counseling, we’d say this woman had a lot of emotional holidays in February.  An emotional holiday can be a day or even a time of year when you (and your body) experience something strongly emotional because of a past experience.  Usually we’re talking about loss whether it’s the day someone died or the birthday of someone we love who is no longer there. Have you ever woken up on a certain day, in a certain fog or funk but you weren’t sure why?  And then later you realize it was the anniversary of someone dying whom you loved? This is the phenomenon of the emotional holiday — that our minds and bodies can associate memories with certain times of the year, down to the day, and feel those emotions that were felt when the memory was made.  Emotional holidays can correspond with actual holidays too.  

How do emotional holidays get easier?  By accumulating positive experiences AKA celebration, connection and good food.  Maybe take some time to read the room and check in with people. Will insisting on having a difficult conversation (even if it’s loooong overdue) create an emotional holiday?  Will it lead people to avoid tough conversations with you in the future? Maybe a better option would be to plant the seed of hey, I want to have this conversation with you not-right-now but sometime.  

  1. Palliative Care for your Emotions

When you have a chronic condition that will stay with you for the rest of your life, you can qualify for palliative care.  Palliative care focuses on comfort and treating the symptoms when a disease cannot be cured. As a patient, you direct your own care with the main goal not being to “fix” the disease but to get on as best as possible with what is.  Palliative care is very holistic in that practitioners consider your situation from all different lenses: physical, psychological, social and spiritual.  Palliative care is you not trying to change what is and instead taking the best care possible of you.

This is the same kind of approach we need for our emotions over the holidays.  So often we try to “fix” our emotions or “fix” the emotions of family around us.  We fall into old patterns and ways of being around our siblings that we would never be with our friends in the outside world.  This, in turn, also fails to give our families the opportunity to know who we really are at this moment in time.  

A friend of mine was riding in my car once.  She said something I was curious about early in the drive.  It seemed like something important but when I asked her about it a few minutes later, she said it wasn’t important and she didn’t want to talk about it.  I was a little miffed but had to laugh when she replied, “That was five minutes ago. I’ve changed.” It was FIVE MINUTES (that’s what I thought in my head).  But she was right — people change.  

Sometimes we don’t expect our families to change.  We have preconceived notions going into the holidays that we are going to have the same emotions and same reactions that we’ve had every single time we’ve gotten together.  It’s an emotional holiday, after all. Someone is going to set us off (our brother is going to make fun of us for being a feminist), push our buttons (our sister is going to insist on some tradition we didn’t remember existed) and we’re going to end up with an emotional hangover (and in therapy).  

But what if we took a palliative care approach to our emotions over the holidays?  What if instead of trying to manage our emotions (“fix” them) and getting frustrated with not having the conversations we KNOW need to happen, we just acknowledged that we’re feeling scared about where things could land or sad that we feel disconnected?  What if, instead of trying to make every holiday perfect, we decided to make our emotions comfortable? Frustration, we could say, I’m making you a little bed right next to mine because I know you are as overwhelmed as I am.  Or maybe, I’m sad that I’m realizing there are things I don’t know about my family….gonna honor that and maybe see if I have enough energy to ask more questions.  Maybe our emotions deserve a little palliative care, especially this time of the year.

  1. Calm Down, Drink Some Water

When I was little and woke up in the middle of the night, it seemed very distressing at the time!  Of course, I decided that I should obviously wake my mom up too.  Her response? Go to the bathroom, get yourself a drink of water and go back to bed.  But I couldn’t sleep!  Did you drink some water?  No.  Have a drink of water and I’m sure you’ll go back to sleep.  It worked every time.  (Thanks Mom.)

In stressful outdoor situations, we have the same motto.  Are you lost, frustrated, exhausted and not sure what to do next?  Here comes the refrain: Calm down, drink some water.  

Now it’s the holidays for some of us.  We’re back with family. We can’t sleep because of something a family member said.  We miss our friends. We are out of our element even though it is the environment we grew up in.  I’m projecting, but how many of us forget to cut ourselves some slack during family holidays? Research shows that breathing through our noses decreases anxiety.  Oxygen dissipates the adrenaline in our blood stream and calms us. Drinking water makes us both breathe through our noses and hydrates us. PS — being hydrated actually decreases symptoms of depression.  It may seem simple but perhaps a tool we forget over the holidays is to calm down, drink some water.

* * *

I once had a woman say to me, I just told my family, “You’re all coming to my house on Thanksgiving and we’re all going to fill out our Power of Attorney forms.”  I was stunned and asked her how that went over.  Just fine, she said.  I’m an attorney and they know they have to listen to me.  

Okay, so we’re not all in that position and, truth be told, taking on a big topic like end-of-life wishes or the chance that we’ll all need a certain amount of physical help someday is a delicate subject.  With a certain amount of tact, yes, these conversations can take place around the holidays but goodness knows, not everyone responds well to being told they have to talk about something deeply personal before they’re ready to.  And perhaps accumulating positive experiences may lead to better conversations in the long run.  

Maybe it’s my line of work but it seems like there were a lot of people who thought 2019 was already hard enough: We’ll just be glad when it’s 2020, they said. This year was a challenge.  In that case, give yourself permission to be kind to yourself, respect the emotional holidays, give your feelings some palliative care and for goodness sakes, calm down and drink some water.   

* * *

Western Care Partners guides families and individuals through the maze of resources and emotions that come with getting older or having a chronic condition.  We screen for services, facilitate family conversations and provide counseling to support you through the difficult situation needing more help. Call or send us an email for more information: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

©Western Care Partners, LLC 2018.  All rights reserved.