Caregiver

Rediscovering Myself Through- And After- Caregiving

ALS, Caregiving,Grief,Disney,Pixar,The incrediblesElastigirl.“Your identity is your most valuable possession. Protect it.”

Yesterday, I went to see New York City Ballet perform Jewels. It’s one of the first ballets I ever saw. I saw my first NYC Ballet, The Nutcracker, at age three and was enthralled by ballet from that young age. I read about Jewels and my mom took me to see it at Lincoln Center. How lucky was I? Going to the theater or ballet is my favorite activity and my most loved way to lose myself and feed my soul. As I walked to Lincoln Center, after making a last-minute decision to get a ticket, I thought about my caregiving days. As Ben’s ALS was progressing and he was nervous about being alone, I could not simply make a quick decision to go to the theater or ballet. It had to be planned in advance and Ben had to negotiate with his daughter to stay with him. I went from being someone who saw everything to someone who barely knew what was on Broadway. It was a choice I made with no regrets, and I can still look back and know that I did the right thing for Ben and for me and for us, but I also admit that I did not take care of myself, physically or emotionally.

As I watched the ballet, I thought about how I can now spend my time as I choose. Even after three years, I’m still not entirely comfortable saying that. I don’t want it to be construed as my having any sense of relief that I am free from a burden. It was hard work that was also loving and meaningful, and unquestionably the most important thing I have ever done, although I did lose a part of myself in the process. After I lost my dad and Ben, returning to the theater and ballet helped me distract myself from grief, sort through feelings, and rediscover myself. There were and there continue to be times when events are not as fulfilling and enjoyable as I wish they would be because I profoundly feel Ben’s absence. But, I have established new normals, new routines and an evolving sense of myself. The arts are the way I take care of myself- I can think, imagine, reflect and just enjoy the magic. I feel fortunate that my passion for the arts has always helped me to heal and grow.

When I think back on my caregiving days, I remember that I constantly struggled with feeling detached from life.  I tended to put caring for myself aside, always concerned that worrying about myself was being selfish. Of course, my indulging in arts events seemed so trivial compared to Ben’s battle with ALS. But, as Ben’s needs increased and his denial of that persisted while the devastation clearly affected both of us, I grew more isolated from people and things I loved and I became resentful, angry and frightened. Reconciling those negative feelings and the guilt for feeling them has not been easy.

Throughout my caregiving days, the people around me told me that I HAD TO take time for myself. It really irritated me, because it was stating the obvious but also felt impossible. I could not voice my need to take care of myself. In my mind, since my dad and Ben were ill, they were the ones who mattered. On the occasions that I was able to go out, those things didn’t offer the same satisfaction that they did before, because I never went with Ben, I felt guilty for going out and because I was worried about what was going on at home if I was not there, and lamenting what I missed:  the life we had, who we were before illness took over, the things that I, and we, couldn’t do.

It was through our love for Disney films that I discovered my greatest source of self care. Ben and I loved to watch Disney movies, and what I found was that the films were more than simply distracting and entertaining together time. I was seeing the films in a whole different way when I watched them through the eyes of a caregiver.  They were shedding light on my caregiving situation. Disney films let me feel understood because they tapped exactly what I was feeling and gave me perspective on a situation that was very daunting. They were simultaneously giving me a much needed break from reality and letting me think through my feelings about my reality. While having someone stay with my husband while I went out was sometimes possible, though less and less ideal, I realized that I was so busy thinking that taking care of myself meant planning a major outing, and dwelling on the negatives like the help that I didn’t have, that I didn’t see that taking time to watch a Disney film was also time to reflect and enjoy my own company right within our apartment!

What turned out to be the most valuable thing I did for myself was that I began keeping a journal of the Disney quotes, films and characters that made an impact on me and I wrote about how they related to my experiences in caregiving. Writing was always a passion of mine, but I stopped writing in my journal because I felt like I kept repeating the same issues without finding solutions. By creating this journal, I unexpectedly combined my love of Disney and writing with my caregiving, and held onto a vital part of myself without having to leave home.

Collecting and writing about Disney things gave me an opportunity to reflect on my experiences in a way that was honest about the not great people and things, but also reminded me of why I continued to be a caregiver: love, dedication, a personal desire and sense of responsibility to do the profoundly meaningful work on behalf of people I loved who needed me. As Cinderella said, “they can’t stop me from dreaming.” And, when I began to think that my quotes and experiences could at some point be a book or blog, I had something positive to think and fantasize about and plan for in my future.  It took a year, but I did eventually launch PixieDustForCaregivers.com. It has been an invaluable way to take care of myself, heal and connect with other caregivers.

Sometimes, even very small actions provided a huge dose of self care. For example, the thermos of tea that I drank on my daily 2.5 hour train ride back home after visiting with my dad in hospice became my precious “Abby time” to reflect, listen to meaningful music and read. Yes, my phone was in hand for texts and issues that might arise, but each sip of tea allowed me to take a deep breath and, as Frozen’s Elsa said, Let it Go!”

A requirement for earning my certification as a caregiving consultant was to create a webinar. Since a significant issue during my caregiving days was the concept of losing myself while caregiving and knowing that I was also going to lose Ben, and I have heard similar anecdotes among other caregivers, I decided to create a webinar exploring this theme. Finding Inspiration and Protecting Your Identity During Caregiving explores ways in which I maintained my identity and tapped important parts of myself, often right at home. There are ideas for finding inspiration, protecting your identity and how to make your plans happen. You can see the webinar by clicking here to view it on Caregiving.com.

Today, I will see the new Broadway show, Pretty Woman. A weekend of the arts always does wonders for my soul. And, as I discovered, so does caregiving. Now, I am so proud to have earned my certification as a caregiving consultant. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to use it, though I know that I one thing I would like to do is work with children who have a parent or family member with ALS. The important thing to me is that I have learned from my experiences, I continue to learn about myself and I protecting my identity and honoring Ben and my dad.

What are you doing for yourself? Please leave comments with your questions, comments, revelations and/or struggles.

July 2014, Breakfast at the Polynesian Hotel.

 

 

Kindness- It’s Pixie Dust For Caregiving!

ALS,Caregiving,Epcot,Walt Disney World

July 2014

In Disney’s live action Cinderella (2015), Cinderella mother advised her to “have courage and be kind.” That phrase became the centerpiece for a lot of merchandise and marketing efforts. I believe it was so well embraced and successful because it was so true, so succinct and yet so wise. Examples of courage abound in their battles with cancer and ALS, and even, I’ve come to realize, in my work as their caregiver. The Mighty, a portal with information about a number of illnesses and personal experiences with these conditions, and for which I am a contributor, created a #KindnessChallenge this month, and it got me to thinking about how fortunate Ben, my dad and I were to have experienced much kindness.

After my dad went to the wonderful VA hospice, the simple acts of decorating his room with his favorite books and his favorite model of the fighter plane he flew when in the Marine Corps, and making a calendar of his favorite pictures, meant the world to him. Bringing a book or article and reading it aloud to him, and even sitting and holding his hand while we watched television were little, and yet big, acts of kindness. At this time, Ben’s ALS was progressing, and as the disease took away his abilities, he sometimes felt that he had little to give. However, he found movies and documentaries that he knew my dad would enjoy and he burned them onto DVDs for my dad to watch. These acts of kindness moved me as much as they did my dad, because we knew that nothing was easy for Ben, and because although Ben could not physically be there for my dad, or even communicate by phone with him, with this kindness Ben let my dad know that he was in his heart.

Sully lent a hand to help Ben out of his electric wheelchair! October 2012

A most gracious act of kindness towards Ben came from the palliative care team at Mount Sinai Medical Center. When Ben was in the hospital after a respiratory crisis, it took him a few weeks to decide to get a feeding tube and tracheostomy. During this time, we had visits from the palliative care team. I was happy to talk to anyone about anything they could possibly do to help Ben. The team asked about his interests and I shared that he loved music and anything to do with computers. Shortly after their visit, Ben had a complication that required that he be intubated, which landed him in the ICU. The ICU staff was wonderful, but there is understandably a lot of anxiety in that unit. Late one afternoon, a man named Todd showed up at Ben’s bedside with a guitar to play for Ben. Although musicians are not generally sent to the ICU, and teams are usually organized by floor within the hospital so Ben could have been discharged from the team on his original floor, the palliative care unit members knew that Ben loved music and they thought he would enjoy it and that it would be good for him. Ben expressed to Todd that he loved everything by the Beatles and any Disney songs and also relaxation music and Todd played several songs as Ben watched so intently- Ben loved to watch musicians. Ben was thrilled and moved to tears. I was, too. On the day that Ben separated from the vent, the team arranged for Todd to once again return and play the guitar, which was an overwhelmingly beautiful and peaceful way for Ben to leave this world. In a busy and huge hospital, people took the time to think of Ben as a person more than as a patient, and they extended a treasured act of kindness. I tried to repay that kindness by donating to the hospital the keyboard that I had given to Ben so that others who enjoy music can embrace it during difficult times.

I, too, received many acts of kindness through the years of caring for my dad and Ben, and after those days had ended. I think about how difficult it was to juggle full-time teaching with full-time caregiving. There were many instances of crisis when I had to rush either to the ER to meet my dad or home to help Ben. In one instance, Ben texted me that he had fallen (he wore his phone around his neck in case of such issues). I ran to my principal that I had to go home but that I would be back after I got Ben settled. When I got home and tried to lift Ben off the ground, I realized that Ben had lost so much strength in his legs that he could not help me in any way. At that time, he probably weighed about 190 pounds. More than two hours later, Ben was still on the floor and I was exhausted and in pain. This was the first such incident, and I did not even think about calling 911. I sent a text to my principal that Ben was still on the floor and it didn’t look like I would make it back to school. Even though it still would not have gotten me back to school in time, my principal offered to travel across the city to come to my apartment with our Assistant Principal to help me to lift Ben. I did not take him up on the offer- but I have never forgotten that kindness extended to Ben and me. In a school system that is increasingly anything but kind to teachers, I remain grateful that my principal was always understanding of my situation, despite many emergencies that required that I leave school early, arrive late, or be absent.

Two Goofy guys! July 2014

Ben showed me much kindness and love over the years. Yes, he gave me lovely gifts, but it was his gestures that truly touched my heart. I’ve written about one of my very favorite memories of kindness was something that Ben did for me during one of our visits to Walt Disney World after his ALS had progressed a bit. Click here for that post. But, he showed me kindness by his sense of humor as I experimented with different foods in the Vitamix, always encouraging and appreciating my efforts. He showed me kindness whenever he texted me that he had asked his private aide to stay an extra hour so that I could stay out- either by myself or with a friend- a little bit longer. He showed me kindness by asking his daughter to stay with him so that I could attend an event and by being happy for me that I enjoyed myself. And, mostly, he showed me kindness with his love and appreciation of me.

Here’s a conversation between Piglet and Pooh from Disney’s Christopher Robin that I believe sums up the role of kindness at its most simple and most complicated.

“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” said Pooh.

“There there,” said Piglet. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”

Kindness can be a matter of being present, sometimes it’s being a good listener, sometimes it’s ensuring that routines- including medications- are followed. Mostly, it’s about caring to figure out exactly what will soothe someone in the moment. For Pooh, honey was always a good solution. It’s not always that easy. But communicating the desire to be there, to help and support, can only strengthen a bond. Although we could lose patience with each other, and sometimes we needed our moments to feel down, Ben knew that I would always at least try to find the thing that would be his tea and honey.  Often, things like a smile, a thank you, a kiss, holding hands, remembering something special or an inside joke were the small yet huge gestures that lessened the tensions and brought us back to love. Those small kindnesses were priceless. The memories of those kindnesses and that love far outlast the disappointments, frustrations and devastations.

Who wouldn’t be happy with a big hug from Mickey!?!?! July 2014

What are acts of kindness you showed or that were shown to you that were especially memorable? Please share them here as part of the #KindnessChallenge.

2011- The first time we went to Fantasmic!

An Important Book for Caregivers: Home Hospice Navigation

In addition to sharing my Disney-ish reflections on caregiving, grief and beyond, I also want to share resources that can help with caregiving and grief. It will not come as a shock that I happen to agree with Walt that “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.” I guess I was a little like Goldilocks when it came to reading books about caregiving, grief, and ALS—some were too clinical, some were too spiritual or faith-based, some were too heavy-handed, with so much detail that I ended up feeling confused or defeated. I wanted a concise and accessible how-to resource.  I recently discovered just that, an easy to read, informative, understandable  and engaging book called Home Hospice Navigation: The Caregiver’s Guide by Judith Sands, RN, MSL, BSN, CPHRM, CPHQ, CCM, LHRM, ARM who is a healthcare professional, nurse, recognized authority in the areas of care coordination, quality, risk management, and patient safety.

I read many caregiving books, and receive frequent comments from caregivers with questions, concerns and misconceptions of home hospice. I know that it’s difficult to research things when you’re caregiving, and when you do have the time you don’t always have the energy. However, if the notion of home hospice has crossed your mind, I strongly recommend that you take a look at this informative read and wonderful resource that does, indeed, help you to comfortably approach the navigation of home hospice options. Home Hospice Navigation is written for the caregiver in easy to read, well organized sections, with good advice that is offered as if Ms. Sands is standing next to you anticipating your questions.  First and foremost, it clears up the glaring misperception that home hospice is the equivalent of euthanasia and that someone needs to be close to death to receive home hospice services. Instead, Ms. Sands points out that “hospice should be thought of as living fully as long as possible and helping your loved one to die a peaceful and comfortable death.”  I have to admit, I found it confusing when Ben was put on home hospice. It was the physical therapist from our visiting nurse program who suggested it when Ben needed more help and was nervous about being alone but reluctant to accept that he needed to hire an aide. This woman set in motion a process that allowed Ben to receive helpful care, support and medical supplies. As caregivers, we often neglect our own physical and emotional needs and hospice care services also provided a lot of emotional support to me. Yes, there is a trade-off at times with what is covered by insurance, but home hospice is definitely an option worth exploring. This benefit is covered through Medicare, Medicaid and most commercial insurance policies.

Ms. Sands lets you know what information is applicable across the board and what may be specific to your state or insurance. Throughout the book you will find anecdotes about Ms. Sands’ experience with home hospice with her mom. These stories show the very personal inspiration for this book and make it very relatable for many caregivers. There are references to the important documents that everyone should complete, which are conveniently organized and available through her web site, www.JudithSands.com (the book can also be purchased through her site). Also, you will find suggestions of considerations, conversations that should take place, and a step-by-step, very accessible process for how to begin to engage hospice services and work with medical and related staff.

I wish I had this book when Ben and I were making decisions about his health care.  I highly recommend Home Hospice Navigation: The Caregiver’s Guide to those of you who are daunted by home hospice and do not know where, how or whether to consider it as an option. The book can be purchased in paperback or digital versions through JudithSands.com. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.

What Piglet and His Best Friend Pooh Knew About The Care In Caregiving

Halloween 2012

Disney’s Christopher Robin made a big impression on me, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I think I’ll have to see it again! (and probably again after that, and many times once the DVD becomes available!)

I’ve been reminiscing about Pooh and Piglet played a big part in how Ben won my heart. When Ben and I first started dating, we often walked to the flagship Disney Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It is no longer at that location. We wandered the 3 floors and I often left with little gifts- the courting phase of a relationship is fun, indeed!

Having spent increasing amounts of time with me, Ben was becoming fully immersed in the Disney mindset, and loving it, sometimes to his own amazement.  One day, as we strolled through the store, Ben called me over to look at a figurine, exclaiming, “Abby, look! It’s Piglet and his best friend, Pooh!” I stared at him, speechless, and then started to laugh. He shook his head, laughed, and said, “I was macho before I met you!” Truth be told, he was not so macho. He was a big teddy bear, and his great hugs could calm me down and completely surround me with love. He was a big kid at heart who indulged my inner child, and that was us.  He bought me that figurine as a surprise, and it will always be so special to me.

Disney Store,Winnie the Pooh,Piglet

Piglet and his Best Friend Pooh!
A very special figurine with very sweet memories.

When I saw Piglet and Pooh together in the film, I couldn’t help but picture Ben smiling. They have a such a beautiful, sweet friendship. Here’s one little conversation between them that touched my heart.

“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” said Pooh.

“There there,” said Piglet. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”

That’s caregiving. It’s that simple and that complicated. Ben didn’t feel like himself as ALS took away his abilities. There were times that he was understandably frustrated and sad. All I could do was be there, trying to bring him comfort.

Sometimes it’s a matter of being present, sometimes it’s being a good listener, sometimes it’s ensuring that routines- including medications- are followed. Mostly, it’s about caring to figure out exactly what will soothe the caree at the moment. For Pooh, honey was always a good solution. It’s not always that easy. But communicating the desire to be there, to help and support, can only strengthen a bond. Although we could lose patience with each other, and sometimes we both needed our moments to feel down, Ben knew that I would always at least try to find the thing that would be his tea and honey.  And, I knew that he would find a way to show me he loved me.

Halloween 2011. Piglet was bigger than we’d imagined!

In another conversation:

“What day is it?” asked Pooh

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

“My favorite day,” said Pooh.

It’s hard to imagine that any day with ALS can be a favorite day. There were definitely the big time highlights, like when Ben woke up on January 1, 2015, and he said that he had such a fun New Year’s Eve. I had ordered matching Mickey Mouse and Friends pajamas for us and even for my cat, Disney. Ben always loved the fireworks at Walt Disney World, and I found a toy that supposedly simulated fireworks, with sound effects and LED light “fireworks” that were activated by a remote control. We played the soundtrack to the “Wishes” Magic Kingdom fireworks show and Ben chose the sequence for our fireworks show while we had our photos scroll on his computer. It was pretty hilarious to pretend we were at the Magic Kingdom as we watched these pretty unconvincing fireworks splash on the wall. It felt almost magical to laugh and enjoy the evening. That silly celebration was a most favorite day and is now part of my treasure trove of beautiful memories of moments sprinkled with pixie dust.

Crystal Pavilion at Walt Disney World, May 2010. We took this trip right after Ben received his ALS diagnosis.

Any days spent at Walt Disney World were favorite days when Ben felt free as he rode around in his scooter or electric wheelchair. The Disney magic allowed him to enjoy most of the attractions and to temporarily abandon his worries.

Once he was homebound, Ben’s days did not vary much. But, every day that he was okay and things went smoothly, when we handled or averted a crisis, solved a problem, and enjoyed each other’s company, was a favorite day. We recognized, acknowledged and treasured those.

Winnie the Pooh commented, “There’s always time for a smackeral of wonder.” I think that’s true. And, it’s so important. Ben never lost his curiosity, sense of humor and ability to be inspired, particularly by music. When we were able to go to Walt Disney World, his inner child shone, and he marveled at everything he saw and all the music he heard. When he was home, he watched movies and documentaries and listened to music, always questioning, always learning, always with a sense of wonder and delight. I think that helped him to navigate ALS. Always finding time for a “smackeral of wonder” is good advice for all of us.

I believe that Ben would be especially happy that these lessons came from Piglet and his best friend, Pooh.

 

“Me Before You,” “Me After You,” and “Still Me”- Fiction That Speaks Truth About Caregiving, Grief and Life

More wisdom from Walt. I love to read- all kinds of books. In more recent years I have read lots of self-help books related to illnesses, caregiving and grief.  In the past year, when I decided to try online dating, I’ve read what I believe are too many books about dating and writing online profiles. They’re not helping! But, I just completed a fiction book that nurtured my soul more than any nonfiction, self-improvement book, speaking a lot of truth about own life without Ben. It is called, Still Me, and it is the third book in what is now a trilogy by JoJo Moyes. It was enlightening, entertaining, validating and inspiring.

The first book in this trilogy is called, Me Before You. It tells the story of a young woman, Louisa, who can’t find herself, but she takes a job as the caregiver of a young man, Will, who is a paraplegic as a result of a car accident. In the course of the story, they fall in love, and, as you can imagine, it is complicated.

I remember being in a bookstore with a friend, and when I looked at the book, he said it was great, but I wouldn’t want to read it. Of course, that only intrigued me. The book was a best seller when Ben had ALS. The book takes you into Will’s experience in this body he doesn’t recognize and a life he cannot accept. Ben had always said that he wanted to do anything to stay alive, whether feeding tube or tracheostomy, but there was always the possibility that he would change his mind. I’m an emotional person, so after I read the book description and reviews, I was not sure how I would feel about reading a book about making a choice to life or die when I was dealing with ALS and losing Ben. On the other hand, I thought that the book might offer insight into the thoughts of someone who is contemplating his quality of life. I decided to read the book. It was a good decision. It was an absolutely beautiful book with a lot of love and interesting perspective. I related to Louisa’s  caregiving experiences and to many of the situations they endured.  In many ways Me Before You helped me to come to terms with accepting whatever decisions Ben would make about how he chose to live and die with ALS. That said, everyone has to make their own decision about whether they want to delve into reality in a book rather than a complete escape. The book was also made into a film, and, as is often the case, the film is not as good as the book. However, if you’re not sure about the book, but you’re curious, you might want to try the film.

I was one of the readers who longed for a sequel, and, thankfully, Jojo Moyes responded with Me After You. As you can probably imagine from the title, it tells the story of how Louisa deals with grief and how she ventures forth in the world to try to find herself, stepping forward and falling back. Again, I was looking for answers, for experiences to relate to, for validation of my own experience. I found them, and enjoyed following Louisa as her story continued. Sometimes, it’s just good to know that the story continues at all, even though it’s a fictional character!

In the third book, Still Me, Louisa is adjusting to her life and carrying Will with her in her heart. She hears his voice as she makes decisions. She looks for ways to honor him. That said, she moves into new romances and takes risks in her life, making some wondrous discoveries about herself. I related so strongly to Louisa creating a new life while finding a place for Will.  I was emotional for the rest of the day after I finished the book, and it has stayed with me, in a good way. I, too, am often guided by Ben. I’m not sure what my happy ending will look like. I know that I hope it includes romance because the relationship that I had with Ben brought so much to my life. The important thing was that the trilogy of books made me feel like that my feelings are normal. The process of caregiving, loss, grieving, and living takes many twists and turns and it did change me.  However, just like Louisa, I can move forward and keep Ben present. I have already made many discoveries about myself and taken many steps-and stumbles- in the nearly three years since Ben left this earth, and, despite a general lack of confidence, I continue to live and love.

I am grateful to Jojo Moyes for helping me to feel positive and cautiously optimistic. I wish she could write a happily ever after for me!

The books are not heavy, difficult reads- they are light and yet deep, and even filled with humor. The characters and relationships are heartwarming and relatable. As Walt said, there is a lot of treasure within them. If you’d like to gain some insights, while probably shedding some tears, this trilogy of books may be thought-provoking, inspiring and comforting. Check them out. Let me know what you think. Please share your reviews in the comments.