At this time of year, family comes strongly into focus and reminds me of how my family has shrunk and changed. Although I love the film, Lilo and Stitch and its messages about family, love, acceptance and grief, I have always been troubled by its very famous quote, “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind-or forgotten.” Unfortunately, to a large degree, this has not been my experience and that makes me sad. For various reasons, and sometimes on the grounds of religion, there has been conflict in my family, and caregiving for my grandmother amplified our issues after my mom died. I learned the difficult lesson that, with rare exception, aside from my dad, I could not depend on the love of my family to provide the support that was needed. Family let Ben down, too, and usually, it was not something that I could prevent, though I could support him through it. As I have said before, I am eternally grateful for friends who are my family. Caregiving and loss showed Ben and me the people we could genuinely count on and helped us to redefine the notion of family.
When Ben was diagnosed with ALS, of course there was no question that I would be his caregiver. His family was certainly upset by the diagnosis, and there were many promises made of visiting and helping him. For the most part, those promises did not materialize into actual visits or even regular expressions of concern about how he was doing. He reached out to people and then they usually responded, with what became to him empty proclamations of love and caring, and they rarely took the initiative to reach out to him. It hurt him and frankly, angered and shocked me. Ben was always witness to my devotion to my dad–he listened to our countless daily phone calls, watched me cook and shop for him, visit him on weekends, accompany him to his doctor visits, make follow-up calls to doctors and companies treating his cancer, just as I did for Ben. That was not happening for Ben with his family, with rare exception. There was, however, a lot of drama that was unnecessary, ridiculous, and selfish.
I am grateful that while Ben was in the hospital, one of his daughters frequently visited him. She was with him at the end. She and I had a lot of time to talk in those weeks. Now, we are close, and I am grateful to have her, and, also, a direct connection to him, in my life. There were also a few nice surprises along the way, of a few of his family members that expressed genuine caring and concern. We shared a love of Ben and respect for each other that continues today.
In my experience, it has been the people who are least involved who have the most opinions and make the most judgments. I will admit that it was, at times, difficult to put aside the drama and just focus on Ben’s needs. Family came to the hospital and talked to him about his going home, getting his hopes up without asking any questions or having realistic information, but with plenty of judgment, especially of me. A friend of his visited and tried to dissuade him from separating from the vent on religious grounds after giving me a hard time about the issue. While visits can be a good time for a caregiver to take a break, I could not leave people alone with him because communication itself was challenging and discussions were often inappropriate and inaccurate. Mostly, they were not a comfort to him.
If you are a primary caregiver, if family is not supportive, of course it is hard not to dwell on it. As someone who is emotional, I won’t suggest that you ignore your feelings. So, what can you do? As long as you keep family informed, express needs and set boundaries for what and when you will dispense updates, you will have some level of control of, and grasp of, your caregiving responsibilities and scenario. Family members will have to live with their decisions and you will be able to plan accordingly. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be disappointed or saddened, but you will have a keener understanding of your circumstances and interpersonal relations. This is likely to allow you to detach a little bit as family visits happen, or don’t, drawing attention to the positive aspects of visits (or not) on your caree.
For your own self-expression and reflection, things you might consider are: keeping a journal, seeing a therapist, venting to friends, attending a support group or, if it is difficult to arrange to leave home, there are online and phone support groups. But, please don’t lose focus on the important, loving and invaluable work that you are doing for your caree. As I have sorted through the many memories surrounding Ben’s care, I have learned to let go of anger and resentment and I recall incidents more as a matter of fact and sequence than with emotional attachment to the people who let us down. I can look back and feel grateful to have been able to show Ben so much love, though I also wish with all my heart that we never had to go through the experience.
If you are a family member of a caree, please be honest with yourself about the relationship that you have had with this person and the caregiver. Be realistic about what you can and are willing to do. If you want to help, ask questions about how you can help and also before judging. Remember that this is not about anyone but the caree, and that the primary caregiver does have the greatest perspective, knowledge and responsibility to the caree.
I wrote this post because the holidays are a time that can be so stressful for caregivers and carees, and high tensions can yield high drama. At these times, it is so important to have a clear understanding of the people in your life who are reliable and truly devoted. This does not necessarily mean cutting people off from your life, but rather knowing who will be there to have your back and the back of your caree. Lip service is irrelevant when it comes to a crisis. Ben and I learned that we could not rely on his family. Fortunately, we did have friends who stepped in and helped without needing to be asked. They were not family. Yet, they were. Know who your “ohana” really is because they will not leave you behind. That is something to celebrate.