ALS

Ten Things I Learned About Caregiving From Mary Poppins

Since today, October 1, marks the 81st birthday of Julie Andrews, I will devote this post to Mary Poppins, the consummate nanny who taught me many things about caregiving. “Mary Poppins” was the first movie I saw in a theater and it remains a favorite, as does Julie Andrews.

A kind yet stern and always magical nanny, Mary Poppins added whimsy to life while addressing all of its practicalities and mishaps. She got Jane and Michael Banks to use their imaginations and see beyond the confines of their nursery.  They were safe in her care, learned the importance of rules but also how to challenge them, and, because she knew just how to step in, they built and strengthened relationship with their father. She knew how to meet the needs of the Banks family better than they did. Now that’s what I call a great caregiver!

Here are ten lessons about caregiving that I learned from Mary Poppins:

  1. “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.”

Mary Poppins 3

There were days where there was nothing fun in the actual tasks required in Ben’s care due to ALS. But, those silly moments that made us laugh amidst the sadness are the ones that still stand out.

  1. “Worrying won’t help anyone.”

Mary Poppins 4

Even as a worrier, I know it’s true. It doesn’t help. But, if it helps you to picture worse case scenarios and create plans if necessary, go for it. Just don’t dwell! Trust Mary Poppins. It doesn’t help.

  1. “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful way!” 

Lyrics to live by! I was there for a reason, and that reason was love and compassion. There’s the sugar. It made the awful, embarrassing tasks “swallowable.”

Click to play:

  1. “Never judge things by their appearance…even carpetbags. I’m sure I never do.”

Mary Poppins 7

Because a person needs a caregiver does not mean they become irrelevant. When people would come to see Ben and talk to me as if he wasn’t there, I would redirect them to include him in the conversation, even if I had to explain what he was saying as his speech became more impaired. His brain was still very active. He mattered. I did not let anyone make assumptions about his capabilities or ideas. Always let the person know they matter. Because they do.

The same goes for people who judged our relationship. Whatever people thought of me, or of Ben, and our caregiving situation, we were the only two who were actually in our relationship for sixteen years. In any caregiving situation, particularly within a family, there are dynamics that only those involved can really understand. You can have opinions, but tread gingerly when it comes to offering advice, even if it is requested.

  1. Sometimes a little thing can be quite important.

Mary Poppins 1

A smile, a thank you, a kiss, remembering something special. I’ve written about how Ben and my relationship felt like it shifted from husband and wife to patient and caregiver. It was in little things like holding hands, sharing memories, or “inside jokes” that we were brought back to who we really were as a couple before ALS.

  1. Best foot forward. Spit spot.

Mary Poppins 6

It’s all you can do. And, when you’re dealing with a lot of crises, you can’t take a lot of time to ponder. As I’ve said in prior posts, I often had to “just keep swimming,” even though I belly-flopped, but I always put my best foot (or fin?) forward!

  1. Let’s go fly a kite

All at once you’re lighter than air
You can dance on the breeze
Over houses and trees
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite

Mary Poppins 5

OK, we couldn’t really do that. But, we had to maintain a sense of fantasy and whimsy that could take us outside of our reality, at least for a few moments. The trips we took to Walt Disney World were always magical, and they took on a special meaning after his diagnosis. Those trips were the kite that took us briefly away from reality. Now, I can look back on those memories with gratitude and a bittersweet delight.

  1. It’s a jolly ‘oliday with Mary

Oh, it’s a jolly ‘oliday with Mary
Mary makes your ‘eart so light!
When the day is gray and ordinary
Mary makes the sun shine bright!
Mary Poppins 2

Ben teased me that I loved to use the word “whimsical.” But, I enjoyed bringing whimsy into his homebound life. I often arrived home with shopping bags of “treats”- new tshirts for his collection, a gadget that I thought might help him, a new ingredient for our culinary adventures into pureed concoctions. It always made him smile and laugh. That made the “sun shine bright” for both of us!

  1. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius

It’s a great word. Covers a lot of territory. It especially made me chuckle to myself when a bevy of not such nice words were going through my head!  Try it.

Click to play:

  1. “Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way.”

Mary Poppins 8

I tried, and often beat myself up too much for feeling that I was not a good enough caregiver. It’s a great goal, and always important to remember that we all define “perfect” differently, and that the definition may vary by circumstance. I hope that, at least at times, I was Ben’s Mary Poppins.

All photos: Mary Poppins (1964), Walt Disney Productions.

Are Your Emotions All TANGLED?

Tangled, 2010
Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios

So often I wished I could go back in time to the  pre-ALS and pre-cancer days. Of course, Ben and my dad undoubtedly felt that way, too!  As their caregiver, I had a very hard time finding a balance between time for Ben and my dad and time for myself. I don’t think that I ever did. I didn’t see my friends much, and I was very excited when I was able to go to the theater, ballet or dinner. This could only happen if someone (usually Ben’s daughter) would stay with him. Ben wanted me to do things for myself that made me happy but also hated that he was primarily homebound, which I completely understood. He did not want to have to depend on me, he wanted to be well and independent. We both struggled with guilt and resentment. There were many tangled emotions. I felt just like Rapunzel who was conflicted about wanting to be free but wanting to do what she thought was the right thing and obey her mother (the clip above). I wanted the freedom to have some semblance of a social life, yet I felt completely guilty and nervous about going out. At a restaurant, my phone was on the table in case someone had to reach me. At the theater, intermission was the time I would check my phone, call or text to be sure everyone was okay. I even slept with my phone next to me in case my dad called. At work or during errands, my phone was in my hand or pocket, just in case Ben or my dad needed me.  I enjoyed time on my own, yet I always felt lonely and worried, and I couldn’t keep my thoughts from drifting to how life would ultimately be without them.

Now, too, I have “ups” where I go to a Broadway show or the ballet, or I make plans without having to consider caregiving responsibilities. But those “ups” are followed by such lows that are the grief, and it comes with a sadness that looms over everything.  The role of caregiver comes naturally to me, and despite the stresses, I believe that caring for Ben and my dad was the best and most important thing I have ever done. It meant the world to me when I felt that I’d helped them. I’m floundering now that I do not have to fill that that role, though I will probably always question whether I did the best job I could do. I’m pushing through the lows because, after nearly a year, I know that I need to join the land of the living.  I have begun to want to do things and see my friends. I figure that the joy and stability will come in time if I “just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” For now, the emotions are still tangled.

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When Life Gets You Down…

Just Keep Swimming, Dory, Finding Nemo

©2013 Disney•Pixar

For anyone who has reached their saturation point on Dory and Nemo this summer, I apologize (though I do question it!!). But, if you’re here on this blog, chances are you agree that Dory is one insightful sweetheart of a blue tang!

One day, I was playing the soundtrack to “Finding Nemo: The Musical,” (the show at Walt Disney World) and when I heard Dory sing, ” Trust that if you just keep swimming, just keep swimming, life isn’t all that grim,” it resonated in a whole new way. At times I felt completely overwhelmed by the amount of assistance Ben required within the limitations of our very small NYC apartment.  At times it was emotional- it was devastating to see Ben struggle to do things we all take for granted- use his fingers, his hands, his legs, swallow. ALS is a cruel disease. Sometimes my own  physical challenges in helping him became overwhelming- he needed to be transferred to and from bed and chairs, among other things. There were the times I had to call 911 for help. Thankfully, Ben did not get physically hurt during those incidents, but the emotional toll was painful. I broke my shoulder in 2012, and had been in physical therapy for more than 2 years with back problems, so at times we simply had to laugh at my unskilled and klutzy efforts to demonstrate physical strength.  I just had to remember to “just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”  Somehow, picturing Dory saying that was so much more motivating (and cuter!) than just trying to run a recording of  my own voice in my head.

I had to think fast, or at times not to think at all, but just dive into auto-pilot. This is not to say that I “kept swimming” in good cheer all the time. As incidents arose, sometimes through tears, I would get the job done. I had my breaking points, emotionally and physically, but I kept going. In retrospect, it kept Ben confident and comforted that I was reliable and devoted support, and it inspired me to try to stop thinking so much about worst case scenarios, because I seemed to just swim through them.

I had to go with the flow with my dad, too. He had cancer but was also elderly and living alone. He was very nervous about being ill.  We spoke on the phone many times every day. I took a train to see him at least every weekend, and would do his food shopping and take everything on the train when I visited.  I would go to his local store to pick up other things. During my free time at work, I called him to check in and remind and encourage him to eat. There were times that I would hang up the phone and just cry. But, when I could pull myself together, I would come up with a plan. It wasn’t always a great plan, and I sometimes felt like I was belly-flopping, but it kept us swimming.

In my grief, I also find that I have to just keep swimming. I have bad days and better days. I have indeed let the undertow drag me down at times. But, it has been nearly a year and I have managed to keep my head above water and not drown. (how am I doing with the swimming references?)  I have great friends and have participated in support groups where I have met lovely people with whom I am still in touch. Some of the amazing people who took care of Ben are still there for me, for which I am incredibly grateful. I now see more glimmers of good days. Dory had some great advice that has helped me to go with the flow as I adjust to and redefine my life.  I hope it helps you, too.

How are YOU doing?

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Who’s a Silly Old Bear?

- Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh Copyright ©Disney Enterprises Inc. Quote: A. A. Milne

– Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh
Copyright ©Disney Enterprises Inc. Quote: A. A. Milne

 

How often as a caregiver do you feel a sense of helplessness and ineptitude? For me, it was pretty frequently.  That is why I started this blog.

Disney has been a way that I’ve found inspiration and strength as a caregiver and in my grief. There has also been some welcome joy and laughter when I never believed it possible.  I wanted to share this with other caregivers, and I encourage your participation in this blog as a way to express and validate our feelings, and to support each other as we find ways to move forward. I haven’t found “the” answers, and I’m not an expert seeking to impart formulas for moving forward with grace and serenity. But, I can promise that this silly old bear and his friends in the 100 Acre Woods, as well as their Disney buddies, are pretty insightful and, especially if you are a Disney fan(atic), they will always bring a smile and comfort!

In my own experience, my husband, Ben, had ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease, and at the same time my father, Jacob, had cancer. During the crises, or the exhaustion- physical and/or emotional- I definitely did not feel brave, strong or smart. I often I felt like I was running in circles and going through motions to get through each event. But, saying that quote to myself gave me something to hold on to. It became a kind of mantra for me and it never failed to make me smile. Say it. And say it again. I cannot tell you how many times it has helped me and I have fallen asleep to the DVD, “Winnie the Pooh and the 100 Acre Woods.” It has become like a lullaby and I highly recommend it.

Can you relate to this quote? Please share your stories.  Thank you! And welcome to my blog.

I welcome your comments. If you do not see the Comment form at the bottom of this post, click on the title of the post, then scroll to the bottom of the post and it should appear. Thanks.