caregiving

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.

GreatCall: Technological Pixie Dust for Caregiving

Big Hero 6 (2014) Walt Disney Pictures

Big Hero 6 (2014),  Walt Disney Pictures

 

Click here for holiday savings!!

Imagine having a personal inflatable healthcare robot with a database of your medical details, like Baymax from Disney’s “Big Hero 6.” As of now, that possibility lies within the creative minds at Walt Disney Pictures, but hopefully it will eventually become a reality.  While we wait for that technology to evolve, we are fortunate to have a company like GreatCall, which offers sophisticated yet accessible mobile and urgent response devices that assist and give peace of mind to caregivers and the people for whom they care.

I’ll use my own experience to illustrate what I consider to be the power of GreatCall’s products. I was the primary caregiver for my dad, who was in his eighties and living alone with cancer, and, at the same time, for my husband, Ben, who had ALS. One of my biggest fears was not being around for, or aware of, an emergency. We did have our routines for phoning and texting while I was at work, but there were the times I couldn’t reach them, and those were times I lived in panic. That’s where GreatCall would have eased our worries.

GreatCall's Jitterbug Smart, Jitterbug Flip, Lively and Lively Wearable

GreatCall’s Jitterbug Smart, Jitterbug Flip, Lively and Lively Wearable

One product with outstanding features is GreatCall’s Lively, an urgent response device that connects directly to a 5Star Agent for immediate assistance. Unique functions that grabbed my attention are fall detection and GPS location. Like many people, Ben did not want to admit that he needed help, though we both worried about falls. There was more than one instance where although unharmed, Ben had ended up on the floor or could not lift himself from a chair, and was waiting patiently for me to return home. With this device, I could have gone online or used my smartphone at any time to track Ben, and I would have been alerted to any falls, or an agent would have contacted me, either through the fall detection service or if Ben called for urgent care. That would have been a huge relief!  When Ben finally did concede to the use of a medic alert system, it had to be connected to a land line, and the speaker was not always nearby, which posed problems particularly as the ALS increasingly affected his voice and speech. In comparison, the Lively does not need a land line connection, has a built-in two-way communication function, and it can be worn around the neck, on the wrist, or carried around on a keychain. It is accessible even to a person who is not tech-savvy, like my dad.  The Lively Wearable version of this device can be worn on the wrist and includes a fitness tracker option that can be managed with a smartphone connection.

GreatCall also offers mobile phones- the Jitterbug Smart and the Jitterbug Flip– which offer the features and style you would want in a phone, but with helpful adaptations like voice typing, yes/no prompts for programming and larger screens and buttons. These features would have helped my dad, who rarely used his cell phone because he had trouble with the technology and the small buttons. ALS compromised Ben’s dexterity, so these phones would have helped him as well. The Jitterbug phones also come with the 5Star Medical Alert feature, an emergency button that connects immediately to a National Academy of Emergency Dispatchers agent.

In addition to impressive products, I love that GreatCall considers and integrates the caregiver’s concerns into its products and services.  Through a smartphone, tablet or computer, I could have used the caregiver’s app to check on Ben or my dad or known their locations via GPS technology (also invaluable to anyone caring for someone with Alzheimer’s Disease or any form of dementia). It is even possible to check the power level of the devices. This is a tremendous support system. All caregivers need that!

There are no annual contracts or cancellation fees but the services you receive vary by the plan you choose. Options include 24/7 access to urgent care, a GreatCall link for family contact, a personal operator, daily Med-Coach tips (including prescription updates), daily Check-in calls, weekly wellness expert calls, brain games, and product replacement guarantees for stolen, lost, or broken items, fall detection and a fitness tracker.

They may not be able as adorable as Baymax, but GreatCall products are high tech caregiving solutions designed to empower people to feel independent and engaged in life while assuring their caregivers of their safety. I call that a whole lot of pixie dust!

For more information about Great Call’s products and services, click hereClick here for holiday savings!!

Baymax, Big Hero 6

Making a Memory

 

Film clip: The Parent Trap (1961)  Walt Disney Productions

In this clip from original Walt Disney Productions The Parent Trap, Sharon- actually, Susan- returns home from camp and is meeting her grandfather for the first time (he, of course, doesn’t realize this).  She wants to remember everything about him, including the way he smells.

This scene touches my heart each time I watch it (and when I watch the remake, too!). Memories do give me great comfort, despite the tears they bring. So many of my memories with Ben surround going to Disney films, Disney music, Disney stores and Walt Disney World.

After he was diagnosed with ALS, our trips to Walt Disney World (WDW) really became about reliving and making memories that we could always hold in our hearts. Every experience and every opportunity to take a photo became that much more significant. Those memories are what I have now- bittersweet, and sometimes not happy, but it was life and love.

As the ALS progressed, our trips to WDW became more complicated. By the time we took our last visit there, in July 2014, we were dealing with an additional caregiver, ambulettes to travel to and from the airport, assistance on the plane, an electric wheelchair, challenges with eating, and not being able to go on his favorites rides (The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean). Despite the challenges, Ben was determined to have an incredible time, and he did. I loved that about him.

I was fixated on planning a trip that neither of us would ever forget, filled with all kinds of surprises for Ben. For example, we took the Pirates and Pals Fireworks cruise where we could see the Magic Kingdom fireworks and he got to meet Captain Hook.  I knew Ben (and I) would miss being there for Halloween, our favorite holiday and our favorite time to be at WDW, so I worked with the fantastic Disney Floral and Gifts team to surprise him with our hotel room all decorated for Halloween. I remember his face when we arrived outside of our room and there was a big banner with a pumpkin and blinking lights that he thought was a promotion for Halloween and he got so excited. He was completely blown away when I opened the door and it was like entering the Haunted Mansion, which Ben adored. I took tons of pictures and videos for him to enjoy. We also kept all the toys and decorations to decorate our home on Halloween, and I brought them to his room in the hospital to share good memories and Halloween.

I’m so grateful that we were able to relive memories and make new ones. Although I cannot deny that there are tears for the difficulties and ugliness that ALS brought, and for the times we won’t have anymore, I am so thankful to be able to remember him smiling and laughing and being my silly, romantic Ben. I also love the simple memories of that trip: Ben playing air guitar while the band played in the England pavilion at EPCOT, his trying on character hats and choosing t-shirts in the souvenir shops, our holding hands while I walked next to the electric wheelchair or as we watched the fireworks displays, his enjoying the freedom of getting around with the electric wheelchair. Though some people look at the pictures and see how he became very thin with very swollen feet, and that he was wheelchair-bound, I see and remember the joy on his face.

It was too painful for me to decorate last Halloween- Ben had only passed away in August and it was too soon. I do love the photos, and I hope that one day I will want to decorate again and remember the way that we enjoyed it. Maybe this year. I’ll let you know.

Make a memory. Make many. They might be hard to think about or look at in the beginning, but they will be there to embrace if you choose to.

Caregivers Need Some Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo

Cinderella (1950) Walt Disney Productions

Cinderella (1950)
Walt Disney Productions

 

I think most of us have gone through periods when we wish we had a fairy godmother. Come on, admit it!  It’s possible that it was more frequent for me when I was a caregiver and Disney was my escape, but whimsy and dreaming are key to who I am. There have indeed been people in my life who have stepped in and brought some pixie dust or “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” into my life, and sometimes they have come from unexpected places. But, when I have a setback in my emotions, as is happening now, I just wish I could summon Cinderella’s fairy godmother to cast a spell and make it all better.

This past week brought all the tension that most teachers feel as summer winds down and we get ready to get back to the grind. It also brought back the sadness of last year’s bad memories. After spending the entire summer in the hospital, Ben died just a little more than a week before I had to return to school and I was completely unprepared to face the turmoil that teaching in the public school system brings (which could be a whole blog of its own!).  The school year began and I went through motions and did my job in a sort of a fog, but I was not coping well in my personal time, and I spent much time crying or staring into space.

This summer I finally had time to relax and invest time in myself and work through some of my grief.  I’ve been proud of my slowly growing ability to enjoy and participate in life, though my memories of Ben and my dad remain a big part of everything I do.  Given all of this, I wasn’t prepared for the crash of sadness and loneliness in recent days.  I can’t seem to stop thinking about where I was at this time last year and I’ve been losing the battle to fight those memories. It’s the ups and downs of grief that are impossible to predict and exhausting to reconcile within myself.  I recognize that it’s progress to be more aware of and engaged in the world around me. As I’ve written in prior posts, I do see more glimmers of optimism and desire to move forward. But the waves of sadness and bad memories hit hard. I get angry at myself for giving into the depression.  I’ve been through grief enough times to know that this will pass, but will likely happen again because I cannot anticipate the triggers. But, at these times I wish I had a fairy godmother to wave her wand and make everything peaceful and happy.  I surely wish a “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” would make the school year go smoothly, but I’m not sure that even the Disney-est of fairy godmothers could tackle that! Wish me luck!

“Time Passed and Pain Turned to Memory.” True?

The narrator says this in reference to Cinderella's grief over the loss of her mother. Cinderella © Disney 2015

The narrator says this in reference to Cinderella’s grief over the loss of her mother.
Cinderella © Disney 2015

Only a few days ago I posted a video slide show of favorite memories of Ben. One year is a significant marker of time for me and I was very uptight as I anticipated the sadness that I did indeed feel when the day arrived. I don’t know what I expected to happen after I hit that marker, but I woke up the next day feeling so sad. I still feel down. Time has passed but pain has not turned to memory. Both are still quite strong. So, this quote from the 2015 Disney “Cinderella,” which was so powerful to me when I heard it and still remains with me, gave me pause and I had to think about it.

I relish the happy memories and cannot shake the pain of the devastating ones. If pain turns to memory, does pain go away?  Is memory really complete if it does not include the pain and the joy? Is it all a matter of time?  I would think that having lost my mom, my dad and my grandma- that I would be prepared for the flow of emotions that come with grief. I still feel pain at their loss, though I admit the sharp pangs have changed. But, I think that being the daily caregiver for Ben, and seeing the excruciating challenges of ALS, left an indelible mark on who I am as a person and how I see the world. I am stronger and more resourceful than I ever thought I could be, and yet, I am as much of a crybaby as I ever was. I’ve always placed a high value on being compassionate, even if I don’t know that I showed it all the time. Ben and I also were shown a lot of compassion, and it hasn’t always come from places I expected. Through this experience maybe I have a more open mind and heart. But my heart has also been somewhat broken by the cruel nature of the disease and the turmoil it caused. Maybe time will temper all of these dramatic feelings but I feel like as time passes, pain is entwined in memory but it doesn’t turn into memory.

I’m not sure of what my expectations should be of myself and how I handle my grief after a year. Should I consider the expectations people have of me and how I handle my grief from this point forward? Should their expectations influence me?  If so, even if I don’t feel very different all the time, should I act like the pain has just evolved into memory? Should I speak less about Ben? Should I let people see that I still have really sad moments? Should I stop looking back?

I can say that although the bad times are still ingrained in my mind, and I do get depressed, I also do feel a change within myself. I still feel the pain of losing Ben, but I can view that pain as part of sixteen years of so many memories with him, only the last six of which involve his life with ALS and mine as his caregiver. I feel a gradual shift from continuing to live within the pain of suffering and loss, to embracing the wide range of memories, and the feelings they bring, but also trying to define my new “present.” While I am struggling with frequent episodes of drifting back to sadness and dwelling on my memories- good and bad, I have also begun to at least see a “forward.” I have to fight the idea that moving forward is disrespecting Ben’s memory and our relationship. That is an uncomfortable feeling that I have to learn to accept and navigate. Pain, sadness, joy, anger- a bevy of feelings and emotions- are all part of cherished memories and I do have faith that over time they will continue to shape me and lead me towards a bright future.