Tag Archives: Caregiver

The Elder Care Blues: Where the Birds Scream

The Elder Care Blues is a series of posts documenting one woman’s journey as caregiver for her elderly mother. To catch up on past posts in the The Elder Care Blues series click here, here, or here.

I telephone my mother.  Between sobs and screams, she gasps for air and says, “Come! Now! I need you.”

I ask, “Are you dying?” This may seem callous, or even funny, but it is actually a good question, a fair question that cuts to the chase, and there is a back-story.

Some five years ago, my mother-in-law kindly called me at 6 a.m. and said, “I am dying.” It was not the usual thing you hear from mothers. She did not say, “I am going to die soon,” or “I feel like I am dying,” or “You better come soon, or I will die.” My mother-in-law said, “I am dying.” And seven minutes into the phone call, she suffered a massive heart attack and she did die, then and there.

I repeat, “Are you dying?”

“No. But — you — have — to,” each word was more frantic and louder than the next, “come — now.”

“Are you in pain?”

“No. But — you have to — drop everything — and come now.”

Doing my best to ascertain whether or not this is a “real” emergency I ask, “Do you want me to call an ambulance?”

“Absolutely not,” she continues. “I had an awful night. I was up all night. I was vomiting all night. You can’t go. I will not allow it.”

There it is. Peter and I, in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary, are scheduled to leave town the very next day, and mom is plain n’ simple freaked out. She is having a panic attack that rivals the taxi ride to the ophthalmologist by a long shot.

“If you were dying, I would drop everything and come.”

My words are strong, steady and even, but my body is vibrating — not in the cosmic, Beach Boys, good vibrations kind of way. I am overwhelmed by a myriad of emotions; my esophagus is beginning to tighten, my head is pounding, swiftly moving toward migraine.

My mirror neurons are ablaze.

In November of 2007, scientists discovered that the neurons in the frontal cortex both fire when you do something and when you see someone else doing something, thus mirroring the neurological activity in the others’ brain. We experience the actions of “the other,” their thoughts and feelings as if they are our own.

Mirror neurons explain the development of empathy and altruism. At the Fourth National Conference on Buddhist Studies, neuroscientist Dr. S.V. Prabhu used mirror neurons, sometimes referred to as “Gandi’s neurons,” to emphasize the spiritual inter-connectedness of all people.

I am awash in my own pain, as well as Harriet’s pain, and I am not able to detect where the lines of suffering intersect, meet or otherwise mirror each other.

At the same time — thankfully, praise be and amen — my higher self, the wise woman who resides within is categorically directing me, and rather loudly I might add, to “hang up!”

“I will call you back… soon.”

Unnerved, shaken and near tears, I telephone in fast succession three of my friends who have lived through or are presently navigating the world of elder care, asking for their input.

To cancel the trip or not to cancel the trip? That is the question.

All three of these amazing women, all of whom are extraordinary caregivers with strong moral compasses — not a whiner amongst them — recount similar stories of panicked cries. It is, apparently, par for the course, and it is understandable.

As “we” are the caregivers, we are our respective parents’ lifelines. It is understandable that in their vulnerable state they might act out in this manner. They individually and collectively offer their opinions and remind me, “You are not abandoning your mother. She is not in (physical) pain. She is not near death. Other family members have stepped up to the plate and are visiting her in your absence. The aides are in place. You need a break. Go.”

The three wise women have given their blessings. I am, in theory, free to go and even enjoy myself. Yet, questions remain and hang heavy in the air.

What if the upset kills her? Yet another setback in a series of setbacks, this one put into motion by me. Will she de-compensate from the stress of my “abandoning” her, never to recover?

But I do know in my heart of hearts that if we do not go now, we will never go. I shelve my concerns, my fears, my quiet hysteria, and we go.

I telephone in frequently. Each and every time we speak, no matter the mood, which ranges from unhappy to pleasant to almost happy, I acknowledge mom’s situation and feelings, “Yes, this is difficult for you.”

I remind her, “There will be times when Peter and I take a vacation, when I am away on business, but we will always come back, and we will always call in. I will not abandon you.”

Most importantly, with love and gratitude, I thank her. I am not just saying these words. I mean them. “I can’t tell you how much I truly appreciate your trying so hard to adjust to your new living situation. Your efforts are heroic. Thank you.”

On the fourth morning, mom is eager (not anxious) and proud to report that she ventured out of her room. “I went downstairs yesterday a few hours before lunch. I sat with the ladies who gather around the squawking birds, in those cages… ” She can’t find the word; I offer it — aviary.

“Afterwards, we went to lunch and then to a Russian folk song concert. I loved it! A fat, teenaged boy was singing, and I was rocking back n’ forth the entire time.”

Her voice softens, almost to a whisper, “Each time you go away… it will get easier.”

Fat comment aside, before I can get a grateful word in edgewise, before I can express what a super-nonagenarian she surely is, she ramps up and is running, “Well, I’ve got to go now. Heading out…”

“… going to where the birds scream.”

Spread the word … NOT the icing!


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photo by: kayaker1204

The Elder Care Blues: Waking Up ‘Down’

Read Part 1 of the Elder Care Blues here.
Free MeThere is a borderland state called hypnagogia. It is a place of transition; a space that is rapt with images, symbols and words that captivate the mind as they move you from wakefulness to sleep (referred to as hypnagogic) and, on the other side of the sleep cycle, give rise to wakefulness (known as hypnopompic).

Hypnagogia whispers to you as it gradually, bit by bit, brushes up against your conscious mind.  It is a process much like sunset and sunrise, which darken and brighten respectively, not in a flash, but slowly and mysteriously over the span of minutes.

I am particularly interested in my hypnopompic waking thoughts, and I have trained my mind to become increasingly aware of them.

These hypnopompic thoughts that drift, hang, and effortlessly glide by, contrast radically from those of ordinary wakefulness.  The sense of self has ‘loosened,’ allowing for an openness, a sensitivity, and a gracefulness to ‘be.’

In this place of ‘being,’ there is only one voice.  The observer, the part that is aware of the thoughts is simply aware.  There is no counter-thought, no judgment of the thought, no critical thinking.  The ‘loosened’ voice is free to give rise to flexible thoughts; thoughts that bend and curve and yield to a heightened state of suggestibility.

My hypnopompic thoughts are sometimes bright and enthusiastic, bursting with energy and sweet talk; coaxing me to rise and shine, to greet the day with joy and happiness.

Sometimes dark, shadowy thoughts arise, threatening to cast gloom on the day as they drape themselves heavy on my chest; a blanket of sadness across my body.

I find that I am equally curious and welcoming to both sides of the ‘hypnopompic divide.’  Truly.

When happy thoughts arise, I do my best to amplify and enhance the joyful energy.  I pack the zip, zing and dynamism into my jet pack, ala George and Jane Jetson.  I borrow a phrase from my father’s beloved nautical dictionary, as well as his voice.  Dad roars, “Full steam ahead.”  I obey, powering my way upward into the day.

The ‘negative’ feelings, the upset, the sadness, dare I say – the deeply depressive thoughts – are explored in a more gingerly fashion.  They have a depth to them, a richness, a bittersweet quality.  I respect and honor these thoughts.  They are my humanness.  They are my guides and my teachers, and ultimately, I am to rise above them.  Once inwardly explored and expressed, my Lucy Lawless – my Xena the Warrior Princess emerges, and again, the upward spiral is in motion, and again, I power my way into the day.

This morning, the dark side solidly rolled into view.  Thoughts of my mother and her current state of mind, which fluctuates wildly from phone call to phone call, from visit to visit, surfaced.   Sometimes we are optimistic; sometimes we are terrified.  Sometimes grateful to be alive; sometimes we want to die.

Our yesterday’s conversation rivaled Mozart’s Requiem, one of the best and saddest pieces of music ever written.  Mom peppered our talk, which primarily focused on the difficulty of her transition with the following phrases:

“People live too long.” 

“It would be better for everyone if I left now.”

“Maybe the cough will turn into pneumonia.”

“Perhaps I’ll toss myself off the balcony.” 

One might say that she is lucky; and that I am lucky by extension.  A walker is better than a wheelchair; the assisted living setting, with all its challenges, is far better than a nursing home.  Amen to that sister, I am right there with you.

Nevertheless, a person is entitled to feel their feelings, and without question, getting not just old but ancient is an extraordinarily difficult journey.

Mom is 95.5 years old, and her passage – like everyone else’s – is a journey of losses.  Sometimes one loss is on the heels of another.  Sometimes the losses are mercifully spaced out, allowing us time to catch our collective breath, readying ourselves for the next ‘happening.’

Mom has experienced a great many losses.  The death of her son (5 years ago), the death of her husband (10 years ago), her home of 31 years gone in one swift fall (the recent move to assisted living); the full use of her body also gone in one swift ‘fall’ – literally (now needing a walker for the shortest of trips – even from the bed to the bathroom).  And her mind, which was the sharpest of them all – sharper than yours or mine – is showing its wear; a bit tattered around the edges.

And so, in my hypnopompic state, where my thoughts and feelings have a bow to them, where I am in a heightened state of suggestibility, I simply note that the blanket of sadness is indeed heavy on my heart, in fact, on much of my body; from my eyes, to my throat, to my chest … on downward.  

I am increasingly aware of the words, phrases and thoughts that are floating through my mind. “…W…e…” passes through. (As above, “we are sad.”)  In that moment, I create a space between my mother and myself; a space filled with compassion and loving-kindness, but nevertheless a space.  I am – and – She is.  

No, I do not need to feel her feelings for her, even if this was the unspoken childhood role that was assigned to me.  The roots may run deep, but I am no longer a child, and I make a choice – I let go.   As I wonder, “to whom do these thoughts belong?”

Many of the thoughts that float before me belong to my mother. I tentatively hand them back to her, further creating a space for me to explore my thoughts and my feelings.

Miraculously, as I further relax my body and my mind, the thoughts and the feelings that accompany them begin to dissipate. The blanket of sadness lifts. And I am once again coaxing myself out of bed with sweet-talk of the day to come.

The weather gods predict an unseasonably warm and sunny day.  The corner fruit vendor has a fresh shipment of grapes and cherries arriving early this morning.  And later in the day, after we visit my mother, Peter and I will venture downtown to see The Descendants, a tear-jerker promises the New York Times.


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Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney


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