Last week, bushy-haired 1980s comedian Al Franken paved the way for a brutally honest depiction of life for an over-extended caregiver. This week, white-haired 60-ish Dorothy Zbornak makes an appearance to put her Midas touch on the “It’s All About Me” story.
Rewind to 1989 when television’s Golden Girl Dorothy (played by the late Bea Arthur) desperately tries to find a medical reason that she is persistently tired and suffers from recurring flu-like symptoms. In the second part of the episode “Sick and Tired,” she finally connects with progressive Dr. Chang (portrayed by Keone Young) who diagnoses Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Dorothy is comforted that her months-long struggle with the elusive symptoms is the result of a genuine illness, even though there is no treatment. Dr. Chang calmly advises:
“Try to adapt to it. Rest when you need to. Eat well. Eliminate stress if you can. Right now there is no cure and no one thing that relieves the symptoms in everyone.”
Dr. Chang is a fictional character, but art often imitates life and his lines in the script ring true for me. It’s not just because I have had periodic run-ins with Chronic Fatigue (and Immune Deficiency) Syndrome since 1994. I’m also sure that, had I visited his television-studio office while taking care of my mother, he would have offered similar counsel to try to curb the burnout I experienced during her final years.
If you are a caregiver … or anyone who is hanging on for dear life to the knotted end of a frayed rope … go back and read Dr. Chang’s guidance again. Write it on your heart. I certainly wish I had stumbled upon a rerun of that episode on some late-night cable channel a few years back. My life as a caregiver was practically the antithesis of his vision.
Since late 20th Century pop culture is today’s story-telling vehicle, let’s assume for a minute that I could take a Quantum Leap á la Sam Beckett and put right what once went wrong. What would I do differently? What would I do more often?
Sitting on top of the “do differently” list is my stubborn refusal of offers from friends to sit with Mom or run errands. “Thanks but we’re doing OK” was my standard answer to the sweetest suggestions from the sweetest people. I never doubted their ability to help. I just didn’t want to impose on them, show weakness, relinquish control or somehow displease Mom by altering her routine. I couldn’t see that saying “yes” would not have produced any of those results and that “yes” actually would have been the strong answer. People who offer to help mean it; they want the opportunity to do a good deed for someone they hold dear. People who accept help are buying time; the most precious and sought-after commodity on earth.
On the “do more often” list, I would take the principle of accepting help a step further and ask friends or family to lend a hand periodically. The only two people who managed to effectively shoulder past my resistance to their good intentions were my sister, Leslie, and my daughter, Jennifer. They each have stubborn streaks at least as wide and deep as mine. It was not unusual to find the roses trimmed, the furniture dusted or the floors cleaned anytime one or both of them were around. It took several years, but I finally accepted the fact that they were always going to turn a deaf ear to my refusals of help. Eventually, on occasion, I took the initiative and sought out their assistance. Asking for help. What a concept. It’s not a cardinal sin or a punishable crime. It’s smart.
Back on the “do differently” list, you would find me making better choices about multi-tasking. Some of the worst experiences I had while taking care of Mom involved outings that required divided attention. One holiday season when she was still capable of staying home alone for a few hours, I decided to take my two young grandsons out to buy gifts for their parents. Mom loved shopping and wanted to go along. Instead of promising to take her another day, I acquiesced and soon found myself trying to navigate a wheelchair across a busy parking lot while holding tightly onto two little boys. Inside the first … and last … department store we visited, everyone wanted to go in different directions. It’s often said that it’s much better to do one thing at a time and do it well, than to do two or more things poorly. I’m here to tell you; that adage is hackneyed but true.
To wrap up this imaginary leap through the quantum accelerator, I would add three simple things to the “do more often” list – time alone, choosing what’s important, and sleep.
One summer afternoon, when I felt as though I was about to fly out of my skin from pent-up stress, I asked my department director to approve a last-minute leave request. He did and, when I left the house the following morning, I didn’t do one errand for anyone else. I strolled lazily through my favorite garden nursery, shopped leisurely for clothes and looked at shiny cars for sale. Whether I actually bought anything, I don’t recall. What I do remember is that, by the time I returned home, I was as refreshed as if I’d been floating on a mountain lake somewhere far away. I should have taken the hint and scheduled more “it’s all about me” days.
As a manager, I encourage my staff to continuously organize and reorganize their work in accordance with what is most important. It’s a puzzlement that I had trouble remembering to do that very thing during the years I cared for Mom. Most days it wasn’t too difficult to ignore recurring clouds of pet hair in the corners of the hallway or a pesky cobweb hanging out of reach from the vaulted living room ceiling. However, I couldn’t let go of the idea that the house needed to be spick and span when out-of-town family came to visit. My furious, late-night cleaning jags were legendary. I’ll never understand why I thought it was a higher priority to exhaust myself with white-glove minutiae than just relax and enjoy the visits.
Last but not least, to put the most important thing right that once went wrong, I would take every opportunity … no, I would make opportunities … to get more sleep. Increasingly as the years passed, I would find myself nodding off while watching television with Mom. Sometimes, but not often enough, I gave in to it and actually napped. To no one’s surprise, my inattention never triggered the untimely demise of a beloved sitcom character or allowed a pathetic dance team to take home the Mirror Ball Trophy. Looking back, I can also see that a short slumber when Mom was napping would have had a greater return on investment than catching up on chores. I tried to get by on too little sleep all those years and it exacted a toll both physically and mentally. It’s taken more than 10 months to finally feel rested and, with apologies to Reader’s Digest, sleep is really the best medicine. Laughter comes in second.
So this is the list I brought back from my quantum leap. While it’s not technically a “note from my mother,” it’s a very important lesson learned from caring for her. And it’s a “note to self” that I intend to practice even though my caregiving days are behind me.
Accept help. Ask for help. Do one thing at a time and do it well. Schedule “me” days. Prioritize. Sleep.
As Dr. Chang told Dorothy some 25 years ago, there is no one thing that works for everyone. My list may help you hang on to the knotted end of your frayed rope, but you may think of other strategies that will help you scramble back up that ragged rope to the safety of a solid platform. Whatever your approach may be, remember this.
Care receivers are expected and allowed to be Al Franken every day. Their needs are paramount, and rightfully so. This will never change. What can and should change is the misguided notion that the caregiver must wait for some distant, bittersweet day when it will be their turn to rest, to sleep, to dream. It’s a perspective that, perhaps not surprisingly, is mostly held by those dedicated, exhausted individuals who are assisting a loved one day in and day out. If you are one of these weary souls, give yourself the opportunity to slow down and carve out some time to call your own. Look in the mirror and tell yourself that at least for this hour or this day:
“It’s all about me, Al Franken.”