Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sharing your story

Last week I traveled to the Minnesota “outback” to attend my grandmother’s 98th birthday celebration. Nearly 30 family members made the trip; some from as far away as Guam; others from the neighboring town.

My mother and aunt stayed behind after all the other relatives left to care for grandma. She’s been declining rapidly lately, losing her long-treasured ability to care completely for herself. My mom, 76 and lacking in strength and mobility, is caring for her mother, helping her transfer from bed to wheelchair and back.

The day we returned home to Oregon, my sister-in-law stopped by with the latest installment of the challenges facing my husband’s parents, both in their 90s.

It’s a story that most American families are living today. We’re living longer. We’re healthier, too, until we hit that inevitable wall of age and decline. Most of us help our own family members rather than paying someone else to provide care – or we have a combination of both, like my family.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately. Howard Gleckman’s new book, Caring for our Parents, is based on stories of real people facing real crises in managing their needs during the last years of their lives.

Brooke Shields’ story, which I shared last week, is one of guilt and anxiety about placing a mom in a care facility.

My own story is one of a healthy, hearty family laid low by the classic phone call; this time from a paramedic on scene at the site of the traffic accident that claimed my father’s life and severely injured my mother. What followed were days that blurred into night as I traveled between hospital and funeral home, work and my children’s schools, and tried to keep it all in balance. My mother traveled the route that many do at the end of their lives, but she did it backward: acute care to skilled nursing care to assisted living community. We experienced it all – and it wasn’t pretty. Even though I’ve been in the business of senior care for the past 30 years, my eyes were opened to the family experience in a brand new way.

We helped both my mom and my in-laws move from their homes into retirement centers. I use the word “helped” loosely – in my mom’s case we physically cleared a home and 5 acres of land that my parents had lived on for more than 20 years (with all the accompanying stuff); in my in-laws case we simply nagged and nagged until they finally made the move. Both moved into lovely retirement communities – not nursing homes.

Sharing our stories not only helps us gain perspective on our own challenges, it can help us join forces in taking steps for change.

Maybe the change you need is on a personal basis – like the family members who don’t see the needs that you see.

Maybe the change you need is much broader – like the inability to pay for the care your loved one desperately needs.

Sharing our stories may be one way we can help each other. There are currently some 52 million family caregivers in America today according to caregiver.org. That’s a lot of stories – and a lot of help!

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