The Sandwich

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April 4, 2011 by David Gillaspie


Comes a time in many lives when you hear reasonable suggestions.  Colleges warn against helicopter parents swooping in to heroically solve their kid’s problems.  

Good counseling tells the whirlybirds to stay home.  

At the same time, a nursing home calls to say your parent isn’t stable enough to leave, to go back home, after surgery. They need the sort of help twenty four hour care provides. Your other parent worries.  

Where ever you are, you worry too.

The pressure from one side doesn’t balance the other.  Your college student will pull through.  They’ll take a few hits, collect their share of bruises, growing stronger like the bones they broke playing football and wrestling in high school.

You know how it works.  

What you don’t know is how to feel while an elderly parent, the healthy one, fades and rallies.  Do you zoom in the same way you’re advised against doing with kids?  Do you tell one parent to ease up on the twenty five hours a day nursing home vigil; to stop driving home at night in hard rain that defeats your windshield wipers? 

You can talk, but they won’t listen.  The bond between elderly parents is too strong for a kid to loosen.  Besides, the old folks paid attention in knot tying class and you won’t know where to start.

If you must start, then feel free to follow my Rules of Order:

1. Ask the folks what they need done and do it for them.  (Don’t feel put off if they need something done but don’t want you doing it and ask a sibling instead.  Helping out isn’t a popularity contest.  Encourage participation.)

2. Talk to them about what you did and ask if they need more done.  (If you move from one project the next because it’s what you’d ordinarily do, stop.  Let the folks decide what’s next, then add your ideas.  Keep them in the game.)

3. Communicate with family members.  (Tell them what the folks are asking for, and what you’re doing.  Invite participation.  Make a plan to cover the unexpected.)

I was a caregiver for my father in law who had a combination of Parkinson’s, dementia, and cancer.  I volunteered for the job based on the toll his illness took on my mother in law.  His disease wore her down, though she’d never admit it.

A doctor said he had two days, maybe, after pneumonia took him to the hospital.  He was so weak he couldn’t lift a blue-tinged fingernail.  With two days left, why all the life support gear crowding the room?  Because that’s what they have to do in the hospital. 

It’s part of the Hippocratic Oath.

I told the doctor I graduated from medic school, not medical school.  Army medic school in Fort Sam Houston Texas.  I could look after the needs of my sick old father in law for two days.  It felt heroic taking a dying man under my wing. 

Then he lived five years longer at home than the two day hospital estimate. 

It was a heroic half-decade of enough ups and downs to crush granite, but no different than any other family caregiving drama:

We bought a lap dog, a comfort dog who liked lying on Grandpa’s feet more than his lap.  Result: an unusual pressure sore on his ankle bone the medical people said would never go away.  It was in there deep and wouldn’t stop.  But it stopped with better pet management.

He woke up one morning and it looked like the end.  The doctors said he lost half his bodily fluids due to a spike in his blood thinner.  If you asked me it looked like he lost all of his bodily fluids.  After three days in the hospital he came back home.  Because of the severe nature of that episode we got home nurse visits. 

It was a one-time visit:

Nurse: “The next time this happens, shut his door and come back in an hour.”

Me: “Yes, ma’am.  Now let me show you the door.”

Nurse: “I’m not finished.  I have reports to write.”

Me: “Do it in your car.  Thanks for coming by.”

Fairly, or unfairly, we all judge quality of life differently.  The nurse was probably correct in her advise, but not in our situation.  I don’t think Hippocrates would take her side, but she had more current experience.  Her visit became a touchstone between me and the old man. 

Together we kicked some nurse fanny.  I made hay with it. 

“They don’t know you.  To them you are a case, a stop in their day.  They don’t know what you can do, what you want to do.  You want to see some ballgames.  Go to a parade.  Sit in the sun.  You want to hear some Zane Grey, some W. E. B. Griffin.  None of it means anything to her.  Don’t mean nothing.  We could call her supervisor, but we won’t.  We just don’t need her sort of help.  You barely need me.  What’s most important is the dog needs you.  Are you ready?”

I put our mini-dachshund on his lap where it stayed.

The old man nodded his head.



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