In a prior article, we discussed how to support a patient’s family or friends forced into a sudden and unexpected caregiving role due to illness or injury. Supporting these “surprise” caregivers requires a focus on providing the details of the immediate condition and being clear about what assistance the patient will need to recover. Sometimes, both patient and caregiver will take some time to come to terms with a new normal. But not all caregivers are pressed into service unexpectedly.
Patients with chronic or progressively debilitating conditions also require caregiver support. Their caregivers will need your assistance to be ready as the patient’s condition changes over time.
This weekend, telephone traffic will spike across the country as children of all ages reach out to their mothers to express thanks for delivering them safely into the world. 2014 marks the 100thanniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s establishment of Mother’s Day as a national holiday. A few years earlier, West Virginia native Anna Jarvis, who herself was never a mother, had initiated the idea of a holiday to honor the dedication and sacrifice of mothers around the world. The day provides a great opportunity to consider not only the care provided by one’s mother, but also the care that she may require in the future. Encourage your patients to start these conversations – for themselves or for their own parents or other loved ones who may require future care.
Though such a conversation may seem a “downer” on a day of celebration, ensuring that a trusted family member or friend has been designated as health care agent will provide peace of mind when the answers are urgently needed. Plus, it can be a catalyst to talking more comfortably about topics that are frequently avoided.
Here is one family’s recent experience:
Rob, Alex and Andrew enjoyed a middle-class upbringing in the Midwest. After college, they moved to the Northeast. Their parents, Frank and Regina, worked into their early sixties before starting to experience some heath problems. As was the case for many baby boomers, Frank and Regina both started smoking at a young age. Regina had quit smoking in the ’80s, but Frank continued to smoke at least a pack of cigarettes daily. During a holiday gathering prior to their parents’ retirement, the “boys” noticed that Regina seemed to be mixing up their names more than usual. When they asked Frank if their mother had been having any problems, he brushed off their concerns as just normal “old person stuff” that he too was experiencing.
A year and a half later, Alex visited his parents while on a business trip. Regina’s memory lapses seemed to Alex to be starkly worse, but Frank did not seem concerned. Alex called his brothers to share his concerns. Rob suggested that since Frank lived with her every day, he was better situated to know what was going on. Andrew, who’d recently lost his job while also welcoming a second child to his own family, said that he was concerned if Alex was concerned, but was not presently able to do anything about it. Alex also noticed that Frank’s always-active woodworking shop in the garage appeared to be abandoned. His father said it was getting too dusty, and that he’d start coughing and be unable to stop if he got sawdust in his lungs.
Regina gave Alex an update on some friends of the family, reporting that a couple with whom they’d spent much of their leisure time, Tom and Helen, had moved to Florida to be nearer to their own children due to a cardiovascular illness facing their friend Tom. She jokingly suggested that Alex just take his parents home with him. That way, she said, they’d be closer to their grandchildren. His mother seemed like her old self during the conversation, and Alex thought maybe he had overreacted to what he perceived as memory impairment.
Three months later, Frank suffered a minor stroke, and was hospitalized for two weeks. The family discovered that Frank had only been pretending to visit the doctor for several years after being told that his smoking, and not the dust in his wood shop, was the likely cause of his frequent coughing. His doctor had suggested a CT scan to screen for lung cancer, which Frank had declined. Now, his family pressed for the procedure, which revealed early stage cancer. Rob and Alex spent a week with Regina while Frank was still in the hospital, and noticed post-it notes around the house where they’d never been present before. Their mother seemed easily distracted and mentioned a few times that she wondered what time their father would be home for dinner.