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The Need for Respite Runs Both Ways

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by Elizabeth Shean

Mom was struggling not to cry, choking out the words past a constricted voice box. “You don’t even want me thinking for myself. You just want to be a dictator around here.”

I hugged Mom and silently castigated myself. How is it that I—a professional communicator—fail so often in communicating with my own mother? Then again, whose communication skills don’t suffer when they’re tired? Exhausted, even?

Mom was crying because I had lost my patience and yelled at her for making a mess. She has been doing this a lot in the few weeks since I told her we would be moving back to Albuquerque in the spring. In an effort to “help get ready to move,” she “sorts” her belongings: papers in the filing cabinet, books from the shelves, DVDs in the entertainment center. Of course, she’s not able to truly “sort” anything anymore. So these items get hopelessly scattered about, and guess who gets to clean it all up?

On this day, the object of Mom’s sorting mania was books. I returned with our dog, Mitzi, from a veterinary appointment to find piles of books stacked randomly on the floor. I angrily told Mom she needed to stop going off on her own and taking on these “projects” without telling me. I lectured her. I hurt her feelings during my tirade, no doubt about it. I was too harsh. Not nearly patient or loving enough.

As I heard the angry words tumbling from my mouth, I thought, I need a break. I need to get some respite from caregiving because my behavior is really unacceptable right now.

For the rest of the day I made amends with Mom. Apologized profusely. Gave many, many hugs. Cleaned up the mess in good humor. By bedtime I could tell she had forgiven me. Eventually I’ll forgive myself.

The next day our CAREGiverSM, Anita, arrived with her usual cheerful smile. After she bathed Mom and completed a few other routine tasks, I asked her to help Mom sort her books into two piles: those to be moved, and those to be sold.

Mom has a lot of books, so the sorting took most of an hour. I checked in occasionally and marveled at the way Anita interacted with Mom. When Mom got distracted, Anita would gently bring her back on-task. When Mom asked the same questions over and over, Anita would patiently explain again and again. And all the while, Anita gave enthusiastic encouragement, “You’re doing so great! I can’t believe how much progress you’ve made on this!”

When the task was complete, Mom was beaming. And a hard truth hit me: Just as I need periodic breaks from Mom, so does she need periodic breaks from me.

I observed Mom and Anita enjoying a coffee break, chatting like old friends, and made a decision. I called my local Home Instead Senior Care® office right then and there. I asked them to send Anita to us for a second day each week—so Mom can see her friend twice as often. I think a little extra respite might be just what the doctor ordered to improve our communication.​


Posted by Teresa (October 18, 2016)

Thanks for your honesty. It's helpful and refreshing. I'm so ashamed when I lose my patience with my 92 year old mom. I know she has lost so much . Her health. Her independence. Her home. I am working everyday on being more understanding.

Posted by Robin (October 18, 2016)

Find myself losing my patience more and more and feel terrible afterwards. The late afternoons are the worst. The scary thing is I know this is only the beginning. I have caretakers come in the am while I work which I'm thankful for. I pray for patience everyday.

Posted by June Miller (October 18, 2016)

This is so true. Respite is important for both of us. Another person to love them, usually are more willing to do stuff with them. I fought to get 3 afternoons a week, and I really feel by Monday I can't wait until Tuesday until I get a respite as my temper is shorter and I have to work really hard to hold my tongue when I answer the same question for the 100th over the weekend. If you are thinking that you can't leave your loved one with a stranger think again. They soon become friends usually by the time you get home. It's the best thing you can do for both of you. If the first worker isn't a good fit, try another one until you get the right person for your loved one. This is especially important when your loved one expresses a strong dislike to someone. I will try someone twice but if for some reason my husband really dislikes the caregiver I ask for a different one. Sometimes there is just reasons but other times it's simply a personality clash. Fortunately we have been blessed with some wonderful caregivers who have become like family and I have become very dependant on them and so has he. He can't wait for her next visit.

Posted by Laurie (October 18, 2016)

How do you take that first step to bring in a caregiver? I feel like I've made my husband so dependent on me that he will reject anyone new. I'm afraid he will be angry with me for taking an hour or two to myself.

Posted by Elizabeth Shean (October 19, 2016)

Thank you, Teresa, Robin, June and Laurie for your wonderful comments. My goal with this blog is to be as honest as possible and to talk about the difficult things, so I'm glad you all found value in this discussion of getting short-tempered as a caregiver. As a community, we need to talk about these things. Let us not feel shameful for what is normal behavior. June, I love your insights into how to integrate a caregiver into the home. I completely agree it's often necessary to try several caregivers before you find the "right one." My mom and I went through this, too. Anita is, I think, the fourth or fifth caregiver we tried, and she is definitely the ONE! Laure, the first step is to pick up the phone and call your local Home Instead Senior Care office. They are experts in helping a loved one overcome resistance to having a professional caregiver come into your home. They know many tactics to ease the situation. The way I did this with my mom (who was somewhat resistant) was to begin by getting a caregiver for just 1-2 hours to help with a specific task (like meal preparation) while I had to be away from home on business. Once Mom got used to the idea of having a helper around, it became easy to shift to a regular schedule. You may be surprised at how easy the transition is. Your husband may actually wind up welcoming a fresh face around the house. Thank you all for reading. I wish each of you the very best with your own caregiving situations!

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