The other night, as my husband and I were laying in bed, I asked him the question:
"If I end up with dementia, would you take care of me or would you put me in a facility?"
There have been many thoughts and observations that led up to me asking him that question. I've been thinking about my mom a lot, reflecting on the last few years with her, wondering if I may inherit the same fate. Sometimes it feels like she is disappearing from the world; like she's the invisible woman that only I and my close family can see. Every now and then this discussion comes up with my dad as we reflect on those who have and have not been there for us in this journey.
The fact about dementia is that it is a very lonely disease. It isn't like other terminal illnesses where you are given an approximate amount of time to tie up your affairs and say your good-byes (and doing so while still in your right mind). Rather, it is unknown and most often very long and drawn out. In the beginning, people are shocked with the diagnosis; they express their love and condolences. But as time wears on, people (understandably) go about their lives and lose interest. The person with dementia is left alone to lose their mind and memories and abilities, day by lonely day.
We've been very fortunate to have many family and friends step up to comfort us and help ease to our burden throughout this journey. When Mom was initially diagnosed, there were many who expressed their condolences. We had offers of caregiving help-physically and even financially. But there's a huge difference between talk and action. With as many people who have reached out to us, there are equally as many who have rarely acknowledged the situation. People that my mom have worked with or served with at church; women, who at one time or another my mom has considered to be very close and dear friends, who have never once visited her since her diagnosis or even call to ask how she's doing (the same goes for my dad). There are family members as well who rarely, and some who never, stop by; family members who my mom was very close to, who never pick up the phone to call my dad and ask how she, or even how HE, is doing.
Life goes on, and it has to. Everyone has their own struggles to face in life. We understand that, but it's lonely all the same. And I would be lying if I didn't say that it's been hurtful that certain people haven't called or visited over the past 5 years. When we think of the life that Mom led, loving and serving and giving to others, it's sad to feel as if she's been forgotten about that easily; that maybe she didn't mean as much to people as they meant to her.
And maybe that's the not the way it really is. Maybe she's not really forgotten. Everyone handles grief differently. Sometimes people don't know what to say or how to react. Many may feel that she doesn't know them anyway, so there is little purpose in visiting (though the visits didn't happen even when she did still remember certain friends and family members). I've been very transparent in sharing our journey so maybe some of these people read my blog, unbeknownst to me, and feel that they already know what's going on. It's a hard situation all the way around.
A couple of years ago, I had somebody close to me go over a couple of times to sit with mom. She was friends with mom but I wouldn't say she was super close to her; she was much closer to me. After the second time, she told me, "I just can't handle seeing your mom like this, so I won't be going over anymore." That comment left me feeling so angry and hurt and alone. As hard as she claims it was for her, imagine what the pain must be for my dad to see his sweetheart decline every single day. Imagine how hard it is for my mom's children to watch this disease take her over and transform her into a stranger; how hard it is for us to change roles as we bathe her, change her, care for her; how hard it is for our kids to lose their grandma. I don't think this person intended to hurt my feelings at all. But since that day I can't recall a time she's asked how my mom is doing (though I occasionally volunteer information) and our relationship hasn't been the same. I feel abandoned. The avoidance from friends and family members does cause pain; not just to me, but to my dad as well.
I don't write this post to guilt or shame anyone, but rather to help people to understand what every dementia caregiver goes through. There is a common theme in many of my online support groups and that is the feeling of being alone, especially for the main caregiver (most often the spouse; in this situation, my dad). I share this for those who may wonder how you can help ease someone's burden; I give the following suggestions:
1. Don't avoid. This is our reality EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Please don't pretend like it's not happening. Don't be afraid to ask how someone is doing-both the person affected and the caregiver. I always feel really grateful when people ask how my dad is doing because they recognize that this is just as much a struggle (if not more) for him than for my mom. You don't have to talk about it every single time you interact with the person, but don't be afraid to check in now and then. You aren't going to offend or upset a caregiver by talking about it!
2. Absolutely, do not say or offer anything that you don't mean! We've all heard it: "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help" and then when called upon for help, there's no response. I think that's worse than not saying or doing anything at all. It's happened to every caregiver out there. If you are serious about wanting to help, it's more helpful to give specific suggestions of what you can do. Sometimes you may not know what to do, and that's okay! Just don't offer anything if there is no intention of following through.
3. Give a phone call or a visit now and then. Even a note or a card in the mail can brighten up a caregiver's day. I know it seems intimidating, but it is appreciated and shows that you really care. I know it means a lot to my dad when people have dropped off treats or sent cards, or even called to check in on how they're both doing. Additionally, keep in mind that people who care for loved ones at home have little social outlets. It's nice, sometimes, to have interaction with other people. It can get really lonely.
4. Be mindful that caregiving is a 24/7 job. A lot of times, people will call and ask my dad for help with something, and he's not one to say no. He always makes time to help people. And truthfully I think sometimes he likes it because it gives him another outlet to interact with people. But...people may not give thought that in order for him to go out with them or to go over and help, that means he has to have a caregiver at home that he is paying (or one of us has to come over and sit with mom). It's nice for a caregiver to be able to get out; maybe help provide a way so that they can get out now and then!
5. Don't be afraid to recognize special days: birthdays, anniversaries, etc. I have heard from many caregivers who feel sad when people close to them fail to recognize these special days. Perhaps they feel it will upset them to say anything; not bringing it up doesn't make us forget about that day. Be mindful that holidays are going to feel especially sad and lonely, especially while still caregiving as the person is still here to care for. We are grieving for the loss of someone who is still alive and unless you've been through this, it's difficult to describe the many emotions that go with it.
Before I end this post, and because I don't want to come off as ungrateful, I want to be sure to recognize that we have been luckier than so many other caregivers out there. Though it hurts with the people who have seemingly deserted us, there are so many who have been and continue to be here for us and for that we are sincerely grateful. Sometimes it's even been strangers, or friends who never even knew my mom before dementia, who have shown us incredible support! Those people have truly lightened the load and I can't tell you how much we love you for being there for us.