Caregiving: Wisdom for the Sandwich Generation

I heard her footsteps on the stairs one night — jolted out of a sound sleep and into the familiar world of worry.

Step, click, pause.

The foot, the cane, the balance check.

Exhaling in the dark, I realized . . . no.  I had been dreaming.  She’s not here anymore.  She’s walking in safety now, through hallways with sturdy rails, assisted by M.A.’s and C.N.A.’s and an alphabet soup of helpers who tend to her every need.

That transition from our home to a long term care facility was heart-wrenching. Today, the first anniversary of my mother’s passing, I’m sharing some reflections on that season of care giving at The Perennial Gen.

As difficult as it was to have Mum in our home, it was even more difficult to make the decision that she needed more advanced care. In His mercy, God gifted a peaceful and painless passage to Mum, and in the year since then, I’m thankful to find that the memory of hard days and relational tension is being swallowed up in healing and forgiveness.

For those who are walking the tightrope of parenting your children while giving care to an elderly parent, please know that your sacrifices and struggles are seen by God, and He will give wisdom and strength — even for the decisions that feel as if there is no right answer.

I’m sharing our family’s story of grace with the folks at The Perennial Gen today. Join me?


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Standing and Waiting with Those Who Suffer

The words of 17th century poet John Milton from On His Blindness, come to mind with every visit to my mother’s long-term care facility:

 “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

I hope it’s true, and I’d love to report that in the midst of my waiting we have warm and meaningful conversations or that I push her wheelchair outside for sunshine and fresh air, but the truth is that she refuses to leave her room, and that for the duration of my visits, the t.v. is blaring infomercials and game shows.  With every visit, I wonder if her life is enhanced at all by my presence.  Of course, “standing and waiting” on behalf of my mother also includes advocating for her when her crankiness gets in the way of administrators hearing her real needs, calling health care providers, and bringing her treats, but, most of the time, I realize that I don’t know what to do in the face of her great need.

It is this awkward and frustrating sense of helplessness that often prevents people of faith from taking risks in serving those who are disabled or grieving or suffering in other ways.  Being There by Dave Furman offers inspiration and advice from the perspective of the one being served.  Readers who are familiar with his wife Gloria’s writing will remember that Dave is afflicted with a neurological condition which, over the past decade, has disabled his arms, caused chronic pain, and resulted in four major surgeries and a variety of tests, therapies, and prescriptions — none of which have been helpful.

With candor and realism, Dave shares his discouragement, his depression, and the impact his disability has had on his young family and on his ministry as a church planter on the Arabian peninsula.  He warns readers of the danger inherent in playing the “if only” game, which goes like this:

Fill in the blank — If only ___________, then I’d be happy.
If only my arms were healthy.
If only I had more money.
If only my spouse were healed.
This is not a game that is exclusive to the disabled, and Dave quotes John Calvin, referencing our “idol-factory” hearts, for somewhere along the way he realized that pain-free living had become an idol to him.

Suffering is a group project, and those who care for the suffering have a unique need to come clean before God about their own grieving process.  They need a marathon-level strength that is not their own in order to act, day after day, with selflessness toward one who is continually in need.  The messy process of grieving over a loved one’s pain is hard work and is best done in community. Over and over, the Furmans urged:  “Don’t walk this journey alone.”

The Psalms of Lament (particularly Psalm 88) give words for the hopelessness and for the sense that God is distant and uncaring.  Three lessons emerge from the text:

  1.  It is possible that a believer may experience unrelieved suffering.
  2. Our pain and suffering are not the final word, but remind us of the redemption to come.
  3. The psalmist does not give up.  Even in the midst of darkness, he prays.

Being There thrums with Gospel-based reassurance that not only does God not look away in our suffering, but the truth is that “the only person who sought God and truly did lose God’s face and did experience total darkness was Jesus” — and this was on our behalf.  “Because Jesus was truly abandoned by God the Father, we will never be abandoned by God.”  This is solid truth to encourage the heart of the suffering as well as the compassionate caregiver.

A highlight of Dave’s writing is the wide range of great authors and thinkers he quotes.  For example, citing Thomas Chalmers on “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Dave reminds readers that our love for the hurting comes out of new hearts based on resurrection-hope and because of what Jesus has already done for us — not because we are stellar servants or possess super stores of personal endurance.

Horatius Bonar’s Words to Winners of Souls applies to caregivers as thoroughly as to soul winners.  “You must be much with Christ before you are anything for anybody else.”

Seventeenth century English Puritan John Flavel’s writing drives home the truth that only those with a healthy heart can really help the hurting.  With this emphasis on a growing relationship with God in place, Being There moves on to some very practical components for helping the hurting and their caregivers:

  1.  Faithful friendship that offers silent presence, the fellowship of mutual burden bearing, loyalty over the long haul, the grace of lavish and ready forgiveness, and a willingness to use humor and lightheartedness to lift spirits.
  2. Continual clinging to the hope offered in the gospel over all other possible sources of hope.
  3. Selfless service that washes feet, honors the dignity of any image-bearer, humbly offers healing words, and shows up with specific and practical hands-on help.
  4. Heartfelt prayer in the manner suggested by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  “True spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother even more than to a brother about Christ.”  This includes urging the hurting to draw strength from their own prayer life.
  5. Loving rebuke when it’s clear that hopes need realignment and fear is in the driver’s seat.  Paul refers to it as “restoration” in the sense of putting a bone back in joint.
  6. Avoidance of unhelpful patterns such as becoming the “fixer;” delivering a message of false hope; unsympathetic questioning, pushing, condemning, or comparing; and allowing the disability to become anyone’s main identity.

We are called to a life of what Paul Tripp describes as “intentionally intrusive relationships.”  When we, as the Body of Christ, bear one another’s burdens in a culture of caring, we put the love of God on display and demonstrate our belief that He can provide strength to help us overcome obstacles and minister with love to those who are hurting. We can “stand and wait,” as we watch the grace of God prevail.

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This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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The New Mommy Guilt: Putting Your Parent in a Care Facility

I heard her footsteps on the stairs last night — jolted out of a sound sleep and into the familiar world of worry.
Step, click, pause.
The foot, the cane, the balance check.
Exhaling in the dark, I realized . . . no.  I had been dreaming.  She’s not here anymore.  She’s walking in safety now, through hallways with sturdy rails, assisted by M.A.’s and C.N.A.’s and an alphabet soup of helpers who tend to her every need.
Although I understand that she will not shower at their recommendation either.
For weeks, I rehearsed the words I would use:
“Mum, you know that it’s getting harder and more risky for you to be walking around the house.  Your eyesight is getting dimmer, your balance and strength less reliable.  You cry every day over the walk to the bathroom.  It’s time for us to find a safer place for you with people who can care for you.”
Will this decision ever stop feeling like a thing that needs forgiveness?

I used to say that homeschooling my children was the hardest thing that I had ever done, but after five years of:

  • arguing against irrational choices (No, Mum, people with glaucoma cannot cancel their eye doctor appointments);
  • attempting to meet unreasonable demands (Mum, we just had hot dogs two nights ago. I can’t feed the family hot dogs every night);
  • defending boundaries and clinging to reasonable parameters of sane living (Ple-e-e-ease don’t put your fingers in the serving dishes) . . .

After five years of being a caregiver in my home, I thought I had identified my new “hardest thing.”

I was wrong.

As hard as it was to say yes to my mother’s request to live with us; as exhausting as it was to insist that she make good choices and then shift gears for the same kinds of conversations with four teen and tween sons; as discouraging as it was to find the same bathroom catastrophes on a daily basis—none of this compares to the process of moving her to a nursing home.

As Mum raged and refused, the paperwork process halted and jolted over ground that I thought I had already covered.

With her acquiescence came a slow smolder, and I could see that she did not believe that she was in any real danger in our home—any more than she believed me when I told her that her 3:00 a.m. movie marathons were waking me up.

“You can’t hear that TV through two closed doors!”

“Oh, yes, Mum. I can. Believe me, I can.”

A friend gave me some old pictures of my family the other day. I was in my twenties, my sister was visiting from Alaska, and my mum was just about the age I am today. She was smiling—the kind of smile that lingers after a good hard laugh. Those occasions became fewer as her days of caring for my dad came to a close. She bundled up his worldly goods and shipped them out the day he died along with any expectation of happiness beyond the radius of her chair and the nearest television screen.

When Mum asked to come and live with us, I imagined, briefly, that somehow this would redeem our relationship; that God would use Mum’s final years as a sort of rebuilding of the desolate places that Isaiah wrote about when he predicted a way of salvation from ruin through a Messiah who said:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me
Because the LORD has anointed Me . . .
To comfort all who mourn . . .
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the LORD,
That He may be glorified.” Isaiah 61:1, 2, 3

That was not to be, at least not on this planet.

However, this does not mean that God has not been at work in other ways. I’m still in the process of sifting through the ashes, trusting Him to reveal the beauty, to give meaning to the years of mourning.

I am trusting for “the oil of joy” to lubricate my relationship with nursing home administrators whose frequent messages feel like calls from a school principal about a naughty child.

I am trusting for the “garment of praise” to protect my mind from the false guilt that measures every day and every minute between visits as if I could prove myself worthy of God’s love by winning the dutiful daughter award.

I am trusting for strong roots because I know that there is a generation of young saplings planted and growing who are learning from my husband and me what it means to value life, to respect a person as a bearer of the image of God when that likeness has become obscured by anger, bitterness, and dementia.

God is in the process of transforming my immediate and demanding “whys” into “hows”: LORD, how can this whole experience be transformed so that you are glorified in it? And, of course, I do not see the answer yet, but as Isaiah trusted and wrote about a salvation that he did not fully experience on this earth, I am also learning the wisdom of waiting:

“For as the earth brings forth its bud,
And the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth,
So the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.”
Isaiah 61:11

Lord, let it be so.


Postscript: My mother passed away in May of 2017. In His mercy, God gifted a peaceful and pain free passage into His presence, and the memory of hard days in the  past strike a sympathetic chord in the present as healing and forgiveness take root. 

This post first appeared at Blessed but Stressed, a community of caregivers and faithful lovers of their family.

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It’s Time

Slowly, slowly, she made her painful way through the kitchen.  Her eyesight dimming, she had not yet detected my presence there in the room, so I could watch unnoticed and register every discouraged sigh.  Then, with sad resignation, these words:

“I don’t know why this has to be so hard.”

Sadly, I realized that it was time to open the door to a different “hard” – a conversation that I was not ready to initiate about a topic that she was not ready to discuss.

“Mum, it’s time.”

“It’s time to find a safe place for you to live where you won’t have to be afraid of falling;

where you won’t have to climb stairs;

where you won’t have to be alone so much of the time;

where the people in charge know how to help you.

Five years ago, recovering from devastating surgery, Mum had asked, and we had said the hard “yes” that started this journey together in our home.  Renovating space to create a bedroom, equipping our bathroom with all the necessary hardware for her safety, embedding her routines into the rhythm of our days, we made the adjustment.  Our rallying cry and our plumb line:  “This is the right thing to do.”

Mum’s television, her word search puzzles, and the entertainment value attached to the daily comings and goings of her four grandsons filled her days to the brim.  As the one who tries to orchestrate all those comings and goings, I barely noticed Mum’s gradual decline.  Two graduations, a wedding, a new baby grandson, and five gardening seasons  whizzed by, and suddenly Mum had become a triple threat to herself:  vision, balance, and mobility all compromised, and all pointing to trouble.

When, I wondered, did she start resenting the guests who came to our home?

“I just want to sit down here and eat!” she grouched, pointing at the dining room table, laden with a buffet meal for over twenty guests.

And then there was the day of flames and popcorn in the microwave . . .

Capture

My friends over at Soli Deo Gloria are sharing this article about caregiving, change, and God loosening my roots.  I hope you’ll come on over by clicking here to read through to the conclusion.  Come as you are!  There’s always a welcome, and be sure to read some of the other challenging essays while you’re visiting.

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link up with these communities on a regular basis:  Looking Up,   Soli Deo Gloria Connections, Inspire Me Mondays, Good Morning Mondays, Soul Survival, Testimony Tuesday, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell His Story, Coffee for Your Heart, Live Free Thursdays, Faith-Filled Fridays, Grace and Truth, Fellowship Friday, Still Saturday, The Weekend Brew, Sunday Stillness, Faith and Fellowship, Blessing Counters, Women with Intention, Sharing His Beauty, Monday Musings, Motivate and Rejuvenate Monday, Thought Provoking Thursday, Small Wonder, A Little R & R, Beloved Brews, SusanBMead, Faith Along the Way, Cozy Reading Spot, Reflect, Literacy Musing Mondays, Purposeful Faith, Words with Winter