Updated: Feb 23
It is only fitting that National Caregiver Day happens to land on the very day that I arrived to California, because it just so happens to be the day I started to care for my maternal grandmother.
More than 40 million Americans act as caregivers, providing unpaid care for older adults with chronic illnesses or conditions that prevent them from being able to care for themselves. - Sharp HealthCare.
At first it was very minimal, mainly just to make sure she didn’t need anything during the night as her vision wasn’t as good anymore and the fear of her waking in confusion was going to be put at ease with having me there overnight.
I was in a place in life where the promise of never-ending sunny days and free rent in exchange for watching over Nannie “just during the nights” didn’t seem too bad. Especially since she was my sweet old grandmother who lived off of Tang, peanut butter sandwiches, Cheetos, and Neapolitan ice-cream, and that really sounded like Heaven to my 22-year-old self!
But as time passed, the novelty of Tang, peanut butter sandwiches, Cheetos, and Neapolitan ice cream wore off. And those never-ending sunny days? Well those were only for the summer months not pertaining to May or June and I learned that living in Ramona, CA was not exactly like living in San Diego proper. When the Fall began, I was driving back and forth to Chula Vista for a 3-hour round trip commute each day then would come home to watch over Nannie, but it was definitely more than worth all of this complaining I'm doing here, as it was for my Nannie and my family! But I'm just being as real as possible for how I felt back then when I was really stressed out working full time, driving 15 hours a week to get back and forth, then the care-giving during my "free time".
As time passed further, the days got longer and more difficult. Thankfully my parents lived just a few houses over and my stepfather was on call during the day and would come over whenever he could and needed to while I was teaching, so we had a great system worked out. Then there was this shift. This inner-conflict and difficult period, a growth spurt into this stage in my life of leaving the grand kid behind and becoming the "parent" figure so to speak. I wasn't just the grand kid staying "rent free" to help out at night any more. I was genuinely worried about her doctor questioning why she wasn't gaining weight and sneaking in calories however I could throughout the evenings and everything else.
See, Nannie didn’t really want to do all of the things you have to do for yourself every day and every night to live a healthy life, she really didn’t want to do much of anything. The doctor said she wasn't depressed, just old. But she did enjoy watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy with me after work every night, and of course Law & Order. Game shows and Jerry Orbach she did like! But everything else was such a fight to do.
I didn’t realize that this was probably her way of saying, “I’m ready. Leave me alone and just let me go”. I fought her tooth and nail to do everything to ensure she stayed alive. After all my family entrusted me with all 70 pounds of her, right? Gosh, it was hard. I was angry most of the time. We argued a lot. But I loved her so very much.
I just wanted her to live forever and enjoy doing it damn it!
Overall, her health was ok. She didn’t have dementia or heart issues. She just didn’t have the desire to do much (Except for watch game shows and Law & Order!)
One Wednesday I was coming home from work I decided to stop off at JC Penny’s. While I was there, I got this very odd migraine, a different one than normal and I dropped everything and came straight home.
As soon as I arrived 15 minutes later, I found Nannie on the floor, she’d just had a stroke and oddly my migraine dissipated. I called my stepfather and said very calmly, “Call 911, Nannie had a stroke, I can’t let her hear me talk to them about her, it’s bad.” I stayed with her and she rubbed my hand to comfort ME, until EMS arrived.
After the first day in the hospital, I made sure that Nannie had her afghan to stay warm, it was the same one she made a million years ago that she covered herself with every night on the couch for game shows.
Every evening when we left we would tell her, “See you tomorrow”. She was unresponsive and the nurse would tell us she could still hear us even though she would never recover. Then on Saturday I told my parents that I thought we shouldn't tell her we were coming back the next day, that we should just say good bye and that we loved her.
And that very day just about 20 minutes after we left, and told her we loved her without the promise of seeing her the next day, she passed away as we were driving to my uncle’s house for a family lunch.
Her afghan is still in the plastic bag from the hospital stored away. I just don’t have the heart to pull it out and use it, but maybe it’s time. Being a caregiver isn’t easy, regardless of how strenuous the work is especially when you're a relative of the person you are caring for. I was very fortunate that Nannie was as healthy as she was, because many caregivers have a much more difficult task at hand.
If you are a caregiver, it's ok to occasionally feel sad or angry or mad or guilty or resentment. Even if this is the person you are married to, or the person who gave birth to you or even if it is your sweet 70 pound grandmother. They are all common and natural feelings to have. But it is not healthy to feel these things all of the time and it is never ok to act on them in any way, especially if this means you're a danger to yourself or to other people or animals.
It is always good to join support groups for caregivers, especially ones that you have to physically go to because you need that break. But joining an online support group is better than nothing at all. If your patient or loved one is suffering from a particular illness or disease, join a specific support group for that need, like Alzheimer’s like for my step-father who passed away at only 67 years old from Vascular Dementia (that’s for another story.) Looking back I wish I'd done this for myself. I kept everything in, and although I used my friends as "therapists", (thank you to my #1 at the time, Robin!)
I think being part of a professional support group would have been so much better for me. It was such a difficult time for me, especially the last year of care giving and the transitional period after Nannie passed away was extremely difficult too, but I didn't feel like I really had anyone I could share that with, not even my own family.
If you know someone who is a caregiver, try to make sure they’re doing well every once in a while and just let them know they’re doing a great job for the work they’re doing. It can be physically and emotionally draining, even if they are professional caregivers.
Just set your alarm every few days or weeks to check up on them and it will make a world of difference. Your kindness will add fuel to their tank that probably usually runs close to empty most days!
Are you are a caregiver? Guess what? YOU ARE DOING AN AMAZING JOB! Keep up the wonderful work, you are greatly appreciated more than you know! Here is a virtual hug to you from me! Stay healthy and strong and thank you for what you do.
Please call 911 if you are experiencing an emergency. Contact your physician of you need to make an appointment with a specialist. If you feel like you are a danger to yourself or others, please call the Suicide Hotline.
This is Nannie and I after a late-night ice cream run! We were in our pj's and put on coats to run out for some ice cream. Not all of my memories of the 3 years were difficult. In fact as challenging as they were, I am very thankful for this time together because it was very special. She shared wonderful stories from her life and of our family and we made wonderful memories like this one together, from that night in November of 2003.