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Annette J. Wick - The Two Faces of Caregiving

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When I’m speaking to groups about caregiving, I’m often asked, “How should I respond when family members or other loved ones question my decisions?”

I know that confusion. The confusion stems from responsibilities or duties we might have inherited without any preparation.

My father assigned power of attorney responsibilities to me by asking a sister if I was the best person for the job. He did not discuss the assignment with me, leading to conflicts within the family. Those conflicts can turn costly if they are not handled with same attention we use to care for our loved ones.

This Side of Caregiving

The first lessons I coach caregivers are to recognize every family member has gifts they can offer, as it relates to a loved one’s care. Each member also carries their own agenda. Ideally, our loved ones would put forth their desires and plans, prior to others taking over care. For the lead caregiver, asking about each other’s gifts, how everyone would like to or can be involved goes a long way in establishing trust, and connections for when healthcare concerns increase.

Caregivers often believe we march alone.  But, we are surrounded by others willing to aid us. We need to help them help us. The National Institute on Aging recommends the following on how to share in these duties: Talking about, listing, and defining responsibilities. Defining strengths and how they can be bolstered for maximum effect. And, setting forth one’s limitations, whether it’s due to jobs, family, or location. One item not listed is to recognize that past hurts and regrets might cause some members to postpone involvement in a loved one's care, or not participate at all.

During my father’s care struggles, three of my siblings lived out of town. Each had their own ideas on care as well as unresolved differences. At the time, the best I could do was to honor my father’s wishes though they were not specifically put in writing for all to understand.

When my mother, in her dementia, required more care, those three still lived out of town. A sister often visited for a night and questioned, “Where are Mom’s washcloths?” and “Why does she get a turkey sandwich for dinner?” This worry was more a function of her personality and had nothing to do with my oversight of Mom’s life. I returned to normal programming with the onsite caregivers after my sister left.

Most staff understand how the inconsistent presence of other family or caregivers might cause disruptions. Ask for their assistance when necessary. As a professional, they can reassure other members that you, the caregiver, have responded to the required duties with professionalism and love.

Looking at Care from the Other Side

Several years ago, my older sister was moved into a nursing home. My younger sister became her caregiver. Living out of town, I’d love to provide more assistance. My gift is being a pusher. I assess a situation and discern what a person needs at a particular time. I pushed my mother to take walks or sit outside, every day if I had time. I wanted more for my sister too.

My sister no longer communicates, has significant cognitive memory loss, and engages only in seconds, not long minutes. A friend of mine recently asked how much speech therapy my sister had been given. I responded, “I wished she had more.” Efforts had been made and it was no longer my place to push for additional therapy. Part of this approach came about by accepting my role as sideline advisor. Part of my recognition lay in accepting where my sister was on the spectrum of overall well-being.

What strategies enabled me to achieve this balance? The ones developed when I was the lone caregiver. Communicating with family members using an established vocabulary and methods, such as group emails or texts. Everyone is assured of receiving the same message though it may be interpreted differently. Finding an ally within the family. Another of my sisters tended to be pragmatic in her relationships and helped others navigate the waters with detached emotion. Making use of staff to inform members about the status of a loved one. Ensuring everyone operates from the same vantage point eases their work too.

Finally, if you are the other family member, outside of using trained facilitators, consider how to best support your loved one’s care. What are your gifts? What can you let go of? When is it time to resolve differences with those you love?

Ho’oponopono is an ancient Hawaiian practice that combines love, forgiveness, repentance, and gratitude in four powerful phrases when said reflecting to yourself. The four simple phrases are: I’m sorry, Please forgive me, Thank you, and I love you. Keeping any of these phrases in mind as we accept our duties or our place in the family care is the best care you can offer to a loved one. As my dad used to say, “I just want my kids to get along.”

Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving (Three Arch Press) and is a recipient of a 2020 NSNC award. A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Grief Becomes You, Before the Diagnosis, Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Still Point Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, and others. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.