Caregiving—The Helpful Intruder Pt. I

My grandmother delighted in getting old despite her physical limitations and medical conditions. She loved every minute of senior discounts, turning gray, handicapped parking, and a reserved seat on the front pew of our church, specifically reserved for the mother board. No matter how great the burden was on the rest of us—growing old, for her, represented something totally different. Survival. She outlived her circumstances. Living through racial segregation, The Great Depression, sexism and a host of other trials. Becoming a senior was a defining moment in her life. For her, getting her AARP card was like being honored with a key to the city.

Growing up, I was her unofficial helper. Washing her car, clothes, and dirty dishes—even helping to deliver her AVON. Acknowledging that she was getting up in age, my late aunt and uncle took measures to make sure she was stable. Uncle Bernard secured senior housing and Auntie Barbara applied for In Home Supportive Services—a California based social services program that pays for care services so seniors and the disabled can remain safely in their home.

Truth is, most seniors can’t afford to live alone or pay for assisted living. Anyone looking for services can visit Home Care Association of America to find a local provider. My aunt and uncle knew something I didn’t, at the time. Creating paths to accessible resources, stability, and independence is an equally important component to the care experience as meeting physical needs.

Following high school, I became my grandmother’s formal caregiver through IHSS. I learned, when you decide to take on the responsibility of providing care, especially to a loved one—a paradigm shift takes place. At least, it did for me. Our relationship changed from grandmother-granddaughter to provider-recipient.  Although, our relationship had been long established through our familial bond—it didn’t change the reality that she was losing full capability and someone was intruding upon her space. A struggle for power ensues the moment the change occurs as you step-in to assist, and they search for ways to convey strength amidst debilitating health.

The hardest recipients I’ve experienced on my caregiving journey are those that are in denial about their limitations. They often present as prideful, feisty, and aggressive in fear of relinquishing power. Years ago, I worked with a stroke survivor. She mentioned that she was getting into the shower, so I placed her shower chair in the bathtub—trying to be helpful. She stormed from the bathroom accusing me of treating her like a baby, saying that she didn’t need help taking a shower.

It’s best to begin with a conversation about the services you are there to provide and how they want them performed. Most providers are empathetic—feeling obligated to the recipient—tending to do more than required, ignoring the services that agencies or even recipients are actually paying for. Some recipients don’t mind blurring these lines, but it can lead to future trouble such as burnout.

You lose yourself becoming an extension of another person’s body. The thought of the recipient being totally reliant on your physical and mental agility is stressful, scary, draining, and inconvenient. Providers can face health crises ignoring their own personal needs. Managing your time is crucial taking on the role of caregiver. Take advantage of multi-tasking wherever you can. For example, if you’re going to the market for the recipient, and need to pick up personal items—see if your recipient doesn’t mind you shopping for yourself, as well.

Mindfulness can go a long way in providing service. Caregivers should be mindful of the adjustment period that both of you are facing. My grandmother adjusted her schedule of water aerobics, senior activities, and medical appointments around my work days. I had to change my way of performing tasks to meet her standards. I bore the responsibility of handling money, cards, house keys, and her car. My light key chain turned into a janitors ring. Our lives were intertwining even more than before.

I’ve experienced both sides working with family and non-relatives. The process of trust generally doesn’t change that much from person to person. Basic human instinct sometimes forces us to take a head-first dive into an ocean of trust and fake a cohesive relationship until that awkward phase passes.  It helps to remember, the inevitable part of any growing relationship is vulnerability. Submitting yourself to a lesser degree in order to find that happy medium as both of you integrate into new roles.

Live. Bless. Prosper.

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