Monday, December 28, 2009

Cookies Are Done!

Christmas comes with its usual traditions, none so urgent in our family as making sure that all the cookies we usually bake are ready. Originally that was Nana's job, one she loved and guarded jealously. I'd handle the other, less important things such as decorating the house, putting out Christmas towels, putting up the tree and directing the placement of the indoor and outdoor lighting.
When Nana's medieval cookie press became too hard for her increasingly arthritic hands to handle, it was time for me to help with the baking. Under no circumstances did that give me any right to do anything even vaguely associated with the baking of the cookies any differently than Nana had always done it. The spritz cookies that called for ground almonds would be made with ground walnuts since almonds were much too expensive, back in 1952. And we most certainly could NOT buy already ground walnuts; we'd buy them in the shell, and sit there days ahead of time using the ancient finger-crippling nutcracker to open each one, diligently dig out the meat and finally put it through the nutgrinder you had to clamp onto the edge of a chair, using child labor to crank the handle while feeding in the nuts one handful at a time. And so our cookie baking traditions remained unchanged for, almost, ever.
I've finally started making a few changes, not to break tradition, but to ensure we'd actually have cookies ready, on time, for Christmas. The cookie baking process had slowed to a crawl while I watched Nana struggle with every little thing. When actually finding the ingredients I had carefully arranged on the counter became a chore, it was time to step in.
I'd sneak in a batch while Nana was crawling through her list of Christmas cards, eliminating those Scrooges who hadn't bothered to write back in response to hers last year. I'd bake once she'd gone to bed, praying the smoke detector wouldn't go off and send everyone scrambling when I burnt the odd tray. And I'd have her dot the Raspberry Nut Balls with jam once they'd come out of the oven.
I've survived another Cookie Baking Season having bypassed potentially hurt feelings and indicators of inadequacy. I've deviously started using pre-ground nuts, any kinds I want, to bake the Spritz cookies. I've discovered that my food processor can get the walnuts that go around the Raspberry Nut Balls chopped to just the right size, no cutting board or butcher knife required, entirely eliminating the need to vacuum the kitchen post-chopping to gather up all the nuts that went flying during this hateful chore. And who knew my beloved stand mixer could churn out the most beautifully perfect dough for each and every recipe. I'll bet I could teach it to use a rolling pin for when I make the cut-out cookies if I tried hard enough.
Now when Nana asks if 'we're' making the same cookies we make every year, I can confidently say 'of course 'WE' are, Nana', and happily task her with sampling what 'we've' baked, so that she's still involved, just like always.
Now if only we could find a way to keep the tree from falling, the way it does every year at Christmas. Ah, traditions! Gotta love 'em.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Turning the Titanic

Everybody knows the saying 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks', right? I say, sure you can. And it's not the 'old dog' that's the problem. It's that none of us really likes to change.

We like to eat the same familiar foods, drink the same three cups of coffee a day and stick with the same brand of toilet paper we've always bought. Nana examines everybody's plate when we're eating out but won't ever order anything but the Baked French Onion Soup that almost every restaurant offers. And Grampa George gets up at six, just like clockwork, every morning, only to collapse on the sofa an hour later for a nice long nap. Old habits, can be terribly inconvenient.

Grampa George's early to bed, early to rise routine is fine, for him. But since Nana prefers to sleep late and doesn't take her last pill before bed until at least midnight, when her Hawaii Five O reruns are over, it means I only manage to get about five hours of sleep a night.

I have to be up before Grampa George is, to give myself enough time to get dressed and ready to take his weight and blood pressure before his pills and breakfast every morning, which means setting my alarm for about 5:30 am. Once he's ready for his first nap, I'm taking my son to catch his train to school. By the time I'm back, Grampa George is usually looking forward to his second cup of coffee while I struggle to keep my face from falling into my first cup waiting for Nana to get up.

I realized that once you're using extreme mint gum to keep awake while driving, you're already in the danger zone. It was time to make a change. Before putting Grampa George to bed the night my husband decided I was going too far to make life comfortable for my two charges, I told him we'd be sleeping in the next morning. My left eye wouldn't stop twitching for hours after Grampa George told me he'd been getting up early every day so that he wouldn't keep me waiting. We agreed to make it seven, since it was Saturday and all.

I took my usual fifteen minutes to get ready the next morning, having had 60 glorious minutes of extra shut eye and was ready for Grampa George at 7 o'clock sharp. Since his bedroom door was still closed and no lights were on, I figured I'd succeeded in turning the Titanic. By 7:05 I flopped down on the sofa to wait for him to get up. At 8:00 I heard his door squeak, my signal to pop up from the couch as if I'd been awake the whole time.

When I met him in his room a few minutes later to go through his morning routine, he shook his head apologetically. "Don't know what happened. Must have slept in."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shower, Anyone???

One of the first clues to realizing that an aging loved one needs help is when their personal hygiene habits begin to slip. For me, helping Nana with her bath were just a matter of course. I knew what to expect and didn't think twice about it. Now that climbing in to the bathtub for her is about as likely as climbing Mount Everest, we shower.
There are countless ways to help someone shower. It depends entirely on how much help they need and their mobility or lack thereof. The type of shower you have also factors in. While modesty takes a back seat, dignity can still be maintained by way of gentle assistance with anything that becomes necessary.
I'm amazed at the many options to the regular bathtubs that once were all that were available. They look and sound wonderful in the commercials and are likely a great help to those living alone. If they can afford it.
It wasn't luck, but pre-planning that gave us the heavenly extra large two person shower with built in bench that we have at our house. There's a small curb the 'showeree' must step over, that keeps the water from flowing into the bathroom, but it's a pretty good set up all in all. Clearly, it is the responsibility of the 'showerer' to ensure the safety and well-being of the 'showeree'. Then like the water raining down on you from the shower head, you just go with the flow.
Nana is too unstable on her feet to venture into the shower unescorted. What to do: step into the shower with her, both of us sporting fashionable plastic shower caps. (We'll talk about hair care another time.) Once we're in there, she needs prompting to remember what we're doing in there in the first place. Soaping up her washcloth and handing it to her is a pretty good cue. Anything she can't reach, her back, her feet, the backs of her knees, I'll do. Then I'll remind her that she doesn't have to bend backwards as far as possible to reach the stream of water. A gentle tug on her elbow urging her take a step back will do the trick, and once we've rinsed off the soap, she's ready to get dry.
Again, our 'seniors bathroom' is big enough to accommodate a cute padded vanity bench against one wall. That's where my 'showerees' can sit to dry themselves off, a towel underneath them to soak up any wayward drips. No bench in your bathroom: the toilet with the lid down will do just fine.
Grampa George's showers are a little simpler, but something as benign as turning on the water and getting it to the right temperature are still a challenge. In his case, prompting him to actually take a shower is a critical factor, one he'd overlook for months otherwise. Along with that, bringing a change of clothes into the bathroom to put on after showering is high on the priority list. Lower down on the list but no less important is ensuring he hasn't left his hearing aids in as they are definitely not waterproof.
Once he's dried off and dressed, it's a simple matter of taking care of the little things that would otherwise go ignored. I hand him a cotton swab to dry out his ears before he re-inserts his hearing aids and turns them on. I towel off his hair, put in a little gel and comb it just the way he likes it. I trim his moustache and his fingernails, and hand him his watch to strap on. He likes to carry a fresh handkerchief in his pocket, so I offer him one of those. And before I help him on with his socks and slippers, I moisturize his feet, because his tend to swell up, causing the skin to break open if it isn't tended to.
At our house, showers are just part of the routine. Too much to handle helping your Mom or Dad with their personal hygiene? Get help for them. Ignoring this huge part of their well being won't do. And just like with anything else, it's the little things that make the difference.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

10 Things I've Learned As A Carefree Caregiver

Nap when you can. Your body learns to live with a limited amount of sleep just the way it did when the kids were babies, but it catches up with you affecting your mood, your health and your capabilities.

The Golden Rule is just as important now as when you learned it as a child. I’ll be that Senior needing help someday and I’ll sure be glad when others treat me with reasonable respect the way we should always treat each other.

Be as generous as you can. Any opportunity to give back to those who’ve helped us is a great blessing. What goes around always comes around. Don’t miss your chance to do what you can before it’s too late.

Turn that frown upside down and smile more. It prevents wrinkles and gives those around you a reason to smile back. Your face is a mirror of what’s inside and if your resentment is showing, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.

Practice Patience. So what if it takes an extra thirty minutes, or more, to wait at the table with someone while they finish their meal. Let the others scatter, then read the paper, decide on a new knitting pattern, update your shopping list or just talk about the weather.

Serenity can save your life. Don’t panic, remain calm and don’t sweat the small stuff. A simple soup will do for dinner when you’re running late or are too tired to cook.

Your mood can mess up everybody else’s so settle down and let go of what’s out of your hands. That doesn’t mean you have to bottle up your feelings, just don’t ‘rage’ about something you can’t fix anyway.

No woman is an island and no man is a mind reader, (at least in our household). Ask for help when you need it and you shall receive …

… as long as you’re willing to accept it as it comes. Don’t expect everyone to do things the way you do (there is no need to re-load the dishwasher, your way). Nitpicking is counterproductive, so stop doing it. And the same goes for micromanaging: everyone knows how to boil water without burning it. Really.

Figure out what to do about your frustrations. It may work for a while but in the long run we can’t just ignore the things that drive us crazy. Talk about it, look for solutions and do something to make it better. Sometimes just acknowledging that there is a problem can keep a small annoyance from flowing over and brewing into a family fight.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Do you have back-up?

"If it's not on the calendar, it isn't happening." I came up with this mantra when the kids were growing up and they were pretty good about it. Too bad it doesn't always work.
Like any busy family our life revolves around scheduling extracurricular activities, appointments, meetings, family gatherings and special occasions in between the usual work, school and home happenings. Now that the needs of my two special seniors are ever increasing, the little boxes on my refrigerator sized calendar are barely holding up. I've tried the color coded markers, cute little mini-stickers, hand drawn emoticons and so forth only to end up with a colorful mess of eye-popping scribbles. Last minute changes end up getting covered over with too large sticky notes that tend to fall off just when you need to know what time the window guy is showing up tomorrow, but we manage.
For me, it's about more than just getting Nana or Grampa George to the specialist they were scheduled to see eight months ago. When one has an appointment, the other simply cannot be left alone, nor can they always come along or so my gynaecologist’s receptionist suggested at my most recent checkup. Sure we double up any appointments we can. Matter of fact, our favorite podiatrist, Donna, gives us group appointments and we try to get our seasonal flu shots as a crowd. Even so, we do run into the occasional glitch.
As the luckiest woman on the planet, my husband is not only handsome, smart and romantic; he'll also step in as 'Seniorman' to hold down the fort when I'm not there, sneaking out of his home office to dispense medications on time, serve an easily re-heatable lunch and deal with the occasionally complex changing of an empty toilet paper roll until I get back. It's when both of us have carved in stone appointments that things get rough. Whenever possible, the kids pitch in, skipping school or work to be here when we can't be. And they no longer need the lengthy play-by-play lists I used to leave them to keep everything on schedule at home. (Not that they ever did, that was just me micromanaging, but don't tell them that.)
Worst case scenario, the appointment becomes an 'outing', wrapped around lunch at any place that opens early and serves Nana's favorite French Onion soup, hold the cheese. I've come to learn how many people can comfortably squeeze into a three by four foot examination room without spreading shingles to all other occupants, including the doctor. I've been able to seek out the washrooms in most medical buildings in and around Toronto and feel that my constant requests for the washroom keys have brought back the 'no key necessary' policies in some of these buildings. I've also changed my mantra to "If it's not on the calendar, then it certainly should have been!"

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Becoming a Carefree Caregiver

I knew I was destined be a caregiver the day I first met my husband’s parents who were quite some years older than my own. It became a personal calling that still adds great significance to my life.
I was lucky to have my in-laws help raise their grandchildren, allowing me to go to work without worrying. After Poppa passed away, I gave up my day job when I noticed myself parenting Nana more than I was my own children. She’d ask permission to change the toilet paper when the roll was empty or clean the carpets on her hands and knees with a scrub brush because she couldn’t figure out how to turn on the vacuum cleaner.Though it's not Alzheimer's, she has been diagnosed with dementia, which explained alot. Now we take it moment by moment and don't sweat the small stuff.
Nana’s slide into senility picked up speed just when we realized her younger brother, George, now in stage four of congestive heart failure, was not coping well on his own. Once Grampa George, as the kids always called him, finally agreed to come to our house, ‘for a few days’, I realized that without proper care he wouldn’t be with us much longer. Happily we had room to make him comfortable.
Aside from the fact that Nana and Grampa George have completely opposite schedules, I’ve become aware that I can’t do everything for them by myself. As my children have grown into their own lives, I’ve been more and more reluctant to ask them for help. I’d feel guilty for taking them away from whatever they were doing, for something that was my responsibility, a mission I’d taken on by choice.
I’m getting better at sending out an ‘all hands on deck’ e-mail if I see a scheduling conflict approaching on the calendar. If my husband has an out of town meeting, one of the kids will miss school or take time off work to take over for me. And they truly don’t mind. I’ve also stopped micromanaging everything; well, almost, the kids say. It’s been weeks since I’ve left a sticky note on the range hood with instructions on how to boil water for pasta. And guess what: we’re surviving!