Making Your Bed and Other Strategies for Lessening Caregiver Stress

Making Your Bed and Other Strategies for Lessening Caregiver Stress

Covid-19 has thrust many of us into new or expanding caregiving roles. Medication management, arranging doctors’ appointments virtual and otherwise, making sure a senior is eating more than tea and crackers, and doing our best to ensure our elders feel connected in a world where quarantine and isolation have been the keywords of these last nine months.

Alongside these caregiving responsibilities, we have family and work commitments and, yes, an obligation to keep ourselves healthy. While the initial reports are promising for vaccines, we are still awaiting that GPS to give us clear and consistent direction.  While waiting for those directions to appear, I would like to share five strategies to help you, the caregiver, lessen the stress that accompanies the increased role you may be assuming:

  • Accept the feelings that come with this time. Your anxiety doesn’t have to control you when everything around you feels so uncertain. Focus on what you can control: you, your thoughts, your actions. Speak with those friends who offer you reassurance and comfort and let the other incoming calls go to voice mail, especially when those unsolicited advice-givers are on the other end.
  • Have an emergency contingency plan. Try to organize what the National Alliance of Caregiving calls a “care squad” or simply a caring support team that can help in the care of a loved one in the event you become ill. Identify trusted people who can provide help such as bringing over groceries, picking up medications, offering technical guidance for virtual doctors’ appointments, and making those all-important outreach calls to a parent.
  • Practice self-talk. Remind yourself that you have coped with difficult situations before and think back to how you handled them. Re-discover that strength and confidence. Extend to yourself the empathy that you would impart to a friend in need.
  • Stay in the present, ask yourself: “What do I have to deal with right now?” “What can I control right now?” Think about all the times you worried about the future and the outcome was not as dismal as you imagined it would be.
  • Stick to a routine. As Gretchen Rubin speaks of in her book The Happiness Project, start your day by making your bed. You may say why do that, I’m just going to unmake it at night? Making your bed sets the tone for the day, it takes little effort and goes a long way in making order out of chaos. Holding on to a routine brings a sense of normalcy during very abnormal times.

Finally, some years ago at a tag sale, I picked up a small 4X4 framed piece of embroidered needlework, never knowing how relevant it would be for these times. It reads: “Long is Not Forever.”  I hope you will hold on to those words as I do.

The Art of Listening: Achieving Successful Communication

The Art of Listening: Achieving Successful Communication

As Aging Life Care specialists, we are called upon to provide an assortment of services. The needs are as varied as the families we are helping. We continuously strive to be experts in our knowledge of homecare, entitlements, senior residences, elder law attorneys, and providing skilled and supportive counseling. But we are only effective if, throughout our dialogue with families, we listen. Effective listening combined with effective communication sets the foundation for successive and successful outcomes.

The art of listening, sometimes referred to as “active listening” requires two essential tasks. First, that we as care managers, listen, making a mindful effort to hear the words that seniors and their families are saying. Second, we must concentrate on what is being said establishing a virtual stop sign that leaves no room for our own assumptions and prejudices. We cannot assume or anticipate conclusions. With these two tasks as starting points, our listening is enhanced by four other components.

We listen mindfully, putting aside any distracting (as opposed to professional beliefs) thoughts. We listen without having an inner dialogue that will have an automatic response to a situation that is verbally evolving.

We listen without interrupting, knowing it may disrupt a client’s train of thought, especially if the person is cognitively compromised. A semi-smile (think Mona Lisa) or an encouraging “uh-huh,” lets the person know we are with them, we are listening.

We ask for clarification at the appropriate time. Siblings may finish telling of their conflicting feelings about what they each think is best for mom, and we reply: “So let me make sure I understand.” It is that clarification that allows for modification and affirmation.

Finally, after all information has been shared, the Aging Life Care specialist summarizes what has been said and listens for what has not been said, the latter perhaps a clue to the issue at hand.

Our listening skills remain strong as we adapt to the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 virus. Historically, families have sought the guidance of an Aging Life Care specialist as they pondered whether a parent would be better served in assisted living or remain at home with help. Now, families are asking our guidance as they question if a parent should return home or remain in their senior residence. Whoever would have thought? Thru this crisis, we will stand strong with our families, listening deeply and fully, a north star during uncertain times.

End of Life Decisions: A Broken Promise

End of Life Decisions: A Broken Promise

As a geriatric care manager, in the early part of my journey with senior adults and their families, I ask about advanced directives: a living will, power of attorney and a health care proxy. There will be one of three responses: 1. No, my mother refuses to talk about these documents. 2. We are planning to go to an attorney or 3. Yes, there has been a designated POA and health care agent.

If you fall into the number three category, it may be with relief that you have these documents in place. As the health care agent, you have had the “discussion” and understand the wishes of the person you will represent. You are certain that you can march forward through the complexities of end of life decision making. Yet for some, when the time arrives, that confidence becomes clouded by doubt. It’s not unusual. Such was the case for Lorraine, Anne’s daughter.

Anne, my client of nearly five years, confided in me with weekly regularity that she wanted to die. She knew she was losing her memory and was humiliated by what was happening. Other indignities followed. An extremely anxious person, the only comfort she took was that Lorraine knew her wishes and would do right by her.

Lorraine did not visit her mother with any frequency despite living just over the Westchester County border in Connecticut, a thirty-minute trip. Watching these meager visits and equally few telephone calls, I was sure that when Anne’s doctor called Lorraine to suggest hospice care, she would readily agree. To my surprise, Lorraine would not acquiesce. She acknowledged to me that she knew what she was supposed to do as her mother’s agent. The problem was she could not bring herself to make those final decisions about stopping advanced medical treatment, nutrition, and hydration. “Who am I to make those decisions?” she said to me. I wondered, was it unspoken hope or unease?

Anne lingered with time becoming the final decision-maker. In the days before Anne’s death, I said to Lorraine, with no suggestion of judgment, that she would carry with her whatever decision she made. I recognized that those who generously take on the role of health care agent do so with a full heart. But sometimes, good intentions can be superseded by last-minute questioning. Doubt fogs the road we thought we could readily take.

Nurturing the Nurturer: The Use of Doll Therapy for Older Adults

Nurturing the Nurturer: The Use of Doll Therapy for Older Adults

As Aging Life Care Professionals®, when we are asked to assist with securing placement in a nursing home, there are many questions we ask beyond the physical and cognitive conditions that are prompting the move. Primary among those questions is: what was mom or dad’s occupation? Those families who have parents in their mid-eighties and beyond often reply by giving dad’s occupation and the fact that mom was a homemaker.

Remembrances of lifelong professions can be retained long after actual employment or the responsibilities of raising a family have ceased.  Take Gene, a retired fireman who had been diagnosed with dementia.  On the day he arrived at the nursing home, being the conscientious firefighter he once was, he spotted a fire extinguisher and was headed straight to his job. Fortunately, his daughter positioned herself to block his access.

For mothers and wives of this era, the role of family nurturer is often rooted in the person. This is not to say that fathers have not played prominent roles, but for mothers or other women that have been employed in caregiving roles, it is not a job that finished at five. In later years, should there be cognitive loss accompanied by agitation we, as Aging Life Care Professionals, look to guide the family in ways to lessen the anxiety their loved one may be experiencing. Nonpharmacological approaches are preferable. One such method is doll therapy.

Doll therapy is just what it says. It is providing a person with a doll, that she/he can hold, cuddle, talk to, even dress and undress.  The latter helping with finger dexterity and hand-eye coordination. The doll can give a person a sense of comfort and purpose with the goal being redirecting the anxiety and bringing a parent to a sense of calm and contentment. Beyond this, a doll can be a starting point for reminiscence, asking a parent to recall their days as a new parent, bearing in mind that it is the long-term memory that is most vivid.

Research studies have shown both increased happiness and increased social interaction using doll therapy. But doll therapy is not without controversy. Some feel the dignity of a parent is compromised using a doll.  Other concerns are that dolls are demeaning and infantilize older adults. A passerby may look at a person with a doll and remark that the senior looks “cute” holding a doll. Not the way a relative wants their spouse or parent to be perceived.

As Aging Life Care Professionals, our approach is a person-centered one. To each client, we bring a toolbox of suggestions, techniques and resources. While the use of doll therapy is one such example, we customize the guidance, recognizing the unique needs of each client while working together with families to ensure practical and realistic outcomes.

Can an Adult Senior Remain at Home? …That is the Question

Can an Adult Senior Remain at Home? …That is the Question

As an eldercare consultant, I am familiar with the statistic that close to 90% of adult seniors, have expressed a desire to remain in their homes for as long as possible. The terminology in the world of eldercare is “aging in place.”

My lack of surprise about aging at home, while corroborated by AARP, has its source in the adult children who visit my office frustrated that their parents feel there is no compelling reason for them to move out of their house. A typical scenario as described by a son or daughter: no bathroom or only a half bathroom on the main floor, stairs that must be ascended or descended to get to the kitchen, no direct access to the outside without holding on to a hand rail that is unstable accompanied by a walkway that is crumbling, nonstop repairs both large and small.

Sitting across from these adult children, I understand their unease. They are often wakeful at night, distracted at work, consumed with the responsibilities of calling the plumber, roofer or making sure a path has been shoveled after a snowstorm.  I also know from talking with adult seniors the comfort that comes with continuing to reside in a lifelong home. Change is never easy or welcomed.  So, what’s an eldercare consultant to do?

For this consultant, the major consideration is safety. There is no compromise on this issue. To ensure this safety there are three necessary requirements. First, the willingness of a parent to agree to whatever modifications should be made to the house. First, the readiness of the parent to accept home care if necessary and first, the financial wherewithal and/or community support services to achieve these outcomes.  Yes, they are all number one priorities.

To this end, I frequently visit the parents in their home. Often, mom and dad need to be heard and understood, with a focus on empathy. Once they know I understand their situation, it is easier to start to effect change. The secret is small steps. With each step, it is validating their willingness to undertake necessary changes. That validation provides the incentive for the next step until a safe living environment is accomplished.

But please don’t think I come with a magic wand. Sometimes the ideal, or even close to it, becomes unachievable. It may be the staunch autonomy of a parent or it is the symbiotic relationship of husband and wife who create such a strong wall (yes, this one is achievable), that adult children, the family favorite, or even this eldercare consultant cannot convince them that they are putting their safety at risk. Then Father Time steps in and removes aging at home as a choice. A fall, noncompliance with medication, or one of those all too frequent storms we’ve been having here in Westchester County, may result in a whole new aging in place definition and destination.

From Hospital to Home:  Post Hospital Syndrome

From Hospital to Home: Post Hospital Syndrome

Recently I addressed the Post-Acute Care Continuum in White Plains, New York. An organization whose goal is to educate and share best practices in post-acute care and care transitions. I was asked to speak about how geriatric care managers can help to ensure that patients return home and remain home beyond the initial 30-day period. Of course, we do not want our clients to return to the hospital at any time, but there is a reason for the specific 30 days.  In 2013, the United States Department of Health started to penalize hospitals for re-admission of patients within thirty days. The Department of Health wanted patients to be discharged responsibly with adequate follow-up care, hence this law was enacted.

Because of this act, the rate of 30-day re-admission has dropped from 20% to 17%. But often, while the reason for hospitalization has been addressed, the consequences of a hospitalization are just being felt when our clients return home. Dr. Harlan Krumholtz, MD of Yale-New Haven Hospital refers to this return as the Post Hospital Syndrome. He attributes this re-admission within 30 days to five major factors:

  1. Sleep deprivation: The patient is in a new environment. The illness combined with being in a different bed, in a different place will impact on cognitive and physical performance. A situation of perpetual jet lag has been created.
  2. Malnourishment: Certain tests and procedures require nothing by mouth for the day or evening prior. And if the test is cancelled and then rescheduled, another period goes by without nutrition. This results in protein-energy malnutrition. The consequences of such a scenario is that wound healing is impaired, there is a chance of increased infection and one’s immune system is compromised.
  3. Pain and discomfort: For any of us, especially those dealing with pain in the hospital environment, pain can lead to sleep disruption, mood disturbance, impaired cognitive functioning and may also impact on the immune system.
  4. Altering medications: Stopping one medication and adding another can have its impact on cognition and physical functioning: too much of a medication, too little, the wrong medication, an allergic reaction to a medication. A patient’s body becomes a roller coaster of experimentation in an effort to cure.
  5. Deconditioning: Time in bed for rest can put a patient at greater risk of accidents and falls. While physical therapy may take place in the hospital, Dr. Krumholtz questions if there is still too much inactivity. The result being once the patient returns home he or she is at greater risk for developing blood clots.

As discharge approaches, what must be done is a TOTAL evaluation of the patient. This evaluation should go beyond the reason for hospitalization. Attention must be given to sleep, nutrition, activity, strength and how all symptoms are treated and managed. As a geriatric care manager, it is my responsibility to observe, question and advocate for clients whose care has been entrusted to me.