You’re busy working from home watching the clock, mentally calculating whether you have enough time to check in on your mother, pick up some groceries, and cook dinner for your teenager. . . or will you be ordering pizza yet again tonight?
If this scene feels at all familiar to you, then you’re likely one of the 2 million Canadians who fit into the infamous “sandwich generation”. According to Statistics Canada, 28% of all caregivers in Canada are part of the sandwich generation. The sandwich generation generally applies to those in their late 30’s to early 60’s who are simultaneously caring for their ageing parents as well as their growing children.
Advances in healthcare are allowing people to live longer lives, though not necessarily healthier lives. The end of one’s life may include more intensive care, further demanding the time and energy of the sandwich generation who is caught between their parents and children. The increased life expectancy has led to another possibility—the club sandwich generation. The club sandwich refers to people who are assisting their ageing parents, while also being involved in their children’s, and grandchildren’s lives.
Four living generations is no longer a rare scenario.
It is now possible for families to have two generations who are both in their senior years at the same time! The club sandwich can also apply to someone who is in her 40’s who has teenagers at home, while also assisting her 68-year-old parents and her 92-year-old grandparents. A woman in this situation is caring for two senior generations simultaneously, while also raising her own family.
Add to this the pressures of working from home, parenting, homeschooling, marriage, personal life, and personal health—no wonder there is concern about the sandwich generation suffering burn-out! Often people feel that they should be able to manage all of the simultaneous caregiving because previous generations managed to do so. In reality, previous generations did not experience the sandwich generation phenomenon to the same degree, and they certainly did not experience club sandwich generations or a pandemic!
Recognizing the unique challenges faced by today’s sandwich generation - especially in such unique times, will help to alleviate guilt and replace the sense of “I should be able to do this” with “where can I find meaningful assistance?". Acknowledging that you cannot do it all alone and that you deserve assistance is the first step. There are services available to help so that you don't have to this all alone!
Caring for your own health and well-being is crucial!
Managing to eat healthy meals, and getting exercise needs to be a personal priority, not just something to do if you have time left over—because there is never time left over. If you are feeling completely stressed and burned out, you are not in the best condition to care for loved ones.
Instead, think about accepting homecare assistance so that you are able to lead a balanced lifestyle that cares for you too! Put support systems in place to assist you in caring for your parents and grandparents. A loving companion aide might be just the solution to support your parents while caring for your health at the same time.
With support systems set in place, you can avoid burn out, and enjoy your free time for some personal self-care or a well-needed vacation.
Don’t be discouraged and let the cabin fever get to you—instead, speed up spring!
One of the best ways to bring spring to you is to start your gardening early—indoors! Rather than waiting on mother nature to cooperate for a display of spring colours, get things started yourself by forcing bulbs.
Indoor gardening is a very accessible way to garden. There is no need to bend over or kneel on the hard ground. Bulbs require very little maintenance or effort. Indoor gardening is a great way to connect with an elderly loved one’s passion and hobby without being overwhelming or too physically demanding. It can also be a great intergenerational activity, drawing children and grandparents—or even great grandparents—together over a common task.
Forcing bulbs indoors mimic the outdoor environment that causes a bulb to grow and bloom. Unlike large, potted house plants, bulbs do not need big pots. A small, shallow dish is sufficient. Many bulbs are easily forced using only water and pebbles, rather than soil, resulting in much easier clean up when gardening indoors. It is also more fun to watch the roots develop and see the bulb change as it grows. New growth development is exciting to see—at any age!
Using your shallow container, fill it half full of pebbles or marbles, then place the bulbs on top of the pebble layer. Gently fill the rest of the container with pebbles or marbles to secure the bulbs in place, but do not completely bury the bulbs. Put enough water in the dish so that the water touches the bottom of the bulb, but do not submerge the bulb in water or it will begin to rot.
The step that is most often overlooked when forcing bulbs is the chilling step. Your freshly “planted” bulbs need to be chilled in a cellar or in the fridge to mimic the winter season. Some bulbs only need a few days of chilling, and others need a much more extended chilling period of several weeks. Be sure to check the specifications on the bulbs that you purchase.
NOTE: Please do NOT store bulbs in an elderly person’s fridge. If that person has dementia or mild cognitive impairment, the bulbs (or pebbles) could be mistaken for other produce. Likewise, if your loved one has impaired vision, the bulbs could appear similar to onions. Senses such as taste and smell become dulled for many people as they age; the smell or bitter taste that might alert you to food being harmful may not alert an elderly loved one.
When roots begin to show you will know that your bulbs are ready to begin their growth cycle and it is time to remove them from the chilling stage. With roots now showing, your bulbs are ready to be moved into warmth and sunlight. You need to introduce them to sunlight slowly, just the way that the spring sunlight is soft at first and then gradually gets warmer. Place your bulbs in a cooler area of your home, away from direct sunlight. When your plants begin to grow and the stems take on a healthy green colour, then it is time to move them to a sunny windowsill to watch the beauty unfold!
In theory, any bulb can be forced to grow indoors, but some varieties are easier to force than others. Paperwhite narcissus grows well indoors and does not require a very long chilling period. They grow well in water and pebbles and are quite fragrant. Amaryllis are very easy to force and the blooms are giant and colourful. They grow so quickly that you can see growth daily.
The warmer the environment, the faster the amaryllis will grow. Once it blooms, it is best to move the plant to a cooler, shaded area for the blooms to last longer, as they can remain for up to a month.
Hyacinth and crocus can also be forced and take eight to ten weeks to grow. Although tulips are a favourite spring bloom, they are probably best enjoyed out in the garden as they can be trickier to force and require a long chilling period of sixteen weeks.
Enjoy your head start on spring by forcing your favourite bulbs indoors, and use this easy, timeless, and ageless activity to connect various members of your family. You will have spring beauty unfolding in your own living room—no matter how much snow remains on the ground outside!
Inclusion is a hot topic and a very important one for our elderly population. It emphasizes the importance of inviting the active participation of all citizens, including our elderly population, into our social fabric. Our current social fabric has changed with the pandemic making it difficult for seniors to be active participants. It’s important we protect our elderly population by practicing social distancing and by wearing PPE, but we must also take next steps to protect their wellbeing.
Social Isolation and Loneliness
Studies have found that social isolation and loneliness are major risk factors linked to increased blood pressure, heart disease, diminished immune system, depression, anxiety, and poor cognitive functioning. Social isolation has a profound impact on older adults' health and wellbeing!
The Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (CNPEA) has reported (before COVID-19) that:
Being socially isolated is a common affliction among older adults. More than 30% of Canadian seniors are at risk of becoming socially isolated.
Isolation and loneliness are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
And, social isolation can put seniors at increased risk for elder abuse.
What can you do to help?
1. Welcome your elderly loved one into the online world
Don’t assume your elderly loved one can’t use a smartphone, tablet or computer, instead encourage them by writing out instructions so they can connect online with their friends and loved ones. They will pleasantly surprise you! When they get the hang of it pay attention to their feedback and advocate for technological improvements.
Technology is a powerful tool but it needs improvement to include everyone – not just the abled. It’s time for developers and creators to involve older adults and family caregivers in the creation process. There are millions of apps out there but the majority of them aren’t suited for the elderly. The first step, you can take is leaving reviews on google or the app store.
2. Advocate for an age-friendly community
Being age-friendly means that there are no barriers to accessing services in the community, regardless of age or ability. A city that is designed to include and be accessible for its elderly residents is automatically factoring in the needs of its younger population.
For example, if a community is accessible for someone using a walker or wheelchair, it is also accessible to a parent pushing a stroller. The examples that we think of quickly are usually about physical accommodation such as ramps, wider doorways, longer crosswalk signals, accessible parking etc. You can advocate by attending virtual town halls, writing emails to your local MP, and voting at the next municipal elections.
3. Challenge ageist stereotypes and bias
Dr. John Lewis, professor at the University of Waterloo, points out that currently, one-quarter of Waterloo Region’s population is age 55 plus. That number is only going to increase in the next few decades. It is not acceptable that there are ageist prejudices towards 1/4 of our population! If we want to have a community that is inclusive to all members, it needs to be designed to suit those who are age 55 and older.
Often, these issues relate directly to coping with ageism. Ageism is the stereotyping of and prejudices against someone because of their age. It might include automatically treating someone in a certain way, just because they appear to be a senior.
For example, assuming someone is hard of hearing because they have gray hair is an ageist stereotype. Another example is the way that professionals often speak about a senior to their family members, as though the senior is not even in the room! The conversation should be directed to the relevant person, regardless of age.
Age is just a number. There are stories online of incredible seniors thriving in their 80s and even 90s! For example, Gladys Burrill at the age of 86 completed her first Honolulu Marathon. She was also a world traveller, a licensed pilot, an avid hiker and a prolific gardener. Read stories online and share them on social media to challenge ageism and other stereotypes.
4. Respect and include those with Dementia
In addition to physical challenges, some people experience cognitive changes. These people deserve the same level of respect and inclusion as all other members of society. Brenda Hounam, dementia advocate and spokesperson, highly advises communicating about dementia itself. Rather than hiding her challenges with dementia, she has decided to be very public and make others aware of her disease.
Hounam suggests that people “open the doors for communication—just ask”. She feels that it is much better to ask for clarification and to communicate clearly with someone who has dementia; do not just make assumptions. She asks that people do more than just listen; she wants people to truly hear and validate what she is saying. Hounam’s overarching message is that “we are all unique, and we all have something to contribute until the last breath.”
Being inclusive and respectful of all citizens—regardless of age, ability, or illness—better allows us to fully acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of all members of society.
5. Encourage community and support
Your elderly loved one is socially distancing but they don't have to be socially isolated! Reach out to your loved one regularly by chatting on phone or by setting up a safely distanced date. If you can't visit them in person, try contacting an organization for support. At Warm Embrace Elder Care, there are wonderful caregivers who can safely visit your elderly loved one! Our caregivers wear PPE and encourage proper nutrition, physical exercise and mental stimulation.
During this pandemic, social distancing has become a safety protocol but it shouldn't have to coincide with social isolating. Let's take the necessary steps together to protect our elderly population. If you have questions or comments, write a comment below or contact us!
Learning to be zen and mindful is something that takes incredible focus, dedication and practice. There are entire fields of study dedicated to mindfulness and how beneficial it can be to our overall health. Living in the moment can be your goal for this new year!
People with advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can teach us a lot about how to be in this moment, completely and fully.
When you spend time with someone who has dementia, they are present in that moment and they’re acutely aware of their environment around them. They are noticing sights and sounds and temperature variations at that particular moment in time. They may not be able to articulate it entirely, but they are very much present in the moment.
The challenge is usually more for us than it is for them.
We are the ones who have a hard time slowing down. How many details from our immediate environment do we miss completely because we’re totally absorbed thinking about the past or worrying about the future?
When you spend the afternoon with someone who has dementia, they are truly with you for that afternoon. They are not creating a grocery list in their head. They aren’t worrying about what to cook for dinner later. They aren’t wondering if they’ll have enough time to squeeze in an extra errand after the visit. They are present, with you, at that moment.
Sometimes, someone with dementia will jump from one topic to the next and you might think that they weren’t engaged in the conversation if their brain was heading in such a different direction than yours. Remember that the connections between areas of the brain and the way information is stored, retrieved and processed are very much impacted by dementia.
Two different topics that to you seem unrelated, might be connected in an abstract way for someone who has dementia. In their mind, those two topics may be connected and to them, it feels that the conversation is flowing. They aren’t feeling that the conversation is disjointed; they are following the conversation exactly as their brain is permitting at that moment. They are entirely present and engaged; their brain is just taking a different route than your brain.
Sometimes when someone has advanced dementia they may be using the knowledge that they gained early in their life to make sense of their world. They may ask for their parents; they may call you by their sibling’s name. They may reference attending school, or planning for their wedding, or having their first child. Sometimes, people interpret this to mean that someone with dementia is “living in the past.” This isn’t true.
Someone with dementia is living entirely in the moment today—they are as much in the moment as you are. Their brain is just relying on information from decades ago to explain what they are experiencing in this present moment. They recognize that you are a person who is close to them and very much connected to them, and their brain uses that archived knowledge when it assigns the name of their sibling to you.
They are not living in the past; they are engaging with you at this very moment. They are just relying on data from their long-term memory that is no longer reliable. But be aware that they are very much present in the moment and acutely aware of the information they’re absorbing through their five senses.
We can learn a lot from our friends who have dementia. If we can join them, at their pace, to experience the world around them, we can have a very zen moment. We can learn to notice and appreciate small details.
This part of your text helps me understand what may otherwise feel disconnected in a conversation with someone with Alzheimer's. Thank you.
"Their brain is just relying on information from decades ago to explain what they are experiencing in this present moment. They recognize that you are a person who is close to them and very much connected to them, and their brain uses that archived knowledge when it assigns the name of their sibling to you."
January 6, 2021 at 4:25 PM
You are amazing! Could you arrange for lunch with all of you one day?
When you think of family caregiving which words come to mind?
What creates the difference between the first column experience and the second column? How can family caregiving be both frustrating but joyful, a burden and a blessing?
Here are 4 survival tips to take your family caregiving experience away from the first column and into the second column.
1. Take care of yourself
It may sound trite, but self-care is crucial. If you don’t care for yourself, you’ll have nothing left over to give to anyone else. You need to allow yourself time to refuel. How you re-energize will be unique to you; there is no right or wrong answer. Maybe you exercise, or take a warm bath, or play an instrument, or read a book. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do; it matters that you take time for yourself and prioritize your own self-care.
2. Allow yourself to be "off-duty"
It is not reasonable to expect yourself—or anyone else for that matter—to work or be on-call 24/7. And yet, when in the midst of family caregiving, people often hold themselves to an unrealistic standard of doing it all, all of the time. You need time when you are not “on-call”.
This includes elderly spouses who have assumed the caregiver role and who live together. It can be tough for the caregiving partner to feel “off-duty” when they are at home together with their partner who requires care. Respite care is critical to help both halves of a couple remain healthy—both physically and mentally.
Feeling “off-duty” also applies to family members who are receiving constant phone calls from their elderly loved ones. They need time when they can turn off the ringer and not field any phone calls—a timeframe when they are “off-duty” from repeated calls.
3. Enlist support before a crisis emerges
All too often people will say: “Dad won’t accept help from anyone else, so I have no choice!” Then a crisis occurs and it is Dad who has no choice—he must accept help from another source because you, the family caregiver, are now experiencing your own health issue related to burnout. Sure enough, Dad does accept the help, although it might have been a smoother introduction to care had it not been a crisis situation.
It will be a kinder transition for your father to accept outside support in a graduated care plan, rather than abruptly. With advance notice and the luxury of time, caregivers can be selected to match your father’s personality and preferences. In a crisis situation, you might have no choice but to get a caregiver—any caregiver—in place the same day. A more ideal match could have been made with advance planning.
Best of all, your burnout can be prevented in the first place! It is far easier to prevent burnout by providing support early on than it is to recover after burnout has occurred.
4. Protect family roles and relationships
Caregiving can upset the long-ingrained roles and family dynamics. A husband who is suddenly thrust into the position of caring for his wife may feel ill-equipped for the role of the family caregiver. He doesn’t feel like a husband. . . he feels like a caregiver. And she doesn’t feel like a wife. . . she feels like a patient. Their interaction as husband and wife has been interrupted and they begin to interact as patient and caregiver, which may start to stress their marriage.
It is important that key family roles and relationships are preserved. That couple needs to continue to feel like a married couple. A parent and child need to preserve their mother-son relationship. It may be best to let certain elements be provided by a professional caregiver so the family relationships can remain intact.
Family caregivers are SO important to the health and well-being of their loved ones. It is crucial that their health and sanity are protected. If the family caregiver burns out, then there are two people requiring care!
The only way to survive family caregiving and find the positive is to take care of yourself, have time that you are "off-duty", get help in place before it's too late, and aim to protect family roles and relationships for as long as possible.
Who doesn’t live with stress these days?! There’s no such thing as a completely stress-free life, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A certain amount of stress is necessary to get through life. Many life events can produce stress—both positive events (getting married, having children, or retirement) and negative events (loss of a loved one or being laid off at work).
Stress is a risk factor for both heart disease and stroke. It is a two-fold risk—the state of being stressed, especially over a long period of time can result in higher cholesterol and increased blood pressure. Additionally, people who are highly stressed often turn to unhealthy habits to ease the stress (such as smoking, overeating, too much alcohol, etc.), which further increases the risk! Stress is one of the controllable risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Reducing your stress also reduces your risk of heart disease and stroke.
How many symptoms of stress do you experience regularly?
Common symptoms include anxiety, headaches, stomach issues, depression, muscle aches, insomnia, weight gain, frequent colds or illness, low energy, agitation, etc. Does this list seem all too familiar?
For women who fit into the sandwich generation, a major stress factor can be the dual caregiving of raising children, while also providing care to ageing parents. Today’s healthcare system is increasingly difficult to navigate, and advocating for a loved one can become a full-time job!
In an effort to be the sole caregiver for their parents (while also maintaining all of their other commitments), today’s women are often placing their own health at risk by increasing their stress levels. Women are notorious for taking care of everyone else that they neglect their own needs. Receiving help with family caregiving can be an important component to reducing your stress. Completely eliminating stress is not an option. Instead, we must focus on reducing our stress, and managing the stress that remains.
There are several ways to manage and reduce stress!
A few common tips include exercise (such as daily walks, cycling, yoga classes, etc.), meditation and prayer, engaging in a favourite hobby (such as reading, knitting, painting, etc.), and most of all, reaching out for support.
Professional caregivers can provide hands-on help to your parents, freeing you to focus on your own health and wellness!
Reducing stress is sometimes seen as a wish-list item. One day, you hope to be stress-free. You might be thinking your stress will evaporate “when the kids move out of the house” or “once I retire.” But that could be years from now! You can’t afford to put your own health in jeopardy for years, and just hope that the stress you experience is not leading to either heart disease or stroke. Stress is a preventable risk factor. Support your own health by reducing your stress levels starting today!
Your parents recently moved into a retirement home and you were relieved they’d now have three proper meals per day. With your mother’s progressing dementia, she hadn’t been cooking for quite some time.
There's only one problem.
Your mom has been bringing her purse to the dining room where she stashes extra food! She takes it back to their room and hides the food and you’ve been finding it in various states of science-experiment decay!
What is happening?
In the past, this might have been called “hoarding”. But
“hoarding” has a negative connotation and is quite different than what is happening to your mom. A more suitable term might be “collecting”.
Her new behaviour is not unusual and it makes sense when you consider what is happening in her brain.
The drive or instinct to gather is a hard-wired human instinct. Humans have been hunters and gatherers for millennia. We have the instinct to gather food beyond what we immediately need to prepare for future hunger.
In modern society, most of us are blessed enough that we don’t have to worry about our next meal. With 24/7 grocery stores, we have access to food at any time. But for your mother who has dementia, that option is not as viable.
First of all, she likely grew up in an era where stores were not open 24/7. Secondly, she may feel particularly vulnerable that she has no way of accessing food at any given time—she likely cannot drive, she likely wouldn’t know how to get to the closest grocery store, she might not even have access to money to purchase food. Her instinct to gather food that is available actually makes perfectly good sense. She is gathering food because she doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from.
“But wait!” you say. “She has three full meals daily with access to a coffee bar that has muffins and cookies and fruit—she’s never left hungry. Of course, she knows where her next meal is coming from!”
Your response is perfectly logical. Remember, though, that her brain’s ability to be logical is diminished. If she has dementia, she may not remember yesterday clearly enough to remember that she did, indeed, receive three full meals. She can’t use yesterday’s experience to reassure herself that she will likely receive three meals today.
From her perspective, she is suddenly in this new place that doesn’t yet feel familiar.
There is no kitchen that she can see. She doesn’t recall the delicious dinner she had last night. No wonder she is concerned about where her next meal is coming from! On top of all that, one of the deeper portions of her brain—the Amygdala—continues to send out hunger-gathering instincts for self-preservation.
Instead of considering her behaviour to be "hoarding" and problematic, understand that she is doing her best to provide for herself and meet her most basic human needs.
Humans are wired to be busy, to be productive, to be doing something. Even when we are intentionally taking a break, we have to consciously remind ourselves to relax and not default to our busy-mode.
This drive and desire to be productive is deeply ingrained, and for people who have heeded the productivity call their entire lives, it is a well-worn feedback loop. They feel the need to be productive, so they remain constantly busy, and the fruits of their labour are the visible reward for being constantly busy.
What happens when dementia interrupts that feedback loop?
When someone’s dementia has progressed, he has a harder time remembering how to do activities he did his entire life. George, a gentleman who enjoyed woodworking and fixing things around the house may no longer understand how to use his tools. He gets started on a task, and partway through forgets what he was doing, leaving a wake of unfinished projects behind him.
His desire to continually work on things around the house does not go away. His drive for productivity and doing something meaningful and important will far outlast his ability to operate his tools. George was never one to sit and relax, instead, he was always working away on something, and that desire can carry on even as his dementia progresses.
The fact that George can no longer successfully fix broken household items will not prevent him from trying to do so. In fact, he may be inclined to ‘fix’ items that he is certain are ‘broken’ because he’s now having trouble operating household appliances. Frustrated relatives might try to insist “just sit down and relax!” but since that was never in George’s nature, it’s unlikely he’ll be settled for long. George’s brain is sending him the signal to be productive. He has a strong sense that he should be doing something, he’s just not sure what that something is.
When George cannot easily find a task that meets his need to be productive, he will create one. Dementia has interfered with his ability to follow through with all the tasks he previously did. If the signals in his brain are scrambled, the output of his activities may also be scrambled. He is trying his best to ‘fix’ the ‘broken’ wastebasket and has dumped its entire contents on the floor. To an exhausted family member, this is just one more dementia behaviour that doesn’t make any sense and has now created a mess to be cleaned up.
What George needs are activities that he can manage. Dementia has impacted his ability to do the same activities in the same way he did them 20 years ago, but it has not taken away his ability to do all activities. What George needs is someone who can customize familiar activities to match his current ability level. He needs someone else to break down an activity into individual tasks, and do only one small task at a time. George is still capable of doing many things. He needs direction and he needs cueing to successfully manage a sequence of complex activities.
George is bored. And when he is bored, his brain will create an activity to do. Even if the activity doesn’t make sense to someone else’s brain, even if the activity creates a mess or breaks something, or causes a disturbance, his brain is desperate for activity and stimulation. In the lack of meaningful stimulation, the brain will create its own entertainment.
The underlying cause of many so-called dementia behaviours is boredom.
When someone with dementia is occupied with meaningful activities that create a sense of purpose and productivity, their ‘behaviours’ are often drastically reduced. Their need to be productive is met and they feel satisfied.
Providing meaningful activities for someone with dementia is one of the most effective ways to reduce undesired behaviours. It does not require medication changes and has no side effects. However, it can be incredibly time-consuming and does require an enormous amount of patience. Time and patience are two things that family caregivers often have in short supply—they’ve used up both!
Professional caregivers can fill the gap. Professional caregivers can take the abundant time and patience required to keep people like George engaged in meaningful activities. Caregivers help clients with dementia to connect to their passions and interests by making activities accessible. Caregivers modify activities to match their client’s ability level—that might be fluctuating by the day or by the hour—to ensure that activities are never too difficult or too easy and boring.
When people are enjoying hobbies that they love, and they are not frustrated or bored, their so-called behaviours are drastically reduced. What passions might we re-inspire in your loved one, to spark their desire for meaningful engagement and productivity?
When a loved one is diagnosed with a chronic illness or a degenerative disease, the diagnosis affects the whole family. It is easy to overlook the ways in which other family members are also impacted by chronic illness because the focus is upon the person who is unwell.
In the flurried rush of attempting to care for the person with the new diagnosis, families are often unaware that the emotional response they are experiencing is grief. People sometimes assume that grief only applies if there has been a death in the family, but people experience grief from many types of losses.
Grief is our human response to a loss. It is primarily an emotional response, but it can also have other dimensions too (physical, cognitive, social, spiritual, etc.). When a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness, family members may grieve. For many family members, the grief is complicated by the fact that they are still in the throes of family caregiving, and they may be expected to remain “the strong one” for the sake of the family.
Grief is not a linear process that moves predictably through various stages. While there may be stages to grief, those stages are not sequential; there is no graduation from one step to the next. Each individual may experience various elements of grief at different times and remain with one stage for a long time, or they may move through various stages rapidly all within one day. There is no correct way to grieve, and there is no such thing as “failing at grief”. It is an individual journey and process for each person.
There can be triggers for grief, and those triggers are as individual as the grief process. A trigger could be something like hearing a favourite song that you once danced to with your spouse, and grieving that your spouse can no longer dance. A trigger might also be a daily routine that has suddenly become difficult, and grieving the loss of ability or independence that changes gradually.
For many families, there is grief over the loss of a role within the family. It might be the role of primary provider if employment is reduced; it might be the role of fix-it-man around the house and no longer being able to operate tools; it might be the role of coordinating family events and family members feel scattered and disconnected. The change of roles and responsibilities can be a difficult transition and grieving those changes is a normal—even healthy and expected—response.
Grieving is an action. It requires effort and work. The goal of grief is not “to get over it”. Unfortunately, many families feel that the message from friends and sometimes even health care professionals is that they should “get over it” or “get back to normal.” When a family member is coping with a chronic illness, returning to “normal” is no longer an option.
The previous version of normal doesn’t exist. Illness has redefined what normal will be like. The goal is to adjust to a new normal—adjusting to the illness as a new reality of life, and recognizing that this will alter many aspects of life. Once families have begun to adjust to their new normal, they can begin to see hope for a newly defined future.
Instead of looking for a reason that the illness is present within the family, seeking meaning can be a lot more helpful. Seeking meaning is looking for a silver lining—acknowledging that a difficult situation is the reality, but perhaps there can be some wonderful moments that are significant.
While this may seem like a subtle shift in mentality, it can result in vastly different feelings. Looking for reasons suggests that someone had to experience the illness in order to learn a certain lesson; looking for meaning is acknowledging that the illness has happened, and finding glimmers of hope will make the journey more meaningful.
How can you best support someone who may be grieving because of an unwell family member?
The most important thing you can do is to remain connected. Family caregivers constantly report that their closest friends and even other family members distance themselves because they don't know how to help, or they don’t want to impose.
One gentleman laments that while his wife was palliative, she had so few visitors. She felt the greatest relief from pain while a visitor was present, and her husband expressed this to friends and family, but few visitors came to the house because they did not want to impose. Visitors weren’t seen as an imposition, but as a welcome relief.
The greatest thing you can do is to ask how you can best be supportive, and then LISTEN! Truly listen.
Allow family members to tell you what they need and what they want. Most of all, they will appreciate a listening ear who acknowledges their challenges and validates their feelings and experiences. Pre-judging or assuming what someone is thinking/feeling is not helpful.
A woman remarked that the comment “but you look so well!” (or that her husband, for whom she cares, “looks so well”) to not be helpful. While it is intended as a compliment, it shuts down any conversation about how she is truly feeling. She would prefer that someone just ask her how she is feeling, and be open to a conversation.
To best support someone else, be a listening ear and don’t distance yourself. Remember that the person with the illness as well as the whole family is adjusting to a new sense of normal.
Be wary of judgmental statements such as “things happen for a reason”, and instead help others to see some of the meaningful moments that have touched you and might also touch them.
Everyday communication is important for our elderly population, certainly more so during these isolating times. Bill Walsh from AARP said: “At this moment in time, we’re not just combating the coronavirus, but we’re combating fear and anxiety and social isolation as well. So, it’s important to stay in touch with your loved ones and let them know that they haven’t been cut off or somehow marginalized.”
A quick traditional phone call is always lovely but why not introduce unique devices or new apps to your loved one? Your loved one’s interest in technology might surprise you. A study completed in 2017, discovered that 70% of seniors are now online and from 2013 to 2016 tablet ownership in seniors doubled. I know when chatting with our clients, I am always surprised to find out how many of them use Facebook, Facetime, Apple apps, Furbo, etc.
There are unique ways you can virtually connect with your loved one! We have compiled a list of the four best ways to virtually connect.
1) Video call your loved one
If your loved one has a WIFI connection, a smartphone and an email address, they’re already three steps ahead! There are several apps you can use to video call your loved one – Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Google Duo, WhatsApp – just to name a few. I recommend keeping the conversation to a maximum of three people. It increasingly becomes difficult to hear with additional people, especially if people are talking at the same time!
Traditional phone calls are wonderful and always appreciated but video calls are more interactive. In a video call, you can see your loved one’s facial expressions and body language. You can even get creative with video calls! On a call, you can virtually share a cup of tea, you could try puzzling together, or you could even start a craft together. It doesn’t have to be a traditional conversation it could be a time to engage your loved one in a fun activity.
2) Play an online game with your loved one
If your loved one doesn’t want to be on video but wants to interact virtually, you can introduce online games. There are apps where you can compete against your loved one, such as words with friends, chess, scrabble, billiards, etc. There’s an endless amount of options in the Apple store and in the Google Play store. You are bound to find a game that looks interesting and fun!
3) Watch a movie together
Who doesn’t love movies?! Pop some popcorn and watch a movie with your loved one. Netflix released a new feature called Netflix party for desktop computers. It allows you to synchronize video playback and adds a group chat between yourself and your loved one. This is a great tool for a fun family gathering! You can add the grandkids to the party as well, and it can become a weekly ritual.
If your loved one doesn’t have Netflix or a computer, you can always video call your loved one as you both watch the same TV channel or DVD. Another option is simply calling your loved one on the phone. Even though watching a movie is generally done quietly, it’s comforting knowing that you are with someone and sharing the moment with someone you love.
4) Visit a furry friend on Furbo
Furbo is a camera that’s designed for dogs. It’s a neat device that allows owners to check in on their pets remotely. There is also a microphone so dogs can even hear their owner’s voice commands.
We have a client – let’s call her Jeanie - who loves receiving visits from her daughter’s dog Buddy. When chatting with Jeanie, I was happy to discover that she’s been visiting her daughter’s dog virtually on Furbo. Through the app on her smartphone, she is able to talk to Buddy, see what trouble he is up to and throw him treats by clicking a button.
Throughout my conversation with Jeanie, I could sense how happy she was to have the chance to interact with Buddy. Even her regular caregiver mentioned how Jeanie brightens up after interacting with Buddy on Furbo. The moments she is interacting with Buddy not only make her laugh and smile but they also provide Jeanie comfort and peace.
It might take a few tries to get your loved one comfortable with technology but the time and patience to teach them are worth it. Your elderly loved ones will thank you for giving them the opportunity to connect. During this difficult season, we might have to socially distant but we don’t have to socially isolate.