For the past few weeks, I’ve been staying with my mom (“The Mama”) as she recuperates from open heart surgery. Although there’s an amazing amount of info out there in the Internet on recovering from various serious conditions, including surgery and chronic diseases, surprisingly little is available on what the well person should do.
First: Location, location, location. Do you live within commuting distance of your loved one? If so, stay with them — but take time at least once or twice a week to come home to your own bed and family life. That time away will refresh, and give you strength to keep going.
In the case of The Mama, she lives in Michigan. I live in Colorado. I could not plan to buzz back home…but Husband is planning a trip here next month, both to see her, and to give me a mental break. (It’s only been two weeks, and already I’m looking forward to his visit.)
Next: How much time are we talking here? In most cases, the really serious situations will take at least a few weeks — in all probability, a month. By ‘serious,’ I mean in-the-hospital or 24/7 care. That figure could easily stretch longer, if you’re planning for extended care.
Even when your loved one is improving, they’ll still need someone to regularly check in, get groceries, etc. for months afterward. Some illnesses, like cancer, can go on like this for years.
Can you take the time to care for your loved one? Sometimes the answer must be no, due to work and already-existing family commitments. But if you can, even a few days or weeks might make all the difference, both in their physical needs and mental attitudes.
Take the case of The Mama. She was growing increasingly shortwinded, and had difficulty walking for more than a few steps before stopping to breathe. Surgery wasn’t considered critical enough to schedule right away — thank God. That pause gave me time to cancel and rearrange my own commitments, so I could be there for the critical first month while she recovers — and much of the second, as well.
Can you share the responsibilities? In The Mama’s case, my brother, who only lives about 30 min. away in Michigan, took her to doctor and surgery appointments.Since her surgery, it’s been my job to stay with her in the hospital, as she deals with pain and walks (very slowly) down the hall. When she returns home, I’ll be there for the next few weeks — then Brother will take over, after I have to go to a teaching gig. We’ll have to flipflop several times, but by doing it together, and piecing out with other family members and friends, we can make sure Mom has caring people looking out after her.
Can you handle the gross stuff? Giving your parent a bath and changing their bandages is not exactly the stuff of fantasy. I could have easily done without it. But The Mama felt more comfortable, knowing I was there. And since I had done this sort of work back in college at a senior-care facility, it was less shocking than other things in life. It helps to remind yourself, in the case of a relative: They most probably saw my butt while they were taking care of me as a baby. Or I made a mess that was no fun cleaning up. So now all things are equal.
Trained nurses and health aides are also essential in dealing with meds, shots and wound dressings. (Yuck.) Nurses have taken most of the more disgusting procedures while the Mama is here in the hospital — and Medicaid will fund visiting nurses when she returns home.
Can someone else cover for you? I was lucky to have a husband who not only agreed that I should go…but volunteered to care for our chickens, dogs and other assorted flotsam and jetsam, as well. I would not have been able to do it without him. I was also able to get friends and colleagues to fill in open spaces in my schedule…or at least be willing to do without me for a month or two.
Emergencies and sicknesses come up fast — at the very least, take time now to ask yourself:
*What’s critical — what must be accomplished?
*Can I put some tasks off for now? (I’ll pick them up later, when my loved one is on the mend.)
*Who could I ask to fill in?
*Can I bring some work with, and/or do it long-distance? Thanks to the Internet, this may well be possible. (For example, I wrote this article while at the hospital. Bless free WiFi.)
So you’ve decided to go. In my case, I could do the teaching gigs around The Mama’s recovery for the first few months — provided I brought the materials for those gigs with me. It meant a lot of extra work up-front, and several long car trips. Not fun…but doable.
Remind yourself up front: this is not going to be a pleasure. Or easy. It may contain some moments of those items. But mostly, it’s going to be plenty of waiting, hopping up and down to get things, and days or weeks of inaction. That time will be easier, though, if you:
*take interesting work, or a specific project to finish
*keep clothing needs to a minimum (I’m pretty much living in t-shirts and jeans, except when out teaching)
*include books and/or favorite magazines
*bring along a supply of preferred snacks. Not only will they be familiar — but they’ll keep you from relying on overpriced, undertaste hospital food all the time.
*don’t forget needed pills — both vitamins and medications
*take time to exercise, watch your favorite programs…and do other things that you normally enjoy in life. Even pack a favorite nap ‘blankie‘ or pillow, if you’ve got the room. (You’ll sleep a lot better with them along.)
You may have to break up your regular schedule — but you don’t always have to discard what you’ve come to enjoy over time. In fact, you may introduce a whole new love for “24” or “Leverage” to your unsuspecting relative!
You’re made it — you’re there, unpacked and ready to go. Take a look at that much-loved face: what can you do to help?
The Mama (yes, that’s her, shown above) is not atypical of a sick person. In normal life, she is perfectly capable of taking care of herself — and fiercely independent if anyone suggests differently. In this environment, though, she isn’t feeling well…and heart trouble has caused her to miss (or mis-hear) things. Especially instructions. That’s where you come in:
*Attend as many meetings as you can. Ask questions. Get it in writing, if you’re really not sure. You should be able to explain it to the patient — and yourself. Get phone numbers, to call and reaffirm, if needed.
*Try to be there (or have someone else there) in person. As much as possible. Most hospitals now have comfort rooms, guesthouses…or let you stay overnight with your loved one. The accommodations may not be palatial — they haven’t been, in our case. But The Mama has slept much better these past few days, knowing that I could help her to the bathroom, or ask for pain meds late at night. And if the doctor arrives early (they often do), you’ll be there to figure out what’s going on.
*Bring fresh clothing and toiletries. You’ll need them to tidy up, even if you don’t stay overnight.
*Your patient will need them, too. Don’t forget to include clean underwear and socks, but also small tubes of their favorite toothpaste, scented lotions, etc. Just the smell is a reassurance that normality is still out there.
*Don’t expect brilliance on your patient’s part. For one thing, they may be confused. For another, fatigue or the effects of anesthetic may keep them from hearing important instructions or actions. That’s where you come in. They’re not stupid or even absentminded — they’re sick.
*Use familiar expressions. Fond memories, silly jokes you’ve referred to for years, and favorite phrases are all parts of normality that reassure your patient.
*Physical touch and affection, gently expressed, are important. They may be concerned that they are now repulsive. Reassure them that this isn’t so.
*Add flowers. A rose plant. (My contribution — it can be planted, once The Mama’s back home.) In the case of my sister-in-law, peonies from her backyard, tucked into a glass vase. A bouquet, sent from her church. Flowers go a long way in cheering up the barren lines of a sickroom.
*Give gifts to help the hours go by. Favorite magazines. Videos. Their favorite chocolate. (If it’s allowed.) Crossword puzzles, or books of sudoku. Anything to help the time pass more quickly.
For more practical ideas to help sick people feel better, look here.
The important part, though, is to let your loved ones know that you’re there — and you care about them.