God provides the balance between raising kids and caring for a parent.
by Kathryn Cox
“Wait! That’s hand soap! Don’t put that on your toothbrush!”
I took a deep breath, then confidently declared to myself, You can do this! Yet in the depths of my soul, where pep talks failed to reach, other words formed: I’m so tired. I don’t want to do this anymore.
The drama continued in the basement living room: “No, socks go on your feet, not your hands.” Even before breakfast, I was nearing the end of my daily supply of patience, which sadly amounted to a trial-sized tube of toothpaste.
Ignoring reality and medical diagnosis, I quipped (without her hearing), This is basic, common sense! How old are you? I didn’t need to ask. I knew exactly how old she was: 84. And the woman, although staring back at me in utter confusion because of advanced Alzheimer’s disease, still hadn’t forgotten how to look my way when she heard me say, “Mom.”
Glancing at the clock, I had no time for heartbreak. I had to get us both upstairs quickly to remind two others, whom I’d rather spend my morning with, to brush their teeth: my young son and daughter.
People have told me I’m a part of the sandwich generation. Dictionary.com defines this term as “the generation of people still raising their children while having to care for their aging parents.”
That’s a misleading title, especially concerning dementia. Sandwiches are nice. Sandwiches are made with soft, buttery bread gently holding yummy things such as slices of heirloom tomatoes and aged cheddar cheese.
I propose a better name: the ten-ton hydraulic shop press generation. Any parent knows raising kids isn’t easy, but being smashed between rearing little ones and supporting a loved one who requires assistance with nearly everything is exhausting and painful.
In mom’s favorite song “The Gambler,” by Kenny Rogers, the opening lyrics paint a picture of two men riding on a train headed for nowhere. Exactly. I’ve taken many rides on this aimless iron horse. But no matter the seemingly pointless trips, Jesus was right there with me.
Caregiving and kids
My husband has been awesome and supportive in every way possible. When he and I moved my mom to Lexington so I could care for her, our daughter, Anna, was only six and our son, John, eleven. Even though Mom was in the early stages of dementia, it was important for our children to know what we were facing as a family and that Alzheimer’s is not contagious.
I found two excellent videos on YouTube that helped my kids. They are short and simple, and cover the basic questions they had: Memories with Grandma (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QJBVF24cKk), suitable for very young children, and What is Dementia? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HobxLbPhrMc), which details how dementia affects the brain and is good for tweens/teens.
Although John and Anna understood what was going on with “grandma-ma,” it didn’t matter when they felt neglected. I had to remind myself to communicate with them often. If they were frustrated, I encouraged them to make suggestions on what I could do better, hopefully avoiding any feelings of bitterness toward Mom. I wanted them to know they, too, were on my “high priority” list.
I was also determined to hire help or ask friends and family to sit with Mom so their dad and I could attend school or sporting events. Even when John said, “It doesn’t matter if you come to the track meet,” I still put in the effort to be there.
Finally, I discovered the truth “Child see, child do.”
I choked on this one multiple times. I regularly became exasperated with Mom’s repeated struggles. Even though we had all lived in the same house for years, in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, Mom, like clockwork, would chime, “Where’s the bathroom?”
Sassy words that sprang out of my mouth one morning came barreling out of my daughter’s later that day when Mom was, yet again, looking for the restroom.
God’s compassion and forgiveness
I sighed. I couldn’t insist Anna treat her grandma with respect if I didn’t consistently model the same behavior. I apologized to Anna, admitting I had sinned, and told her I’d ask God for forgiveness and a much-needed boost of patience.
As I stumbled through the days, carrying heavy burdens too strong for me to bear, I hoped my children could see God is compassionate, that He gets our struggles and is ready to forgive our sins (1 John 1:9).
When to ‘fold’
One particularly challenging afternoon, while Kenny Rogers and I sat on that nowhere-bound train, the words of “The Gambler” again reminded me of life lessons beyond cards.
As the song’s famous words instruct, a savvy poker player must master knowing what cards to hold and, equally important, the cards to let go. I learned (the hard way) that caring for my kids plus a disabled parent is tough, and burnout is a real threat. It was vital for me to “fold” and make time for self-care.
I knew exercise for me always helped my mental state. I marched my mom upstairs, sat her in a nearby chair where she could see me, and played her favorite music. I then spent thirty energizing minutes on the treadmill as she happily sang.
As I plodded through the drudgery, I became acutely aware that caregiving required superwoman (or superman) strength and endurance. So, daily I tried to eat natural, healthy, and nutritious foods to ensure my survival. In that, combined with exercise, I found myself in the greatest shape of my life, making my journey somewhat easier.
I also had to recognize the strength and endurance of my husband. This wasn’t easy for him either. I knew for certain how significant a strong, holy, and God-honoring marriage would be for John and Anna, especially in our stressful circumstances.
My husband and I took an amazing five-day vacation to the beach — my favorite destination. We knew full well that my being away, with Mom and kids safely in the hands of capable family and friends, might cause my mother to decline or even get sick. I placed those fears in the capable hands of God and grabbed my swimsuit.
One day I whined on the phone to a dear friend. “I feel so awful! John and Anna have to do so much for themselves while I’m distracted with Mom!”
My friend patiently listened as I rattled off one complaint after another. She then said something that grabbed my attention: “Kathryn, is that all bad? Think of the life skills they are learning! I know college students who still don’t know how to do their laundry. Your kids are becoming independent, which will surely benefit them later in life.”
She added, “And day in and day out, you are showing them what real sacrifice looks like.”
I had to let her words sink in and settle in my mind. “I suppose that’s true,” I finally conceded. I knew God didn’t cause the dementia that was slowly destroying my mother’s life and making mine more difficult. We live in a fallen, sinful world where many things happen that He is not the author of. Yet in His mercy, for those who love Him and serve Him, I’ve seen Him call forth blessing in the middle of chaos.
One of the apostle Paul’s most quotable lines from his letter to the Roman church gave me immense comfort: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NKJV). The Message translation reads, “We can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”
One Sunday morning, I’d just had it. The repetition. The guilt I felt in thinking I was a “bad mother.” The same struggles. The same questions. The nagging depression from my belief that my role as caregiver will last for years and years (and years). The emotional exhaustion.
I tried to rally myself with positive thoughts: Keep it in perspective! Others have it a lot worse than you do. Remember all Jesus has done for you. This isn’t as hard as you’re making it out to be!
But none of that worked this time.
The phrase I’d battled to suppress for years now emerged in my heart: I can’t.
Almost immediately, I sensed the Holy Spirit respond. It wasn’t an audible voice, yet I believe I heard clearly. God did not say, Oh yes, you can! Instead, the two simple words gently spoken to my spirit nearly knocked me to the ground:
I had to agree. He is. I closed my eyes and recalled Psalm 33:6: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” Is His power insufficient? Is He unable to guide my son and daughter when I ask Him to do so?
If I believed Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”), then I’d just have to place all my faith in Him and keep going.
So as one of the hydraulic shop press generation, I will keep going. This season has taught me to trust the Lord with my children and know He sees my sacrifice. I realize the best I can do for my children is to pray for them, model the love of Christ, and ask Holy Spirit for wisdom. Perhaps my many rides on that “aimless train” are indeed headed in the right direction.
Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
Photo Credit © Jasper Chamber | istockphoto.com
Navigating the care of a loved one with dementia can be overwhelming, especially if this season of life is in tandem with parenting duties. Joining a support group is essential.
The job of caregiving is not only physically exhausting but mentally draining. Only those in similar situations can truly understand the emotional stress and burnout. Sharing stories, ideas, and struggles in a support group can bring much-needed comfort and encouragement.
To find a group, call local memory care homes. Many of these places offer support groups to the community. Also, the Alzheimer’s Association has a search tool on their website that identifies groups by zip code: https://www.alz.org/help-support/community/support-groups.
Dementia can manifest in many forms, with Alzheimer’s being the most common. Whatever type of dementia someone is facing, it is vital for the caregiver to become familiar with the various stages in order to plan accordingly. For Alzheimer’s disease, this detailed article lists each stage and substage: https://www.alzinfo.org/understand-alzheimers/clinical-stages-of-alzheimers/.
Any parent knows children require an abundance of time and attention. So does a person with memory loss. Caregivers juggling both need to arrange outside help as often as possible.
Start with willing family and friends who can sit with a loved one, but that may not be enough. Hiring help can be expensive, so many memory care facilities offer affordable adult daycare, with half-day or full-day options. These programs provide a safe and secure place to leave a person with dementia for a few hours a day, where they will enjoy specialized activities, social time, and music. For more information, visit https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/care-options/adult-day-centers.
When researching an adult daycare, ask if they use the Best Friends Approach, a fantastic “philosophy of care” for people with memory loss (https://bestfriendsapproach.com/).
For hiring a private caregiver, a great resource is www.care.com. With an account, a user can post a specific job (with day/time/hourly pay/specific skills needed) and then receive applications from local individuals.
However, hiring and correctly paying a private caregiver is a multi-step process. See https://www.payingforseniorcare.com/homecare/hiring-independent-caregivers for guidance. Although more expensive, various agencies, such as Visiting Angels, Senior Helpers, and Home Instead, provide in-home care without the hassle of private pay. Check your local listings for national and regional offices, and always screen businesses for honest, recent customer reviews.