What to do About Jesus?

Trigger Warning! I refer to a picture of Jesus as” Jesus”. I mean no disrespect to any faith. This is not a religious post.

As long as I remember, my parents had a gilt-framed portrait of Jesus hanging in their bedroom. He came with them from Ohio to California in retirement, and moved with them to two different Assisted Living residences.

When they died, I inherited Jesus.

But this is not about faith, or religion or even about Jesus. It is about the crossroads we face with the clutter in our own lives and the clutter we inherit.

Now – how can I refer to Jesus as “clutter”? I’m not. It really is the picture of Jesus, but in our family, we came to call the picture…Jesus. It has been comforting, really. It reminds me of the faith of my parents, the faith in which they raised me, and the faith and spirituality I passed along to my children.

But back to clutter. I read an article about clutter this morning. It was very clear that clutter in our homes can lead to clutter and disorganization in our minds as well. One point was that, if we leave clutter behind, then we are leaving it for our children to handle.

This happened to me, which brings me back to Jesus. I inherited Jesus and a lot of other memorabilia, art, keepsakes, photographs, and documents. There was a ton of stuff to go through. My siblings live out of state, so they didn’t take much except valuables. And I get that!  It’s difficult and expensive to ship a box of stuff to sift through across the country.  They told me to simply throw things away.

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The Loving and Tough Choice of Hospice

One of the toughest times I recall was when I made the decision to sign papers for Hospice for my father.

He had been ill for a number of years – a slow decline at first, and then a rapid finish, it seemed to me, but my memory is blurred by love and sadness. At the time he was living in an assisted living facility with my Mom, receiving a lot of supportive services and trying desperately to keep a fair amount of time between Emergency Room visits as each one seemed to suck a chunk of time away from him.

My husband and I had taken the opportunity during summer to take some time away, just the two of us, for business and pleasure, after having spent nearly 5 years providing increasing levels of care for both of them. My siblings took time to visit from their own states and give us a reprieve. When our plane landed, I turned on my phone and the texts quickly pinged and populated my screen. I learned that both parents had made trips to the ER in the weekend before we landed back home, but that both were now back in their room, apparently safe.

The next day when I visited it was immediately clear that Dad was not all right. We made another trip to the hospital and by the end of a long day, arrangements had been made for me, as the one holding the Power of Attorney and Health Care Advocate status, had to make some decisions about Hospice.

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Elder Orphans

The other day I visited with a family friend who was having several helpers sort through a lot of old stuff – cleaning out. Her husband had died about a year ago, and she was finally ready to clean out a lot of the rooms in her home. Her daughter and a couple of grandchildren were there with her, along with some other family to help her through the process.

As I talked with several of the family members, I was struck with how worried they were about her. She now had a huge, empty house, she was getting on in years herself, and had recently made the decision to stop driving, which gave them enormous comfort, but also laid a new burden in their laps, as well.

Watching our loved ones grow old is very difficult. Often I hear people talk about how they now have to “parent” their parents. It certainly is a viable analogy, but I think it is not quite right. Is it that we become “parents” to our parents when they need us more, or are we really just morphing into another type of relationship – one that so far does not really have a name?

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Bright Sides and Silver Linings

The Sandwich Generation squeeze is tough. There are no two ways about it. One of the kickers is that it tends to sneak up on us. We live in a busy world when raising children, even if they are older and able to take care of most of their own needs. Combine any level of childcare or teen and young adult “management” with working, and we have busy with an extra dollop of stress on our plate. So in talking with people in the SanGen, I often hear how it went from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat. They didn’t really see it coming. Mom fell and broke her hip. Dad had a stroke. I’ve written about how I wasn’t fully in tune with how quickly my mother’s “forgetfulness” went from what I thought was anxiety to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is rather counter-intuitive that we find the signs of aging actually sneak up on us; after all, we are all aging every day. But it does. So yes, it is stressful.

But when we settle in, take care of the immediate needs, try to stabilize any crises, and finally come up for air, what do we find? Is it all doom and gloom? I am an optimistic pragmatist. I try to see the bright side in what is. Get the job done, but always look for the silver linings. In my own experience, and what I have heard from others, there are bright sides.

I’ve heard from people that relationships with parents often softened, deepened, and renewed. Strained sibling relationships often evolved and repaired to a significant extent. Spouses had opportunities to support and care for the caregiver. Children witnessed incredible acts of compassion, and themselves, acted with immense compassion. Caregivers often report finding reserves of strength they did not know they had.

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Denial

“Christy, I think your Mom is having memory problems. Have you noticed?” my Aunt asks me. A lot of people have been asking me this one lately. No, I tell them. It’s anxiety. She is just so worried about my Dad. She worries all the time and is afraid to leave him for very long, so she cancels things she used to do. She has been cancelling book club, volunteering, various and sundry social engagements. But the question nags at me. Is it anxiety or is something else going on?

My Mom tells me, “I’m afraid I am more like my mother than my father!” She refers to her mother who died the day before her 80th birthday, who probably had some form of dementia for years. She would walk around her home with a burning cigarette with a 5-inch ash at the end, with my grandfather following behind with an ashtray trying to keep the house from burning down. Her father lived nearly another 20 years and died at age 99. His memory was as clear as a bell, although he did tell me the decades seemed to blur together. My Mom worries a lot about my Dad, but she worries a lot about that, too. She worries about her memory. Should I worry, too?

I’m a school psychologist with a background in counseling and various other things. I’ve worked with adults and children. I’ve worked with people with mental illness. I know anxiety when I see it, I tell myself. This is anxiety. But my conscience gnaws at me. Is this denial on my part? Sometimes we are most dangerous when we think we know things.

I visit my parents and stop to check that my Dad’s pillbox is full for the week. I’ve been checking this recently because my Mom tells me Dad messes it up after she fills it. He is on a lot of medication. I look and sure enough, pills have been moved and everything is a jumble.

“Who changed everything?” I ask them both. I sound like the 3rd grade teacher my mother was for 25 years, interrogating the 9 year olds about the messy room or missing markers. This bugs the crap out of my Dad, who huffs. “She keeps messing with it,” he tattles. She is ratted out again and looks aghast and indignant. Seriously – is this what it has come to? I pull back from my frustration about having two more “children” to care for. Eventually, I fix the pills and tape a sticky note to the front, “Do not move, remove or add any pills until you call Christy first”. Yeah – that’ll work.

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Terrible Choices

Mom wakes, again, after nearly 30 minutes of sleep. She is groggy. She scowls, and looks at me, almost with a look of annoyance. “Where am I?’ she asks.

“Mom, you’re in the hospital,” I tell her with as much gentleness as I can manage after answering the question multiple times.

“What?! Why am I in the hospital?”

I tell her she has been having trouble breathing and that is why she has the oxygen tube in her nose. She is cranky. She jerks her head from side to side and scratches her head. “Where’s Charlie?”

There it is. Where is Charlie. The love of her life.  My Dad.  My Dad who died not 3 weeks ago.  She doesn’t remember.  I’ve had to tell her now too many times.  How do I keep breaking her heart? Am I doing the right thing in telling her?  I’ve been asking myself that one too many times, as well.

“Mom…” She can tell by my voice, I think because she looks at me with sad eyes. “He’s dead?” She asks in a whisper. “He’s dead,” she says again with knowing despair. She weeps silently; hangs her head.

We are in the hospital because she has pleural effusion. Fluid has built up in the space between the lung tissue and the chest cavity. It functions a lot like pneumonia, which we all thought she had developed somehow because that would have been easier. That could have been solved, cured. She is easily out of breath. She can’t do those things she loves the most like taking a nice walk, going to church with my family.

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A New Journey

Watch out! I am up to something. I’m taking the plunge and doing something I have always wanted to do. I am writing a book -taking a year’s leave of absence from my school psych position and diving into unknown spaces.

I went on a long journey not long ago. Many of you have been on the same journey, or will eventually take the same journey. It is not an easy one by any means. It is a journey of self-discovery, pain and joy, and oftentimes, one of immeasurable grace. It is sometimes long and sometimes short. No one’s journey is the same because there is no clearly marked path. No guidebook. It is the journey of time spent in the Sandwich Generation.

Sandwich Generation. I am not particularly fond of that label, but it fits. People of the Sandwich Generation are those folks who have children living in their home (even adult children) and aging parents that require some sort of ongoing care. The name evokes poor analogies – am I the Cheese or the Meat? Mustard or Mayo? Pickles or Onions? It’s a silly name and yet quite apt. I know I often felt like a smooshed piece of cheese at times. Or too little mayo to spread across two large slices of bread is perhaps a better analogy. I know I felt squeezed for time, energy, emotional stamina, and thin on competence for the tasks before me. But until I can coin a better term, I’ll run with this one.  Continue reading “A New Journey”