Author’s note: I originally posted this in 2013, but like medical advocacy, this is important enough that I will be reposting it monthly to remind us all that we need to have all our physical affairs – medical, legal, end-of-life, and digital – in order now.
Tomorrow is promised to no one. It’s hard enough to deal with loss (in the case of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, there are two losses to deal with) without having the process made as easy as possible by those we’ve lost.
This is one of the kindest acts we can do for those we leave behind who have to wrap up our physical lives in the face of grief and loss. Not doing this just makes things harder than they need to be.
I urge everyone today to stop and take care of these things (be sure to update them as things change) as an act of love and kindness.
We live in a digital age and we work very hard to protect ourselves online from things like identity theft and access to our financial and personal data.
However, it is important to make sure that we give access to our POA’s in case something happens to us and it is important that we have this information for our loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia whom we are caring for and, if not already, will be entrusted to handle their legal, medical, and financial affairs for them.
For many of us as caregivers for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, we choose to enter into the agreement to care for them willingly, without any compensation (we don’t expect it), aware that, in the majority of situations, we will carry the responsibility with little to no help from others and that it’s a lifetime 24/7 obligation that we’re inextricably bound to until our loved ones die.
We also enter into an implicit ethical agreement with our loved ones when we assume responsibility for their care. We promise implicitly that we will be honest and trustworthy, that we will be supportive, that we will be comforting, that we will be loving, and that our loved ones will want for nothing.
As our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease – parents, grandparents, etc. – did for us when we were babies and children, we promise that, with as much equanimity as possible, we will bear the burdens, carry the worries, handle the vacillations of change, and never abandon them.
The way I always look at this is that our loved ones (our caregivers) when we were babies and children didn’t know what they were getting into. They could not have possibly imagined or dreamed the things we would say, we would do, and sometimes the trouble and mischief we could find without even trying.
And, yet, for most of us, they hung in there with us, even though it was sometimes hard, sometimes maddening, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes almost unbearable (especially in the teenage years). They didn’t put us away some place, complain about the fact that no one in their families was helping out, or scream and rant and rave about us to other people (well, maybe they did to our friends’ parents when they were alone and traded horror stories about all of us, but we never saw any of evidence of that in their treatment of us).
By agreeing to be caregivers for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, we agree to do for them what they did for us. To complete the circle of life as we switch roles with them as they begin their exit from the stage of life.
How well are we living up to our agreement in all the areas that we agreed to?
Sometimes it’s necessary to just step back and evaluate the agreement we made, why we made it, and whether we are fulfilling the terms that we agreed to.
I know these diseases take a heavy toll on more than just our loved ones. I walked this journey side-by-side with my mama for several years, at first not realizing fully what Mama was experiencing, and then once I did, dealing with it and Mama according to the terms I’d agreed to.
I had my moments of anger, frustration, impatience, and fear, but overwhelmingly what I experienced was fierce protectiveness, deep compassion, strong empathy, and unconditional love. No matter what I was going through, I knew what Mama was going through was worse. The more fragile her own position became, the stronger mine became to be her comfort, her safety, and her rock – even if, at times along the way, she wasn’t, because her brain was betraying her, able to recognize that.
It was never about me. It was always about Mama. Keeping that at the front of my mind and heart at all times helped me be there 100% all the time to do whatever needed to be done to help her.
This is an imperative mindset for us as caregivers. It’s a rare mindset because it has largely disappeared in the general population that has wholeheartedly embraced the “it’s all about me” mindset.
We live in a society that has become increasingly self-absorbed, self-centered, selfish, and whiney when even the littlest of things don’t go our way. We live in a society that is easily offended and gets hurt feelings on the turn of a dime, that is quick to give up on things and people when the going gets a little rough, that is all too ready to walk away from anything that poses a threat to our comfort zone or might require a little extra work to sustain. (The irony is that this same society expects from us the things it is unwilling to be, do, or give.)
But, as caregivers, we have chosen to take the road far less traveled by. The one that says we’re in it for the long haul. The one that says our skins are thick enough that we learn not to take the effects that our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease exhibit personally. The one that says we love and we care to the end. The one that says we never walk away.
It’s not a road that many are willing or able to walk. But for those of us who have walked it and are walking it to the end, we find that the rewards and the lessons and the love we acquire as part of the journey are priceless. And our loved ones find in us relentless champions, unsung heroes, faithful friends, and beloved spouses, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews who show them we love them by who we are and what we do.
So let’s never forget the promises we made, the pledges that we made, the trust, integrity, and honesty that we committed to be worthy of when we chose to care for our loved ones. Always remember that they are counting on us to honor those and if we fail them, then who will step in and fill the gap?
Today’s post will discuss our role as medical advocates and medical support for our loved ones suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s disease. Here I will provide practical advice and suggestions, from my own experience, in managing the medical aspect as easy, as straightforward, and as un-disruptive for our loved ones as possible.
The very first thing we need to do as caregivers is to make sure medical wishes and medical legal authority – medical power of attorney – are documented and authorized (primary care physicians can do this; I suggest getting them notarized as well). Hopefully, these have been discussed enough so that either our loved ones have already taken care of them or we know what they want and are able to execute them ourselves.
For anyone reading this who is not a caregiver or suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, now is the time to think about these because time and chance happen to us all. For those of us who are caregivers, these are documents we need to locate and keep in one place.
A medical power of attorney document designates who will make decisions when the person drawing up the document is unable to.
A living will essentially specifies whether a person wants everything done possible to keep them alive, no matter how long, how futile, and how expensive or whether only comfort care is given when it’s clear that the end of life is at hand.
A DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) document states that the person does not want to be resuscitated if he or she stops breathing.
I suggest getting a briefcase or backpack to keep all the documents related to the medical care for our loved ones in. The briefcase or backpack should be accessible at all times, so it goes everywhere we and our loved ones go.
The medical power of attorney, living will, and DNR should be kept together in a folder in the briefcase or backpack. The other items in this backpack should include medical history documents and an up-to-date list of of medications (I’ve attached a sample Excel spreadsheet you can download and for this). Get an inexpensive wallet to put a photo id and Medicare Part A and Part B cards in and keep that in the briefcase or backpack as well. Always have something (electronic or pen and paper) to take notes with.
It is important to remember that we caretakers have a responsibility to advocate for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease with all medical professionals (primary care physicians, psychiatrists, nurses, dentists, hospital staff, home health staff, and hospice staff). However, it is equally important to remember that, unless our loved ones are in the dying process and, therefore, unresponsive, that we need to include them in all conversations, explain to them what is being discussed and why, and make sure the medical personnel include them as well.
While our loved ones may not understand everything, we must not treat nor let anyone else treat them as if they are invisible. This is probably one of the greatest gifts of love and respect we can show them.
We have to usually initiate this by stopping the conversation the medical professional is having with us, turn to our loved ones and hold their hands, make eye contact, and explain. Eventually, the medical professional will make eye contact with both us and our loved ones.
The reality is that we don’t really know how much our loved ones comprehend or understand. It’s my personal belief that they understand more than the diseases allow them to respond to. I also know that touch and inclusion are two basic needs we all share as humans, so it’s essential that our loved ones never feel excluded or unloved.
Hospitalizations are hard on elderly people. I don’t know all the reasons why, so I wouldn’t begin to speculate (although I have some opinions about it) as to why. For our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, hospitalizations are not just hard, but extremely traumatic because of unfamiliarity of everything: people, place, and routine. Going into a hospitalization, we as caregivers must be aware that it will be a setback for our loved ones when they come home.
Because of the traumatic effect of hospitalizations on our loved ones, it is critical that we as caregivers stay with them as much as we’re able during the hospitalizations. We are, even if some of the time they don’t know who we are, familiar. And our presence can help neutralize some of the fear and anxiety that often occurs during hospitalizations.
Always have a “hospital bag” with clothes, toiletries, and other things our loved ones need packed. That bag goes every time we take our loved ones to the ER or with us as we follow an EMS transport. (It is imperative to be sure to wash the clothes from the hospital stay immediately and separately from any other laundry when we get home.)
Spend the night for as long as our loved ones are hospitalized. I know, because I’ve spent way more nights than I could ever count with my mom – even before her dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease diagnoses because I didn’t want her to be all alone – in the hospital, that there’s iffy sleep, awful coffee, and not-so-great food. But our loved ones are worth it.
But spending the night has an additional, and equally-important, benefit. Most doctors make rounds between 7 pm and 8 pm in the evening and between 6 am and 8 am in the morning, so by spending the night we’re always there when the doctors are there so we can be current on what’s going on with our loved ones. I’ve found that, in general, hospital nurses either don’t know much or are too busy to take the time to give you real updates, so the only in-depth information you’re going to get will be from the doctors.
The other benefit of staying with our loved ones is that we can make sure they get the quality care and attention they need. It’s been my experience that most hospitals simply to don’t have enough staff to provide much personalized care, so if there is no one there with the patient, the patient just has to wait until someone gets around to him or her. By us being there, we can ensure that our loved ones are clean, taken care of, and not uncomfortable in any way physically. That’s one of the best ways we can serve them.
As I mentioned, expect a setback after hospitalization. It can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. Recovery will eventually occur, but it’s important to know that it will never return to the pre-hospitalization state. That’s just the nature of these diseases.
It’s important to be patient, loving, kind, gentle, and tender no matter what. It’s my opinion that most of the behavior is a way of expressing fear, so it’s important that we allay those fears and help our loved ones feel safe again. It takes time and a lot of deep breaths sometimes, but this is another way we show them how much we love them.
I wanted to post a reminder that I’ve created this blog to give more extensive details on practical and “in-the-moment” information that we caregivers can use to ensure the best and most loving care of our loved ones suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementias.
If you have not yet read my book, Going Gentle Into That Good Night, please be sure to get your copy. It is an overview – and the genesis of this blog – of my own caregiving journey with my mom and I offer lessons I learned in the form of resources and advice you won’t find anywhere else in the Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia literature.
And, as always, if you find any of the information that I provide here or on Facebook useful and helpful, and are so inclined, a small donation (click on Donate on the left side of your screen) would be greatly appreciated. This mission to write, share, and provide helpful information, advice, and encouragement is, it seems, my life’s work now. It is a labor of love because I know firsthand what each of you is going through, but I still have to pay the bills.
Thank you in advance for reading, for sharing, and for allowing me to share my journey with you.
This post by Kay Bransford, on her Dealing With Dementia blog, is important enough that I want to share it here for all of us who are – or may be in the future – caregivers for loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementias.
We live in a digital age and we work very hard to protect ourselves online from things like identity theft and access to our financial and personal data. However, it is important to make sure that we give access to our POA’s in case something happens to us and it is important that we have this information for our loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia whom we are caring for and, if not already, will be entrusted to handle their legal, medical, and financial affairs for them.
So, Kay’s advice struck me today as being very timely for all of us.