Saturday, September 19, 2009

ALS patients are not babies...

I've become a fan of Carla Zilbersmith.  Which actually kind of sucks for me because I didn't know her before ALS and would have really liked to.  My loss.  My only consolation is that I am able to read her blog, admire her joie d'vivre and truly appreciate the tremendous effort that goes into each of her narratives. Her recent post, Big Baby on Carla Muses had me laughing AND crying as I recalled some of the caregiver/patient moments I experienced with Bill.  My post today is from the opposite end of the continuum.

For the record, we did not have babies, we had a three year stint as legal guardians for three 16 - 19 year olds.  My skills were just as limited and impatient as Carla described, so you can only imagine the conversations between the two control freaks living in our house!  To Carla's point, it is painfully frustrating (even without factoring in the potential humiliation) to be an adult who is no longer capable of operating independently.  It is all too easy to treat an ALS patient or an elderly relative as if they are a small child, even when we are fully conscious of the fact that they have learned full well how to dress, bathe, drive, and more.  Please repeat after me:
It is not ok to treat an ALS patient like a baby, not even when or if they are acting like one.  ~William Neil Lichtig
Each and every day some bit of independence is stolen from these loved ones, and deposited into the hands of a well intentioned caregiver.  And it happens of necessity, not because you and the patient came to some sort of mutually agreed to arrangement! 

Take a minute to reflect on what it might be like if the circumstances were reversed.  Would you be a "good" patient?  Would you trust and allow your spouse, child, parent to be your caregiver?  How would you negotiate the boundaries and know when to speak up or shut up? 

Think about it.  When you are rushed, it is much easier and certainly more efficient to put the shoes and socks onto a pokey toddler who is learning to dress on their own.  However, we cheat them of the opportunity to learn independence. It's natural to yell "hurry up" when someone is dawdling. After all, there are place to go and people to see and we're on a schedule.  In the same way, it's easier and much faster to do everything for the ALS patient you are caring for, ultimately shortening the dwindling thread of their independence and cheating you of some much needed respite!  I am not for one minute suggesting that you allow anyone, child or adult, do anything that is dangerous or will result in serious injury.  But I am suggesting that it is in your best interest to slow down and work to encourage/retain independence for as long as possible. 

I consider myself pretty fortunate that Bill was able to adjust quickly to his circumstances and remind me ever so gently (...not!) of what he was still capable of doing.  He could no longer manage the wash, but he could handle the dryer.  He couldn't carry groceries with his hands/arms, but if I could hang the bags onto the handles of his wheelchair or the boxes of soda onto his lap tray, he could zoom up the ramp into the house while I secured the van and he would keep me entertained as I put things away.  He could still carry his share of the load, and sometimes all of it!  

I learned to make myself scarce but stay within earshot so that I could protect myself from the heartache of watching my husband struggle to button his shirt, brush his teeth, walk any distance or any one of a hundred other little tasks.  I learned to tell him he had to do the best he could while I took care of something else.  And I learned to ASK him first, to see if he really needed my help to complete a task.  We learned to build more and more time into the schedule to accomodate his needs and capabilities.  And just as the world doesn't stop spinning when the kid goes out in mis-matched socks because everyone was rushed, it didn't stop when it took us an hour and a half to complete the grocery shopping instead of  45 minutes!

Caregiving is a full-time gig.  It's demanding and generally exhausting work.  Change is not easy. Work together and do not willingly make this job any tougher, any sooner, than you have to.  It would be great to hear how you manage this delicate dance.

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