Family Caregiving is Joy and Pain

I am fortunate in that I love my in-laws and they love me.  I am as close, or closer, to my father-in-law as I am to my own father, so it was a shock when he and my mother-in-law both required care.  It started slowly and, like a crab in a pot, I didn’t realize what was happening until it was a full boil.  Both of my in-laws are relatively young, in their mid and late 70s, but they are now part-bionic with artificial hips, knees, rods in the back and pacemakers between them.  We noticed they weren’t getting around as easily, so they both got nice walkers, which helped.  Then they wanted a part-time caregiver to come in and help around the house with everyday chores, shopping, laundry, etc.  We would have helped more but living 2 hours away and raising a teenage daughter made it challenging to find long weekends to visit.  This went on for 2-3 years and the water was getting warmer but I didn’t notice how hot it was.

Then it happened, suddenly, my father-in-law needed back surgery. The surgery went great until the next day when walking around the nursing station his heart stopped cold.  By God’s grace and being surrounded by medical care they were able to revive him. He spent 14 days in the ICU, and ultimately 4 weeks in the hospital, and as a result lost strength quickly.  While before he could get around okay with a walker, now he struggled.  He loved to drive, but now that was very difficult.  My wife started making trips up every few weeks.

I am very fortunate that we are a single income family so my wife had the flexibility to pay more visits to her parents.  When my father-in-law’s heart stopped she was able to immediately run up to be with her parents while I took care of our daughter and worked.  But as days became weeks, it became more difficult for everyone.  My wife spent nights with little sleep at the hospital since her mom couldn’t physically stay there given her condition.  Stress, fatigue, and fear strained relationships between everyone and brought back previously buried or forgotten family wounds.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone loves each other, but all families have their issues and the stress highlighted every one of them.

The medical care was not very good in my in-law’s area and when my father-in-law later got a sepsis infection, we all made the decision to move them down to be close to us.  Our city is much larger, with more specialized medical resources close by, providing better quality care.  This also made it easier for my wife to be more involved.  What I didn’t expect was how much time and energy would be consumed having them so close.  My in-laws saved and prepared and have the financial resources to pay for the $9,000 medical transport, and also the 24-hour care he now requires.  But caregivers don’t fix TVs that aren’t working because someone pushed the wrong buttons.  They don’t know where or how to install grab bars in bathrooms, fix a clogged drain, or know what that strange noise is coming from the garage.  I became that person and I was happy to do it, most of the time.  What I was unprepared for was how much time and attention they would need.  They were in a new house with new sounds, new heating controls, new television controls, new neighbors, new doctors, and new caregivers. At their age and after the strain of the months of hospitals, tests, decisions, etc. their patience was short and the learning curve was longer.

For my wife, her parents’ care became all consuming, and for good reason.  Caregivers need training for what care is needed, when to provide it and who to call if something happens, among other things.  If a caregiver calls in sick, she has to find another to fill in.  Even the smallest tasks now are a bit of an ordeal to accomplish. My father-in-law needed a haircut but couldn’t get out of bed. Finding someone who can come in to cut his hair was more difficult than you would imagine.

The strain is compounded by the fact that my mother-in-law needs help of her own.  My father-in-law always drove them around, so even though she can drive, she doesn’t like to.  This makes getting around difficult. With so many changes, she gets overwhelmed easily and then retreats.

While trying and difficult, I am eternally thankful my in-laws had the wisdom and love for us to buy long term care insurance in the early 90s.  Because of that policy and their planning, the money is readily available to pay for the caregivers, grab bars, Wi-Fi routers, groceries and medical transports they need without my wife and I having to sacrifice even more.

My in-laws moved down the street from us 5 months ago and it is now finally starting to lighten up.  They are more settled in the house, we have a group of amazing caregivers in place and now we can enjoy our time together as a family rather than as care coordinators.