May28,2014

When a Caregiver Dies

A photo of an older couple holding hands.

By Guest Blogger Kathe Palermo Skinner, M.A., L.M.F.T.

For 70 years, she put up with his (sometimes volcanic) rumblings. He doted on her with diamonds and was a poorer father for it.

The youngest of five much older siblings, she was babied into being passive and timid. He was a blustering bad boy who loved control; a lifelong natural at most things mechanical. He took seriously his duties as a man, a spouse and head of the household. He didn’t brook anything that deviated from his definitions of right and wrong, a bigot in many ways. A mother and military wife who could fend for herself and children when she needed to, she preferred being cared for – and he liked it that way.

Both were fortunate. For much of their lifetimes, neither was chronically ill or had a disability – unless you count legal blindness, which he didn’t (though most who drove with him did). And even though she developed macular degeneration, a disease of the eye that usually leads to blindness, she could sometimes see the world better than he did.

Several years ago, her macular degeneration began to impact both of them. By then, her hearing had deteriorated, too, and her world shrank. Although she rarely admitted fears (not to us, anyway), he expressed his the only way he knew how: he fixed as much as he could. He cut her food, gently guided her through the dimly-lit places they avoided more and more, lent her his arm and searched out gizmos and gadgets he found in catalogues. He took care of her.

Last year, George left Kate.

True to his role, George had organized everything, including who his wife’s legal caregiver was to be – my husband. Now, almost a year later, Kate no longer plans on joining George in death right away and doesn’t cry for hours each night. Not that she tells us, anyway. As her vision deteriorates Kate, not surprisingly, adapts.

David and his sisters do what they can from a distance of a thousand miles, mostly via phone calls and the occasional visit. Immediate support comes from close friends and a kind and caring nursing home staff.

Today, it takes a dozen people to do what George did. Even so, he can never be replaced.

None of us could live well if we spent too much time dwelling on the eventuality of death.  But some of us – who have a visible or invisible disability or are chronically ill – need to spend more time thinking about the profound changes a caregiver’s death brings. Like David’s parents, my husband and I are fused by years, experiences, commitment and love. Though I’m the one diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, in truth MS is something we both carry.

As we age and tire, slow and re-prioritize, both of us have to remember that though we plan to go out holding hands as star-crossed lovers, the truth is more mundane …and likely. Whoever is left to mourn, cared-for or caregiver, what needs to happen is the same:

  1. Plan now. The outcomes might look different, but the grief will be the same.
  2. Get your house in order. You don’t have to be a survivalist in order to be prepared with legal, medical, financial and personal concerns.
  3. Create your own family. Gather together people who care, no matter what the will says.
  4. Get outside each other. Get perspective from someone trustworthy and caring who’s outside the mix – perhaps a minister, counselor or therapist.
  5. Express yourself and your needs clearly, often and appropriately. Consider what to say and who you say it to. Sometimes being blunt can be hurtful; at other times necessary. Some people are better prepared to bring a casserole or help with housekeeping than to see you cry. Try out your voice to a journal or pay a therapist or counselor. They can be skilled and trustworthy allies.
  6. Keep in touch with others. It’s unfair (and shortsighted) to place the burden only in one place – like with your son.
  7. Have someone to talk to, starting now, such as a clergy member, therapist, physician, friend, partner or other family. Think of yourself as a nuclear reactor. Keeping it to you guarantees one of two outcomes: shutting down or exploding.
  8. Join a group of those experiencing what you are. There’s no substitute for having someone “get it.” Don’t believe me? Try talking to someone who doesn’t.

About the Guest Blogger

Photograph of author Kathe Skinner and her husband DavidKathe Skinner is a marriage and family therapist and certified relationship specialist, who specializes in working with couples, especially those for whom invisible disability is part of the mix. She has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis for more than 35 years. Kathe and her husband David hold communication workshops in Colorado Springs; they are both certified instructors for Interpersonal Communication Systems. Along with their two hooligan cats, Petey and Lucy, they live along Colorado’s Front Range. Find out more about Kathe and David at www.beingheardnow.com and read Kathe’s blogs, ilikebeingsickanddisabled.com and couplesbeingheardnow.com.

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