May 13, 2023

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Questions from an Unsuitable Caregiver

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Orrin Onken
Crow’s Feet
AI picture. Prompt by Author

Adventures in Aging — Part 321

When I was finishing high school, the powers that be had us all take an aptitude test. It did not measure achievement, or knowledge, or intelligence. It ferreted out what fields the test-taker was temperamentally suited to work in. I had always been good at standardized tests and expected to do as well on this one as I did on the others.

And I did. Mostly. The test predicted I could thrive in any field of endeavor I might choose. Except one.

My results promised me success and satisfaction — with scores between ninety and a hundred — in science, engineering, business, finance, art, government, trades, or sales. But my chances of happiness plunged to about eight percent when I hit the helping professions: nursing, social work, caregiving.

After an undergraduate degree in English, I became a lawyer. It is a profession that lies at the intersection of language, logic, and public policy, and one that no one ever has called a helping profession. The work kept me in the middle class and made me enough money so I could retire when I turned 69.

My law practice focused on elder-law, the legal problems that confront old people and their families, so when I closed up the office and headed home to begin retirement, I had twenty years of watching how age affects families.

As I began my retirement journey, two random observations remained with me from my law practice

The first was a throwaway line I picked up from my doctor-sister. Men just keel over dead one day. Women get taken out by multiple chronic conditions and ever-increasing disability.

The second was a comment that I often heard from old women, either single by choice or widowed. I’m not interested in another relationship with a man, because the men I meet aren’t looking for a wife, they’re looking for a nurse.

In my case, I didn’t keel over dead before my wife began to experience those chronic conditions. She developed joint and bone issues that limited her movement and made many previously ordinary activities painful. That meant I had to become a caretaker. I didn’t object to that. I loved her when we married, and I love her today. I took the for-better-or-worse thing seriously, and would rather spend time with a limited version of her than a full version of anyone else I have ever known.

But the turn of events, her disability, did not play to my strong suit.

The changes in our life were gradual. More pills on the bedroom vanity. Phone calls to and from medical providers outnumbering phone conversations with friends and family. Travel became more complicated. Social commitments had to be conditioned upon health. Recreation was less active. I was good with all of that. It’s not the big challenges — the operations, the recoveries, and the inevitability of more of them — that take me out, it’s the little stuff.

Prior to my wife’s health problems, we had operated under a negotiated sharing of household duties. It was mildly sexist. I did everything that involved automobiles or garbage. Laundry was her domain. We shared kitchen chores and yard work. But with her disability, it all changed.

Unless she is having a good day, shopping, cooking, serving meals, and cleaning up afterward are mine now. So is the yard. She can still dress, handle personal hygiene, and walk short distances, so she does laundry. She can still drive. Many caregivers have it a lot worse than I do.

Our problems arise, not over what work needs to be done, or even who is going to do it, but over who is in charge of the details. We were both managers in our working life. I ran a law office. She managed social service programs. The management worm lives in both of us and it is a terrible affliction. Our marriage saw us spending much of our free time together trying to manage each other, and that has not changed with her disability, but because she is sedentary, the time she can dedicate to it has.

I, as the caregiver and ex-elder-law lawyer, believe that I am also the care manager. She gets the care I choose to provide. She feels that because she is denied the pleasure of physical participation and has the time to carefully monitor her surroundings, she is better situated to be care manager. After all, who knows better what she needs and how it ought to be provided than she does?

And there’s the rub.

So I have questions. Not about the big issues of marriage, disability, life and death, but about the little stuff. Remember, I have no aptitude for this caretaking stuff and I have test results to prove it.

So here are my questions.

Meals and Cooking

  • Should dinner be what the cared for person wants to eat or what the caretaker wants to cook?
  • If the content of meals is to be negotiated, how long before the cook needs to start preparation must the cared for person state her negotiating position?
  • If a patient is unable to eat dinner at the ordinary time, does the caretaker eat alone, or put off eating altogether until the patient can join him?
  • After meals, should the kitchen be cleaned to the specifications of the caretaker, the cared for, or some middle ground?
  • Is it appropriate for the patient to say, after I have scrubbed, disinfected and then rented industrial equipment to sandblast the kitchen counter, “didn’t your mother ever teach you how to sandblast?”

Time Spent Together

  • How many hours a day should disabled people be permitted to talk about medical stuff?
  • Do disabled people have special insight into what the dog wants?
  • Should the caretaker be required to look up information on his phone for the patient while the patient, who is not cognitively impaired, is staring at her own identical phone?

House and Yard

  • If we had a relationship in which we could not direct sentences at each other that began with “you should,” does the rule now apply to sentences that begin with “we should” when the person using the evil should word is incapable of contributing physical effort to the thing that should be done?
  • Is there a daily limit on things we should do, particularly if I haven’t finished the things we should have done yesterday?
  • And what about add-ons? By that I mean jobs added on to something I am already doing, or should be doing. Like when I say I am going out to the drugstore to pick up some dental floss and she asks if, on the way, I could pick up a couple dozen cinder blocks from the home improvement store for that landscaping project we should do tomorrow.

I’m sure I will have many more questions for those of you out there with skill and experience with this stuff. Remember, I am an unsuited, male, newly in the caregiving biz. Treat me gently.