I had a great time at the Atlanta Writers Conference Book Fair. It’s been awhile since I’ve attended a conference in-person. It’s always inspiring to see so much creativity on display.
To that point, I met several caregivers at the Book Fair who shared their personal caregiving stories with me. If you are on the fence about writing about your caregiving experience, I would encourage you to try, even if it’s in a personal journal and not for public consumption. Doing so can be a cathartic experience. You may find that you do have lessons to share that would benefit other caregivers. If so, there are many self-publishing platforms available, in addition to the traditional publishing route.
Understandably, while you are an active caregiver, you likely will not have time to work on a book project. I scribbled down notes, quotes, scenes, anything that I thought I might want to revisit in written form later. Sometimes having a bit of distance can help in framing an experience in a balanced way, but capturing those visceral images in real-time was important for me. I published The Reluctant Caregiver 2 years after my mother’s death and 6 years after my father’s death. Of course if you’ve been following my blog from the beginning you know I began The Memories Project within weeks after my father’s death. At the time I thought I would mainly be writing about my father’s journey with Alzheimer’s but then my mother fell ill. By the end of my caregiving journey with my parents, I had a variety of experiences and lessons to share.
No doubt you will too.
[To give you inspiration, check out the recording of Poetry for the Dementia Journey, a poetry reading event hosted by AlzAuthors. At about the 37-minute mark, you can hear a poem I shared about my father.]
Whenever I come across realistic, compassionate depictions of the dementia experience I like to share them here. Paul Romero Mendez, the filmmaker behind a short film named “Ruth” reached out to me recently. His moving film was released in 2021. The film depicts a woman with dementia who is lost in her own home. Highlighting this experience is very important, because while remaining in the family home can offer those with dementia the comfort of familiarity, the disease may strip away the very memories that makes the home feel meaningful and safe.
Many of us who have had cared for loved ones with dementia have had to confront the dreaded request to “go home.” But home may not be what you think. If your loved one is in a memory care center, maybe it is their last home, but it could be their childhood home. Time doesn’t necessarily move in a linear fashion for those with dementia. One minute they may be back in their childhood, the next a young adult, and the next to the current time. My father often asked to go home when he was in the memory care center, but he also talked about going home to Northern Ireland to be with his sisters. So I don’t believe home was the condo in Ruidoso where my parents retired. Home may not be a fixed place in the way we think of it, but a feeling of love and contentment.
The film was shot in a single take, so the audience can understand better the swirling cloud of confusion that those with dementia may contend with on a daily basis. It’s a powerful depiction, filmed with compassion. You can watch the film below. (This is a different short film from the one I posted about in January, which is also called Ruth.)
This month, AARP released a report: Valuing the Invaluable 2023 Update. While no one has to tell caregivers how much free labor they provide while caring for their loved ones, it does help to calculate a value for caregiving work and have a well-known organization like AARP broadcast how much economic value caregivers provide.
In 2021, approximately 38 million Americans spent 36 billion hours caring for adults with a range of health conditions.
The estimated economic value of that care is $600 billion.
60 percent of caregivers juggle a full- or part-time job and care.
40 percent of caregivers say juggling a job and caregiving duties is their biggest and most emotionally stressful challenge.
30 percent of caregivers are “sandwich caregivers” caring for two generations at the same time.
Caregivers come from diverse populations and an individual’s culture informs their caregiving experience.
In addition to the findings, the AARP report made several recommendations. The AARP advocates for the passage of caregiver support legislation and strengthening paid family leave, offering caregiver tax credits, expanding respite care options and making sure caregivers are part of their loved one’s care plan.
How many reports will have to be produced for our government to take caregiving seriously? Every year I highlight such reports and the progress we’ve made to support caregivers is frustratingly slow. Keep telling your caregiving story to whoever will listen.
It’s Read an Ebook Week. While I’ll always love the feel of pages in a physical book, I do almost all of my reading using my Kindle. It’s just more convenient for my lifestyle.
If you are an electronic book fan, this is a great week to take advantage of special deals. I’m participating in the Smashwords promotions. You can get The Reluctant Caregiverand CBD for Caregivers for just 99 cents today through March 11. Note: It looks like the promotion is so popular that the Smashwords website is experiencing some technical difficulties. If you get a broken link, check back later.
If you are looking for a digital children’s book, you can get Slow Dog for just $2.99 on Amazon.
Friday was National Caregivers Day, but why just celebrate one day a year? Let’s keep the support flowing all year long.
AARP compiled a nice, actionable list of things one can do to support your caregivers in your life. I appreciate the “what that looks like” suggestions under each support method. It can be difficult for one to know how best to support a caregiver, so these practical options are so useful. For example, under “demonstrate support” there are suggestions like help a caregiver get organized, do research, help with housework, yardwork or other errands, and bring a meal or provide a meal delivery service.
The key in supporting caregivers is making sure the onus isn’t on them to ask for help. As a former caregiver, I know how hard it can be for some of us to ask for assistance. But I always appreciated when someone stepped up and helped me on my caregiving journey.
In the essay, Sarah Romanelli describes a situation that will be familiar to many caregivers: “being held hostage” by a broken care system that breaks down as one becomes more fragile. In Romanelli’s grandmother case, she was too weak for rehab and too dependent to return to assisted living, who sent her back to the hospital. The family was forced to crunch numbers and develop a care plan, which involved at-home care.
The family moved the grandmother to an apartment close to family and hired 24-hour care. That cost a whopping $16,200 per month, but was still cheaper than securing a space in a long-term care facility. Keep in mind that care facilities may require families to pay out-of-pocket for private caregivers if a resident is deemed to need around-the-clock monitoring. This happens quite often for residents with dementia.
Romanelli says her grandmother received wonderful end-of-life care, but she knows that their family’s solution is not feasible for most people. My father also got passed around to various facilities and ended up being sent far away from my mother, because it was the only memory care facility with an opening. At over $4,000 a month, it quickly depleted my family’s modest resources. But 24-hour care would not have been feasible in my parents’ rural community due to staffing shortages, and definitely would have been more expensive.
Bottom line, no matter what care option you choose, it will be expensive. I want people to have the choice of dying at home, and not bankrupt their family in the process.
If you’ve been online over the last few months, you’ve probably come across discussions about ChatGPT. The conversational AI-powered (artificial intelligence) tool developed by OpenAI is the latest tech fad that some experts claim could take over our jobs in the future. (If you are interested in working with images instead of words try the related DALL-E.)
You may have seen some of the program’s capabilities: it can write articles, essays, jokes and songs, debug software code, and create resumes with some input from the user. Users can have a conversation of sorts with ChatGPT while refining their requests and the tool can ingest those new points and update its responses in real time.
As someone who enjoys exploring new tools but retains a healthy amount of skepticism about such tools taking over the world, I’ve spent some time testing out ChatGPT, focusing on how the tool could potentially be of aid to caregivers.
My main takeaway is that while ChatGPT can adequately provide information on a vast amount of topics, the responses are mainly generic and middling in quality, like someone reciting an encyclopedia entry. Your mileage will vary if you are asking a question on a highly technical topic or asking it to generate code for a website. But when asking for caregiving advice such as making a caregiver plan for someone with dementia or tips on aging in place, it regurgitates acceptable but basic advice that can be found across the internet. You can see a couple of examples below:
The glaring issue for me is that there is no attribution with ChatGPT responses. That could be important when you are seeking medical advice such as dementia caregiving tips. Are the pointers it is offering come from a dementia expert like Teepa Snow or a low quality resource? At this point, the responses could be used as a decent starting point, but the user would need to do additional research outside of the ChatGPT system to verify, augment, and personalize the information. Google and other search engines are seeking to incorporate attributes of such AI-based tools into their own programs which would offer a more conversational way to search for information.
I’m going to continue to explore the uses of ChatGPT and how it might be useful for caregivers. If you’ve used the tool, I’d love to hear your feedback.
Dementia caregivers who are juggling careers and care duties will appreciate how director Alex Berg depicted the caregiving experience with empathy and accuracy in his short film, “Ruth.” The film was released in 2022 but is receiving renewed interest due to an Alzheimer’s Association interview with the director that was published this month.
In just 9 minutes, “Ruth” beautifully depicts the frustrations and joy of a mother with dementia and her middle-aged daughter who is trying to balance career demands with caregiving. Berg told the Alzheimer’s Association that his grandfather was an inspiration for the project. The confusion and repetition of questions is something many dementia family caregivers will relate to. The frustration that bubbles over for the daughter is also familiar. “I wanted the daughter-caregiver in the film to be just as central as the mother character, going through personal challenges of her own, ones that don’t go away just because she is a caregiver,” Berg said.
The acting and direction is heartbreakingly beautiful. Family caregivers will finally feel seen after viewing “Ruth.”
Highlighting the challenges that come with caring for a family member in which you have a difficult relationship dynamic is an issue that is important to me. I discuss my own challenges when caring for my mother in my book, The Reluctant Caregiver.
Lori Grinker has created a moving, powerful photo essay, “All the Little Things,” which is about caring for her mother Audrey. The mother and daughter faced a trifecta of challenges: Audrey was already dealing with dementia when she was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grinker and her mother had always had a strained relationship, but the pandemic delayed a move into an assisted living facility, so mother and daughter lived together for three months. Grinker not only captures images of her mother, but of objects in her mother’s apartment. Those objects sparked memories and discussions that allowed the pair to open up the lines of communication more.
One of the objects that jumped out at me was the worn baking sheet. I remember my mother having a similar favorite baking sheet that she never wanted to discard no matter how discolored it became.
Life isn’t a Hallmark movie, so one shouldn’t expect an “all is forgiven” ending. Grinker told NPR that she and her mother were able to find some love for each other and most importantly, Grinker says she no longer harbors anger for her mother’s actions. She told NPR even if she cannot forgive her mother for some things, she now understands some of her mother’s life choices better.
Another year is in the books. As we look back on 2022, it’s easy to focus on the negative, but I hope you will cut yourself some slack and take time to celebrate what went well this year. Finding those good moments can be difficult when one is in a challenging caregiving situation. One suggestion that I’ve seen online is to get a jar and write on a slip of paper one good thing that happened each week. At the end of the year, the jar will be filled with highlights. If you are more digitally inclined you could keep a spreadsheet or use an app. It’s a simple way to make sure you don’t overlook your achievements.
My biggest achievement in 2022 was publishing my children’s book, Slow Dog. I began the year taking a course on writing for children, where I came up with the idea but waited until the summer to get serious about the project. If I had waited any longer, the book may never have existed as I got laid off from my job just two months after it was published. Timing is everything and sometimes the universe gives you a nudge just when you need it.
I hope 2023 will bring you good health and success in what matters to you.