Dr. Cheryl Woodson

A Caregiver’s Tale

Can You Surf the “Silver Tsunami?”

The needs of America’s seniors have been called the ‘Silver Tsunami.” Our families, communities, businesses, political and health care systems can either surf or drown.

Let me give you a surfboard.

If you support a senior, like many other Americans, you are probably doing it over a long distance.

Before President Eisenhower built the Interstate system, Americans lived and died within twenty miles of their birthplace. Now, families are more likely to live around the country from their seniors, than around the corner. When Mom lives in another state, it’s hard to check in on her, on your way home from work.

Geriatrics is the area of medical practice where doctors with special training care for frail older adults. In thirty years as a geriatrician, I have gotten so many frantic calls right after holidays, because people fly home and say, “OMG!” Every time they called to ask Mom how she was doing, she said, “Fine, thank you, and you?” Now, the family comes home to find that Mom doesn’t say much more than that. She wears same clothes every day; the fridge is full of rotting food; dirty dishes and burned pots cover every kitchen surface. She has stacks of unpaid bills and “telephone charities” have convinced her to donate lots of money.

These kinds of revelations always cause family conflict, because D’Nile ain’t just a river and somebody’s always in Egypt. The people who live near Mom may say, “See, this is what we’ve been telling you,” but the visiting family says, “You’re over-reacting; she’s just a little tired.”

Visiting family may say, “Something is wrong with Dad, “and the home folks answer, “We’ve been here with him the whole time. Who are you to walk in and tell us what to do?”

My brother and I had such a moment when a friend went to my mother’s house to pack up a box for me. My friend asked Mother for a magic marker to make a mailing label, but Mother didn’t know what a magic marker was.  I called my brother, expecting this information to make him agree that we had a problem, but he said, “Mother never has to mail packages; why should we expect her to know what a magic marker is?”

Now, my mother raised a PhD and an MD, both of whom went to kindergarten. Do you think she never knew what a magic marker was? My brother wasn’t ready to see that Mother was sick, but eventually, we did get on the same page. With the help of our close, extended family, we navigated Mother’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease until she passed away in 2003.

I understand why people fight to ignore their seniors’ changes. The minute you accept that something is wrong, your life, as you know it, is over. For the rest of your senior’s life, eldercare will be up there on your “To Do” list, with all the other things that overwhelm you.

Accepting the problem also opens you to amazing amounts of pain. I turned my mother’s wedding rings into a drop necklace when she looked at me and said, “Do I know you?” That was eight years into a ten year caregiving relationship, and I thought I was going to die. Why wouldn’t everyone shield their brains from that kind of pain?

Caregiving can be painful and overwhelming, but there is help and there is hope.

Next week:  Getting the help you need: The Geriatric Assessment

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