Archive for March, 2009

Yearning for Focus

As I turned onto Highway 291, I saw a surveyor standing by his tripod in a field next to the highway.  He wore knee-high, lace-up brown boots, tan trousers, a dark brown vest, and a gold-colored shirt.  Behind him rose a small hill covered with dry grass.  He could have been the subject for a painting of a pleasant rural scene, but it wasn’t his coordinated outfit that captured my real interest.  The surveyor was totally engrossed in the study of his instruments, and it was his complete, undisturbed focus that drew me into the scene.  An aura of peacefulness and completion surrounded the man, and it was that aura that stayed in my mind as I drove on, filling me with envy.

I glanced at the notes I’d dropped onto the car seat beside me.  One was a grocery list.  Another said I needed to buy new undergarments for my mother.  My husband’s prescription was ready at the pharmacy, and before I had left the house, my husband had reminded me that it was time to get the tires x-ed on my car.  The family representative at the nursing home wanted me to drop by her office before I went in to see my mother.  I needed to call the dentist and re-schedule my cleaning appointment. My  husband’s elderly sister had a birthday coming up, and he had asked me to pick up a gift since his health would not allow him to drive his own vehicle.  I glanced in the rear view mirror, catching a glimpse of my wild hair.  Forget that.  There was no time for a hair appointment.

I pulled up in front of the nursing home and got out feeling ugly and cross and dissatisfied.  I wanted that surveyor’s peaceful aura, and there was absolutely no way my present life was going to grant me that.  I took my uke case and the song bag out of the back seat and set them on the ground.  I locked the car and then, as I reached for the bag, I dropped both my purse and the keys.  Ruefully I looked at the keys as I wiped dirt from them.  It’s a wonder I still had them.  A nice lady had come after me from the gas-station restroom to give them to me just yesterday.  And the day before, I’d been lucky to find them on the post office counter when I went back to search for them.  And half the mornings of my life, I was late because I couldn’t remember where I’d left them in the house.

How long would it take to make some plan to keep track of those keys?  I picked up my purse, made a space inside it, and said aloud, “From now on, you’re going to take ten seconds and put your keys in here, every time. ” (By now, if you’re a caregiver, you understand why I talk out loud to myself.) Well, it took ten seconds to do it the first time and three weeks to create the habit of doing it every time, but focusing long enough to put my keys where I could always find them gave me an odd small pleasure.

And thus was planted the seed for “Mind the Moment”, Chapter Eleven of The Caregiver’s Choice.  I began small, but each time I felt frazzled by multi-tasking and interruptions, I looked at the situation and decided on some minor change that would make a permanent difference and could be turned into a helpful habit.  Little by little, I moved on to bigger chores that had become chaotic because of lack of planning and lack of organization, and I focused long enough to make a plan.  The human demands on a caregiver are endless and often out of our control, so there’s a smug satisfaction in getting control of some of the inanimate objects.  (Still, in my next life, I’m going to be a rural surveyor in a yellow shirt.)


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During one of our moves around the rural Rocky Mountain West when I was young, my family lived in a ranch-hand’s house on a ranch in southeastern Colorado.  The house had no electricity.  We used kerosene lamps for light, and it was my job to clean the lamp chimneys when they got smoky.  I hated that job.  We didn’t have running water, and the dish water had to be pumped and then heated on the stove.  The smoke from kerosene is very greasy, and it resists one’s efforts to clean it away, but if I didn’t do a thorough job, the light from the lamp was even dimmer than usual, and my siblings complained.  I have to admit, it was hard to study under such a murky light.  (To be fair to my siblings, they had chores just as daunting.  We had no bathroom, either, and somebody had to take the chamber pots to the outhouse and dump them.)

That primitive ranch house taught me a lot about gratitude.  I never take hot running water for granted, and I almost bow when I reach for the light switch.  But when I began writing the chapters about anger and resentment for The Caregiver’s Choice, I began to think about how the soot on those chimneys dimmed the light.  If I kept the wicks trimmed right and the lamp full of kerosene, the light was always there.  But if the chimney was smudged, the light was of little use.  I could see that anger and resentment had obscured my own light.

Learning to clear myself of anger has been one of my hardest lessons, and it requires constant attention.  As I say in the book, it is easier to use the verb “to have” instead of the verb “to be.”  If I am angry, it’s part of me.  If I only have  anger, then I can let go of it.  But anger and resentment are every bit as greasy as kerosene smoke.  They cling in our minds, smudging our perception, dimming our feelings of love, blurring our ability to seek the right and gracious solution to problems.  And sometimes, we don’t have very good tools for clearing away the mess.

When one is an already overstressed caregiver, those smudgy emotions just add to the burden.  I’ve had to practice, but finally, I can remind myself to clear the chimney of my mind immediately. If my inner lamp begins to smoke, I stop and check the reasons for that anger and resentment.  Usually it happens because I’ve retreated into my own narrow way of viewing the situation.  I have several techniques to use to avoid a damaging confrontation.  First, I simply use good manners, keeping “please” and “thank you” in my conversation. (The other day, a woman in a business that had screwed up my file said to me, almost in amazement, “You didn’t yell at me.”)  I try to see past the other person’s obstructive ways to the real person and to feel compassion for their situation.  But one of the very best ways to relieve my anger is humor.  My mother used to call it “coping humor.”  I find if I poke a little gentle fun at myself–never at others–then other people relax and are approachable.  The anger is cleansed from my mind, and I can shine my common sense or my love or my understanding clearly into the problem, seeing more easily the way to a solution.

(Remembering that ranch house helps me a lot, too, in surviving economic downturn.  I may have to cut corners, but I still don’t have to go pump water.  It’s nice to be old enough to have lived through a depression and a couple of recessions.  I pretty much know by now what I can do without.)

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Last week I drove 100 miles to Colorado Springs to get my car serviced.  As I started, the clouds were rosy in the east.  The elk herd had just left my north acre and crossed the county road into the preserve.  For a change, the wind wasn’t blowing hard in South Park.  A herd of antelope grazed on a sloping meadow.  Eleven-mile Reservoir sparkled in the distance.  Alone on the road, I enjoyed the chance to rest my eyes on the snow-capped peaks across the vast plateau. I glanced at the earth-ship house built near the road and wondered what it must be like to live in a house that was half buried in the earth.  (At least the wind wouldn’t rattle it much.)  I stopped on Wilkerson Pass to enjoy the view of Pike’s Peak in the distance.

As I neared the city,  the traffic increased and suddenly I had to pay attention.  Long years of driving on the Front Range have helped me create a driving discipline I call “creating a safety pocket”.  I slow down just enough to keep from bunching up with the cars ahead of me, but not so much that I annoy the drivers behind me.  This minor adjustment usually creates a space between me and other traffic–a space that gives me time to react to any potential crisis on the road.  If the cluster of cars ahead of me slows abruptly, I have time to further adjust my speed and to look for animals on the highway or for some other traffic obstruction.  (And once when I hit black ice on the highway, the distance from other cars saved me a huge collision as I swerved back and forth to renew my control.)

On the return trip last week with my car purring, and alone again on the road across South Park, I thought about The Caregiver’s Choice and reflected that one also needs to establish a safety pocket when one is a caregiver.  Giving oneself  a moment of time and a bit of space can often help you avoid a crisis.

If you step into a facility and take a moment or two to assess the mood of the staff and the residents before you become involved with your loved one, you can be prepared for changes in the day’s routine.  Alzheimer’s disease sufferers respond very quickly to anxiety or tension in the environment.  If you notice that the residents seem more restless or are acting upset, you can revise your visiting plan.  You may wish to take your patient outside the unit or at least to a quieter place.  On the days when I sing in my local unit, I may change the type of music I choose for that day if I’ve noticed a heightened anxiety level, picking something more peaceful.  (Or if the mood is closer to depression, I may choose music that makes my residents smile—“Cigareets and Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women” does it every time.)

Sometimes an emotional safety pocket is what one needs.  One of the physical problems that accompanied my husband’s diabetes was an abrupt drop in his blood-sugar level.  When the blood-sugar level goes too low, the patient often becomes irascible.  When that happened, and my husband got cross at me, I stepped into a quiet, mental safety pocket for a moment or two.  Then, without snapping back at him, I poured a glass of orange juice and said, “Why don’t you drink this, and we’ll talk later.”  Peace maintained is sweeter than peace restored after an upset.  Using my safety pocket helped me to maintain that peace.

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When I was twelve, soon after I discovered that I had little aptitude and the wrong attitude for the 4H sewing club, I decided to switch to the 4H livestock club and start raising pigs. My first pig was a belted Hampshire with a fancy registration name, Holbrook Susan the Fourth.  The plan was to raise Suzie for competition at the fair.  She was to be judged on her shape, size, and other points of conformation.  But I was also encouraged to enter the showmanship competition and take Suzie into the ring.  Suzie became my major chore after school.  I fed and watered her, and a little bit at a time, I began to train her to obey my commands as I guided her nose with a stockman’s cane.

When August and fair time rolled around, Holbrook Susan and I went to the fairgrounds where I scrubbed that pig until the skin under the white belt around her shoulders showed pink and the black hairs on the rest of her body glistened.  Then I guided Suzie into the runway from her pen to the arena.  Unfortunately, someone had let one of the pig-washing hoses drain into the dirt floor of the runway, and there was a puddle of muddy water a few feet from the arena gate.  Suzie, following her own instincts on a hot day, ignored my guiding cane and my commands and went directly to the puddle for a cooling bath.

I stood there almost in tears as that exasperating pig undid all my work, but some sixty years later, I can see that Holbrook Susan the Fourth taught me a great lesson.  Tug and prod as I might, I couldn’t change that pig’s mind, so I had to set about changing my own.  Despite all the adjectives humans use to describe pigs and despite the fact that “pig” and “hog” have become unpleasant descriptive words themselves, I learned from Suzie that there is always another point of view.  Though she didn’t speak my language, Suzie made it clear that it is entirely natural for a pig to act like a pig and there is no reason to be judgmental about it.  On a hot day, when her skin had been irritated by a brisk scrubbing with a stiff brush, it may have seemed pig-headed to me, but it was a wise solution for Susie to head for a mudhole.

When I became a caregiver, I found people in many situtations who at first seemed “pigheaded.”  But I was reminded again that the only peace to be found was in changing my own mind, and I couldn’t change my mind until I had sought another point of view.  I learned that when people are uncomfortable in a situation, they may do things I don’t understand–actions that are entirely natural from their point of view.  By asking questions, by listening instead of making judgments, I began to understand what was natural for others.  I stopped feeling so frustrated and angry and set about finding solutions that fit the needs and nature of us all, and at last I could find the strength and serenity that I mention in The Caregiver’s Choice.  (And Holbrook Suzie and I went on in other competitions to win a couple of blue ribbons that mattered not at all from her point of view, but were very satisfying from mine.)

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