Caregiving Coach

If you have stumbled upon this post, be sure to start with So You’re A Caregiver Now. This multi-part series unboxes one caregiver’s personal journey before, during, and after the experience.

Sorry, that first post was heavy. I’m a self-proclaimed “glass half full” person so to write that took me to a somber place. 

This ditty on caregiver coaching should be more encouraging and actionable. Once completing a caregiving journey, the reflections and learnings are useful indefinitely. It makes me feel like my journey was worthwhile when I imagine another caregiver may have an easier go from some of my hard-learned lessons.

To begin, I’d like to introduce you to my Grandma Betty. She was raised on a coal farm in Washington, Ind., until her teenage years when her father moved the family to Peru, Ind., for his law enforcement career.  After graduating from high school she ventured to Lafayette, Ind., and spent four years working on her Bachelor’s Degree at Purdue University. She then married her high school sweetheart and they traveled with the U.S. Army for a few years before moving back to Peru, Ind., so that my grandpa could take over the family business – Central Murphy Furniture.

Pictured: Betty and Phil on a date at an ice cream parlor. Published by Peru Tribune in the ~1940s.

Now Betty was of an era where women were caregivers by nature. These women often stayed home and ran the day-to-day operations so that the rest of the family could thrive. Though she was constrained by society to fulfil this role she carried a college degree and had ambition to boot.

After having her first child (my mom) she and my grandpa self-taught themselves acrobatics. They hand sewed their own net, got hand-me-down rigging, and set-up for practice in a nearby barn. Soon they were the very first amateur flying trapeze act in the Peru Circus – an act which still exists to this day!

Pictured: Phil (catching) and Betty (flying) in a performance for the Peru Circus. This is a large canvas hanging in my home.

When Betty became pregnant with my aunt she took a break from flying, though my grandpa continued to be a catcher. It was probably her disciple to learn, patience, and can-do-attitude that later urged Betty to become a pilot too.

As the years drew by, Betty had a total of three children. My uncle was the last to join the family, but certainly not the least. The stories with that third born are for a whole other blog altogether because truly, they are borderline unbelievable. That said, my mom, aunt, and uncle did their part to always keep Betty on her toes.

I entered the picture when Betty was in her 60s. At that time, she was leaning into a caregiver role herself for her mother-in-law while also helping mind me as a toddler. This went on for the better part of two decades when my great grandma passed away in her 100s. During that same period, she also oversaw my grandpa’s wellbeing as he underwent numerous open-heart surgeries. You could say the example was engrained early for me as I spent time with my grandma and helped her with many of these caregiving tasks (checking the mail, routine visits, housekeeping, meal preparation, and more).

It dawns on me just now, that as a caregiver for my dad, I’d seen this example not only in society but within my own family. Let me tell you… if I was half the caregiver Betty was then I’d say I did alright.

Pictured: My dad, me, and Betty circa 1991, preparing to take a train ride.

By the time that the caregiving part of Betty’s story began, she was the only remaining member of her family (save her children), and she had been negotiating with God to take her any time he was good and ready. Whenever she would give an update on her life she was sure to tout, “I guess God’s just not done with me yet!” It wasn’t a single thing that really led to her decline – more so many small things that simply compounded. Soon she was staying a short stint in a skilled facility to do some rehab with plans to return home after her therapy concluded.  

Pictured: Betty gliding through her 80s (she even brought her flight logbook!) the summer before her health changed.

Her three children were not succinct at caregiving prior to her decline. Slowly and intentionally, I began coaching them in managing her care through my caregiver experiences (which overlapped this one). It was a convenient role for me as I had already been receiving help from my mom and uncle during my dad’s decline. We were in the habit of communicating daily and our lives were spilling into each other’s.

In that summer of 2019, just after losing my dad, I was getting things in order at his farm. My uncle and I were standing inside of a bulldozer cab trying to repair a melted battery post. He had the mind and skill to fix the issue and his ingenuity proved unparalleled. In a matter of minutes, he had melted lead fishing lures into a post, put it into the battery, and began filing it down to fit the cable. I liken my uncle’s abilities as a caregiver with his acumen to fix battery posts. My grandma was a wise woman and saw the same potential he had to adapt and improvise – making him her healthcare proxy (healthcare power of attorney).  See… I told you he needed a separate blog…

You would think that my mom would have been spearheading my grandma’s care given her birthing order as the oldest. It was this role reversal that ironically brought the siblings together. My uncle not only lived closer, but he could also make hard medical decisions with minimal emotion. My mom filled into support him and made progress on both legal and return home plans for my grandma. My aunt was making return trips from out of state to visit and help prepare my grandma’s house for re-entry.

Like my dad, my grandma passed away about a year into her journey. The doctor’s deemed that she had heart disease but I would have diagnosed her with a simple case of a full-life. It was during the grieving period that I found myself really supporting my family most. We all deal with grief so differently. As an only child I had assumed every role that was being split between my grandma’s children so when I grieved, I grieved every part. My mom, aunt, and uncle were grieving in such silos, each experiencing a different emotion in the process – regret, frustration, and anger (to name a few). Accepting their stage and letting it run course helped me show the siblings that they were all hurting even if it looked different between them.

Pictured: Sharing a birthday with my grandma. I can still hear her singing at the end of Happy Birthday, “God bless and keep you, God bless and keep you, God bless and keep you the whole year through!”

The emotional side of caregiving is what doesn’t get enough coverage. We quickly hop into roles and make to-do lists but we rarely unbox our feelings. Those emotions amass inside until we’re brimming over and we either become sick from self-neglect, jeopardize relationships, or forfeit our own interests. The best thing I ever did as a caregiver was seek the professional support of a counselor. Recycling my day-to-day was toxic and did not empower me to be a strong, effective caregiver, wife, or friend.

Your goal as a caregiving coach isn’t to say things like: “you have to,” “you need to,” “when I was a caregiver I….” Instead, you should listen. Oftentimes a caregiver truly knows what needs to be done. Talking it out with you helps them reach their own decisions instead of being told what to do and having someone to blame if it backfires. Listening is hard because it’s more about recycling what they’re sharing versus sharing your own experiences. Trust me, if someone wants to hear your experience, they’ll ask.

Pictured: Walking the hallways of a long-term care facility with Betty during my grandpa’s final decline. She was always looking up (literally) and finding ways to be positive. No doubt she was telling me the history of this photograph and how it related to her small town.

Looking back, my biggest takeaways from coaching caregiving are:

  1. Putting the right people in the right role will be the greatest asset. Find people’s strengths and build on them!  
  2. Getting everyone in the room for the conversation at hand. Don’t go rogue even if you have the power to do so.
  3. Overcommunicating everything – even to the point of recapping things in writing for reference.
  4. Remember, everyone is hurting in their own way. Be kind with your words and actions.
  5. You are a team – use it to your advantage. Divide and conquer.
  6. Celebrate even the tiniest victories.
  7. Ask for and accept help! You don’t get a different reward (or often outcome) for doing everything yourself.
  8. Know that generally, everyone is doing the best with what they have, even if that seems like a sloppy effort to you. I have Brene’ Brown to thank for this one.

Some food for thought:

  • If you have found yourself coaching another caregiver, what are some tactics that worked well?
  • If you’re new to caregiving, can you try to take people up on their offer to help? Think of something very specific they could do for you and ask them to do that one thing.
  • Do you know of someone who had a great caregiver? If you needed one yourself, what qualities about that person made them so memorable? 

Up next in this I talk about death…at Indiana Estate & Elder Law we call this process death administration. What’s that? It’s the process of closing out someone’s life after they die. Everything from a funeral to an estate plan execution and all the messy stuff in-between.

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