In 2013 the first edition of What to Do about Mama? was published by Sunbury Press. My idea to write a book about caregiving was initiated by my experience as a caregiver for my mother-in-law. After my caregiving role ended, I remember thinking, “I could write a book!” I think many of us have a thought like that one time or another. But in this case, I did—along with my co-author and some three dozen other caregivers. In all honesty, my thought was that others might benefit from the real-life information we had to share.
And maybe it has. My daughter-in-law was pleased to tell me that her aunt is reading the book (the second edition published in 2019), “loves it,” and “wishes she had read it before she was a caregiver.” That is a typical response to caregiving books. Why? Because most people avoid thinking or talking about caregiving as a means of denying the day will come. I will think about it “when I need it” becomes “dealing with it in the crisis moment.”
This is a topic I have addressed—a lot—along with some other What to Do about Mama? ‘s main themes, such as family relationships and shared responsibility; the emotional impact of caregiving; and avoiding the burden of caregiving by planning and preparing ahead. (Check out the Index of Blog Posts on the menu bar.)
Caregiving had a profound influence on my life. It impacted my health, my relationships, and my outlook on the future. If you subdivide the population into young, middle-aged, and old, my peers—family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances—fall into the latter group, whether admitted or not. Sure, there are many subgroups based on attitudes and physical condition, but still, we fall into the category of “old.”
- I say this because reports of illness and death are more frequent.
- I say this because I know that no matter how much effort we make to stay young, fit, and sound, we cannot change the inevitable.
- I say this because of the number of times I look at my peers and feel the urge to shout, “Watch out!” as if they are ready to step in front of an oncoming unseen car. Even those who are health care professionals and social workers. Because avoidance and denial are common to all of us.
By now you may be wondering why I have chosen to write about this topic. It is because I want to tell you that I am initiating a moratorium from this What to Do about Mama? WordPress blog, as well as the on the monthly What to Do about Mama? newsletter.
My husband, who worked in the steel industry for 48 years, retired in September. Although I love to write, it is, for me, a painstakingly slow process keeping me at the computer for many hours. That was fine when he was working, and even better during COVID’s pre-vaccination days. But now, I need to free myself from the tether. I’m leaving my options open so that I will have the ability to communicate via these channels again when so moved to do so. But it certainly won’t be on a regular basis.
There are still a couple of initiatives in the works. One is a What to Do about Mama? audiobook. The other is a collaborative book project I have been working on for the past five years with a former student. Although it was initially accepted for publishing, there are legal ramifications that need to be worked out that put that eventuality into question. Although not a book about caregiving, I will let my followers know if the project comes to fruition.
Caregiving as a shared responsibility is a main theme of my book, What to Do about Mama? It is also the theme of Pamela Wilson’s Caring Generation November 24, 2021, podcast: Why Won’t My Family Help Me – The Caring Generation® by Pamela Wilson
As is my general pattern, I will share those features of my caregiving experience that relate to Pamela podcast by using excerpts from What to Do about Mama?
I met my husband in 1966 on our first day at college. The first thing I learned about him was that he came from a military family and that his dad, mom, brother, and two sisters were all still living in Germany.
I met David’s family the following summer when they returned to the States, and I was thrilled to be included in their family life. My own family had sort of disintegrated after my father passed away a few years earlier. I always felt cared for and included by David’s family, and that did not change after we married.What to Do about Mama? p. 7
From the beginning, I considered my husband’s family to be my family—like I was a daughter and a sister rather than a daughter-in-law or sister-in-law. I experienced the family’s “life events” from that perspective, too.
In 1994, my father-in-law passed away suddenly in his sleep one night. He died in a way that many of us would “like to go.” Later, my mother-in-law told me she was not only surprised when she awoke to find him still in bed at eight o’clock in the morning, but she was shocked when she nudged him and he did not respond. This expression of emotion was more than she generally displayed. My in-laws lived in Florida, where they had moved in 1971. It was unusual for them to live in one place for so long, since Dad had been in the military for thirty years. Mom did not drive, and David and I extended an open invitation for her to live in our hometown.What to Do about Mama? p. 8
The time came when the family felt that Mom was no longer safe living alone in Florida, it was just a matter of course that she would live near us.
The general consensus was that if Mom would agree to the move, our hometown was probably the best choice because of the proximity of family members. In addition to David and me, our three grown children lived in the area, as well as one of Shelley’s sons. Shelley and Sandy each lived about two hours away, and it was expected that Scott could fly in easily. We anticipated that they would all make frequent visits.What to Do about Mama? p. 9
After a couple of years, my mother-in-law’s health began to decline significantly. At the time, I was working as an Assessor at the Area Agency on Aging. My job impacted my attitude about caregiving in a number of ways. First of all, I felt that my career experience had uniquely qualified me to be a caregiver. Secondly, I was influenced by many of the caregivers I had observed on my job.
*Families that had attached in-law quarters—close but separate—appeared to me to fare better. *Caregivers demonstrate love and appreciation through the sacrifices that they make. I was moved to tears by a gentleman who had “retired” early to care for his mother with advanced dementia. He told me, “Miss Barb, my mother does not know who I am. But at night, when we sit on the couch watching TV with my arm around her and her head on my shoulder, it is all worthwhile.”What to Do about Mama? p. 39
I was gratified to be able to “give back” to a family that had given so much to me.
I had the opportunity to demonstrate to my mother-inlaw and siblings-in-law my appreciation for being a part of their family since I was eighteen years old. I was also able to show thanks to my parents-in-law for providing support in our times of need. Most of all, I was able to show gratitude for their assistance and encouragement in helping to provide our children with their college educations. This was to be my gift to my all of my in-laws.What to Do about Mama? p. 35
So, my mother-in-law moved in with us and I quit my job to be her fulltime caregiver. The arrangement lasted for four years—the first two were good—the last two were not. It had been my expectation that my husband’s family would pull together like another family I had the pleasure of observing.
*I remember one snowy day driving down a gravel driveway to an old family homestead and being surprised that all five children took the time to come to the assessment for their mother to receive services.What to Do about Mama? p. 223
*One thing that becomes very clear from our reading of the caregiver responses and the stories in this book is that caregiving has a profound impact on family relationships. If your family unit has always been strong and you all pull together to meet this challenge, your relationship will probably grow even stronger from sharing responsibilities and supporting one another through the experience.
But ultimately, this was not the outcome of our caregiving arrangement.
Despite a good multi-decade relationship, the difference in our family cultures and its impact on who we were as people was just too vast. Once the trouble began, interaction among all parties became increasingly difficult, and then impossible. That was the quicksand I never saw in my path.What to Do about Mama? p. 40
Click on the following link to listen to Pamela Wilson’s Podcast about the five reasons why families won’t help. Why Won’t My Family Help Me – The Caring Generation® (pameladwilson.com)
Five reasons why family won’t help:
- If your family members are not caregivers, they may not understand what you do all day.
Understanding the responsibilities of any job—caregiving included—requires an understanding of the job responsibilities. It involves experiences hands-on practical tasks under the type of emotional stress many caregivers experience. Everyone involved needs to learn that there is a big a difference between help that helps and help that creates more work for you. Oftentimes family members who are not caregivers stand on the sidelines giving advice or directing the caregiver what to do, which is generally not appreciated. Good caregiver communication is the key to overcoming these challenges, but there are no guarantees that all parties will be proficient at communicating.
- Dealing With Critical Family Members.
Family members can be judgmental and refuse to help when you don’t do things “their” way, which they consider to be the “right” way. They may then choose not to be involved. To cope with your critics, try not to take the criticism personally with the understanding that that there is usually a deeper reason for their response that has nothing to do with you. (For example, guilt at not stepping up like you.) Choose how you respond be aware that there is the potential for this negative event to be an unforeseen positive.
- Differing belief systems.
Changing beliefs is as difficult as changing habits. Some families believe that family takes care of family regardless of the situation, others do not. Even withing the same family, there are factors from childhood that have an impact you don’t know about. (Sibling rivalry is a good example that comes to mind.)
- Family interactions with caregiver.
What is your history? Have you let others down? Broken commitments? Been unreliable or untrustworthy? Hard feelings can be harbored for years. The intentions of caregiving siblings may be met with suspicion. Both past parent-child relationships and sibling relationships impact the type of care aging parents receive, and current belief systems have influence as well. Family beliefs can conflict with the family working as a team. It is most common that one caregiver bears most of the responsibility for an aging parent.
- Family May Not Help Due to Life Situations or Timing
Different siblings may be in different life stages. You may need to give the wake-up call you can no longer be the caregiver before other siblings to step up. Since you’ve been managing point your sibling may hesitate to upset the status quo. If that’s the case, it’s up to you not to let a lack of family support place your life on hold. (Be prepared for your relationship to be permanently changed.)