Finally getting away, alone, with my husband of 14 months I reflect on our whirlwind year. I am catching my breath as we sit down for a nearly five-hour flight, sinking back into the airplane seat and smiling. The flight attendant hands out some documents to fill out before we enter Costa Rica, and I decide I might as well get this out of the way so I can just relax. As I fill out the document, I freeze, then simultaneously experience a full head to toe hot flash that leaves me panting, and I can’t figure out what to do to alleviate the cold/hot reaction that is playing havoc with my body. “List your occupation,” the document reads.
For the past 33 years, this has been easy: Broadcast Journalist. But eight months ago, everything changed. I left a vibrant morning news anchor position in Houston, TX to return to Denver, CO and set up house with my new husband, whatever kids in our blended family wanted to join us, and…oh yes…my parents. I’m the oldest of six siblings, and a daughter to boot, and my father is in middle stage Alzheimer’s. My mother, bless her heart, watches over him every single minute…but the last thing she wanted was to be separated from her husband of 54 years. Aside from the devastating toll of Alzheimer’s disease, which has taken away much of my father’s ability to find his way, anywhere, his health is good. My mother’s health is strong, too. But they can no longer take care of the broader, basic elements of life. So when my husband said, “Honey, why don’t we have them live with us, in our basement?” My response was, “Fine, we can make this work.” Our decision also put us in another category, the ‘sandwich generation,’ as our youngest in the home is finishing up his senior year of high school. I’m fairly matter of fact about life and change; let’s just say I’ve had lots of practice.
So…how was I to know this change would have my head spinning, and hot flashes in high gear, as I stared at the document to enter Costa Rica that asks me to “list your occupation.” I would love to tell you that my profession doesn’t define me, and I would be lying. That’s what hit me with a ton of bricks as I stared at the empty category, wondering “Who have I become?” You see, as soon as everyone was settled in our home last summer, I launched ‘Angels with Shoes,’ a website that shares online stories of people who make a difference in the lives of others. I’m not known for sitting still, and I was determined to explore what it would be like to chart my own path and fill this site with video, audio and written stories connecting givers and receivers. But, I paused again, is this website my occupation? Web host? Blogger? Storyteller? Writer? What about how I frame my day around doctor’s appointments, croquet, grocery shopping, haircuts, laundry…all involving my parents? Am I…a…caregiver? Me? Couldn’t I, shouldn’t I, hire someone else to do that? After all, I have 33 years in broadcasting under my belt…should I not be contributing to society in this way? My oldest son even remarked to me last week, “Mom, you never stayed home with us when we were young, and now you’re staying home with your parents.” No, I didn’t stay at home with my boys, how many discussions did I have over that issue with friends who made that decision? But the truth is, I never could have gone back to work after each of my sons was born if it wasn’t for my parents. They came to live in a flat underneath ours in San Francisco, and took care of each of the boys, while I worked. So now…it seems like I’m living on the other side of the circle…where I am staying home to take care of them.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to write down ‘caregiver’ in the category that remained blank and now seemed to take up the whole page. Only minutes into this alone time with my husband and I was wrestling with an issue that would begin to gel and form over the coming weeks. Had we known any of this when we booked our hotel on Lake Arenal…in view of the Arenal Volcano… one of the last active volcanoes in Costa Rica?
“Writer,” I list my occupation, then stuff the document in my passport and close my eyes. But sleep wouldn’t come easily. I had now tapped into a piece of myself that I could not put back into place. With eyes wide open I created a massive shift in how I live my life, and until that document asked me to list my occupation, I hadn’t realized how deeply I identified with my old self, and really had no idea what to do with my new self. Am I a caregiver? Yes. But it’s hard to get those words out.
(to be continued…)
I am not alone. At this very moment, there are more than 15 million of us caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s…and according to the Alzheimer’s Association…combined we provide 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Who are we? I’m trying to figure that out…and this is the first in a series of posts I’m writing as I explore the life changes I’m encountering embarking on an unexpected journey.