November 2011. — That is a month and year that will be impossible for me to forget because it altered my life so dramatically. One morning I got to my parents’ house and Dad couldn’t get dressed and his speech was slurred. Turns out, he had been having similar symptoms since the day before.
I had been there the day before. I was an EMT. I should have noticed that he’d had a stroke. Since it was too late to bust the clots and reverse the damage, the symptoms only got worse over the next week in the hospital. By the time he came home two weeks later, he couldn’t walk or talk, but at least he was alive.
The Stroke Wiped Out Our Health Insurance
My dad went from being a small business owner to unemployed overnight and had no health insurance. The lives of my dad, my mom, and myself changed forever.
I was two months into a new job teaching high school, having just finished my master’s degree. The job of first year teachers is demanding, but I made the decision to move back home to help my mom care for dad. At least there would be two of us. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard.
I was wrong.
Right away I was hit by the emotions of watching my father, a strong-willed, intelligent man, reduced to a hospital bed and needing someone to feed him. He couldn’t talk to us, but his eyes said it all. He was scared and helpless.
There was nothing I could do for him.
The Stroke Required a Sudden Adjustment
I cried, not because it was a burden, but because my hero was hurt.
These are not things you plan on as you grow up. Most people plan on starting careers and families of their own. Nobody ever factors their parent’s possible medical emergencies into their plans, especially not as young as my dad was at the time. He was only fifty-four years old.
I had been an EMT for nine years, and still was at the time of the stroke, but that did not prepare me for around the clock medical care. It didn’t get me ready for having to feed my dad and having to clean him after he had to use the restroom in the bed. This is the man who taught me how to play baseball. The same one that had just stood at my graduation. Now all he could do is watch whatever movie I put on for him.
The money for physical therapy ran out quickly, as it does when you have no insurance. So, my mother and I learned how to rehabilitate him on our own. We learned the techniques the therapists used to help him walk again. We researched the vocal exercises so we could help him regain his speech.
Slowly but surely, he began to regain mobility and he began speaking, though it was very slurred at first. The hard thing for him was that his mind was clear, but his body wouldn’t do what he wanted it to do. But it got better.
Can You Prepare?
There is no planning for situations like this. They happen suddenly. One day you are living the life you planned on, and the next you are a caregiver. There is no harder job.
Caregiver burnout is real, and it sneaks up on you. When you first start the process of caregiving, you are full of energy. Your mind and body are up to the task.
Then your body gets tired. Many people, after a stroke or other major medical incident, lose track of time. For you it is the middle of the night. For them, they aren’t really sure. It is not uncommon to hear them calling for you at 2 or 3 in the morning.
You have patience for a while, a few weeks, maybe for a month or more. But you get tired.
Then your emotions catch up to you. You haven’t slept well in a while, and you have had no time to do anything for yourself. No going to the movies. No sitting at a coffee shop. If you work, you come home and take over caregiving from someone else. In my case, I took over from my mom. I woke up at 4:30 every morning, went to work, and got home around 5:30 in the afternoon. I cooked, helped feed my dad, and collapsed in my bed at some point. Next thing I knew the alarm was going off. Time to start it all again.
Forgive Your Loved One and Yourself
You will inevitably get angry at the person you’re caring for. You may sense feelings of resentment begin to creep into your mind. When they call for you, you may find yourself wanting to yell at them to shut up. I understand. I was there. It’s okay to get mad, but don’t let them see it. Remember, they are at the lowest point of their lives and it’s not their fault. In speaking with my dad since, a big part of his depression at the time was knowing how much his stroke affected my mom and me.
Trust me, the person you are caring for feels bad, too.
Find support groups for caregivers in your area, and use resources that are available to help you find ways to stay financially stable. One thing that I quickly learned that my dad had been handling everything financially for the household. Once he lost his job, things got rough. Add that to the fact that bills were coming in left and right. My parents’ financial lives became chaotic very quickly.
Know that you can find wonderful support online and through support groups. The National Stroke Association is one. The American Heart/American Stroke Association is another.
You are not alone.
Kristen Heller is a passionate writer, teacher, and former EMT. She finds great joy in being able to share her experiences of being a caregiver with others. When free time presents itself, you can find her tackling her lifelong goal of learning the piano.