I’ve skipped over an important event from this summer because I was too conflicted about how I handled it at the time, and was not sure what to say about it. But family members deserve to hear how it turned out, and I expect the dilemma will resonate with other caregivers, so here goes.
The major event on the summer’s agenda was visiting J’s family in Albany, a good 6 hour drive from us. We’ve done this other years – one son and his family come from overseas, and we all meet at the summer cottage of the other son and his family. It’s a really nice setting for visiting, with summer-cottage activities to enjoy with each other.
But several weeks out from the planned travel date, J was starting to stress about it – worrying if she would remember people’s names or important information about them, worrying about the travel itself, worrying a lot about her health, and just generally obsessing. At the same time, I am starting to wonder how to handle this, in two different respects: 1) how do I best console and calm her worries, and 2) what is my responsibility to her family members?
As her worry continued, mine began to ramp up, and soon we were unconsciously ricocheting off each other – a dynamic I have written about in the last three blog entries. My stress came from feeling responsible to get her to Albany – and from not knowing how much of her stress was “real” and how much would more or less dissolve when the time came to make the trip. It’s not uncommon for her to be quite stressed about travel, but half the times she has rallied and we are able to complete whatever we planned once the day arrives. The other half of the times, the trip gets scuttled altogether.
Well. I dithered and stressed, the days went on, and I kept waiting for enlightenment or some spontaneous relief of J’s worry. Then we were on the eve of the trip. Both of us by now were in a bad way, not sleeping well, not communicating well (as well as people can who are dealing with Alzheimer disease), frustrated, run down and basically flailing around in our distress.
I asked J one more time what she wanted to do, and she declared firmly that she could not make the trip. In former times, she would have been the one to negotiate this change in plans – as a second marriage for both of us, we had customarily each handled the relationships with our own extended families – but now it has become up to me. I was totally drained and upset, and in no shape to competently host the families here, which was the thoughtful and sensible alternative. It would have been much more thoughtful and sensible to have initiated that alternative well in advance, but I was not thinking well at all.
Being in the middle of many people’s plans and needs and interests is never my favorite place. But this was feeling like a perfect storm – I could see no resolution that would accommodate everyone’s needs.
But after breaking this news to the family, what unfolded was amazing. The sons and families offered to drive out for the day – meet us for lunch, spend a few hours visiting with Joyce, and drive back! This is an unbelievable amount of driving – but they assured me that with several drivers they could safely pull it off. And they did. I am beyond grateful for that solution.
And another good thing that came of all this – I woke up about the connection between J’s anxiety and mine, and the necessity to learn new ways of responding when she is stressed. It’s meant taking a step back, becoming somewhat detached, and staying warm and pleasant rather than engaging her around my own stress or hurt. This is weird, and hard, after over 20 years of close reciprocal relationship. But it has paid off – things have been progressively more calm in the last 3 months, as I learn how to respond better.
So, thanks to our incredible family members, who drastically redrafted long-laid plans to help us out of a really difficult bind. And thanks for tolerating my long, slow learning curve.