November is National Caregiving Month! Is taking on the duties of caregiving for a loved one in your future? Being a caregiver comes with a lot of responsibilities and hardships, but can also be full of rewards as told by Mary Hendrix.
Mary Hendrix’s journey to being her father’s main caregiver happened gradually. Her mother passed away in 2001, and soon she started spending more time with her father, who had become lonely on his farm.
Mary made regular visits and eventually moved in to care for him full time. Her oldest daughter lived on the farm and her brother and his family lived next door, but they were all busy working. The home soon became a multi-generational home, as she started to care for her young nieces at the same time she cared for her father, which helped in his caretaking in the final years.
It’s been four years since her father passed, and Mary’s glad she helped him stay on his Kansas farm those final years.
Here, she shares her caregiving experience.
Can you share how having a multigenerational household worked?
“It worked out that I could take care of my young nieces and take care of my dad all at the same time. They were part of grandpa’s caretaking.
I would feed the girls and grandpa at the same time in the morning. Sometimes he didn’t want to get up, and they would go in his room and say, ‘It’s time to get up, Grandpa.’
The girls always wanted to help, so one would carry his water and the other his juice in the morning. My dad liked to sit at the kitchen table, and the girls [would] draw and color or play dolls at the table. I am sure that was entertaining to him. He didn’t even mind watching cartoons with them. It was a help to me, as I could get meals and clean. When he became obstinate about not eating, my young niece would say, ‘Grandpa, you have to eat.’ Needless to say, it often did the trick.”
What was the most rewarding aspect of caring for your father?
“The fact he didn’t have to go to a nursing home. He was a farmer at heart and wanted to be out here where everything was going on. That was the thing I felt most satisfied about – that I could help him do that.
He loved to be outside and loved to work. By letting him stay on the farm, he could see the equipment being used and the crops growing and still feel like he was part of the farm that he spent his life developing.
He loved to watch people and when we went to town for doctor appointments, he would want to sit in the car while I did the shopping – sometimes I took longer just to give him time to enjoy the sights or the occasional acquaintance stopping by to say, ‘Hello.’
It was rewarding for me to see how hard my dad worked to keep going and accept the conditions when health issues arose. Overall, his end of life experience was one similar to his life, full of people, nature and farming – my satisfaction was giving him this experience.
The day he approached his sunset, my nieces played on his bed, as natural as the times before. He went to bed just 50 feet from where he was born, surrounded by people.”
What were the biggest challenges?
“I’m not a nurse. I had to learn to help him get dressed, manage infections, and things like that. They were things I wasn’t very comfortable doing, and it was hard for me to help my dad and not easy for him to accept help from me. I just knew we had to do it, so I took a deep breath and did whatever needed to be done.
I constantly brainstormed with my daughter ideas to make him more comfortable and ways to save time, like planning meals ahead, rearranging his room, buying a new chair, finding TV headphones so he could hear the TV without making us lose our hearing!
He loved to be outside, but during the cold of winter, it was hard to find a place for him. We came up with the plan to buy a tent that would sit by the house so he could get in and out easily. We would leave it open so he could see out, and then put in a heater for cold days. It worked. He would go in and out and have that independence to do it on his own. The last year, he consented to stay on the back porch and look out the windows, as it was warmer in the winter.
Having another person to rely on made all the difference. I split up days and nights with my daughter to ensure neither of us got too tired. But there were difficult days when we cried because we were tired, laughed at what we had to deal with and learned to love more deeply. We always encouraged one another.”
Did your family have a caregiving plan in advance?
“We never had a plan for his caregiving needs; it just evolved. My dad’s needs were always first.”
“We struggled by ourselves for a while before finding home help. My dad developed a medical condition that was not life threatening, but it qualified him for home health. “When we were able to have certified nursing assistants come to the home, they were wonderful. Their knowledgeable, positive encouragement was helpful as we battled infections, pneumonia or any medical issue.
The nurses got us connected with a home aid, who would come out to help him take a bath. That was a big help because we’d been struggling through that. He didn’t want his daughters to help with that.
Initially, we felt at a loss for how to handle these situations. We had to have some difficult conversations with my dad because bathing meant giving up some independence. I wish I could say all those conversations were calm!
One of the things you discover during caregiving is that you become the parent. There were times when I felt like I was talking to a 14-year-old about wearing deodorant – not something in my comfort zone with my own dad. But I was committed to keeping him at home and, in the end, you do what you have to.
I would recommend hiring a certified nursing assistant to come to the home if you can. They can do amazing things to motivate an older person, and they will always do something for someone else. Additionally, they know best practices. They taught us how to help him out of bed, pick him up from a fall and make his food easier to eat. They made us feel like we had a team to work with. We learned to make changes gradually, be consistent with your routine and give more reminders than you can imagine you should.”
How did you take care of yourself during this time?
“I would do art work early in the morning, or get the chickens out before everyone was up.
I love my artwork, so I always had a little art room. I started doing watercolors during that time because it was something I could shut down easily. That became my bit of free time.
Today, people visit our house and wander through vast gardens of flowers and vegetables, [and into] the art room. They wonder when I ever had so much time to devote to these tasks. For so many years, I found ways to carve out time for myself amongst the daily chores of caregiving. The garden, the chickens and the art provided an outlet for me, so we could give more and endure the seasons of life.”
How can family and friends help?
“I think what helped make our caregiving experience a success was that we had a team. We relied on family, our friends from home health, my dad’s personal doctors, neighbors to bring good cheer, coffee and more.
You also need time for yourself. Developing hobbies close to home and actively asking people to come and visit can provide a break to recharge one’s batteries. Having faith and seeking time to reflect on your experiences is important. You can fall into a trap as a caregiver of feeling as though you are the only one who can be there. Caregivers have to be healthy too, and you deserve time for yourself. Sometimes, you just have to [be] creative about how to get it and patient that you will get it!
There are so many people out there having the same experiences. Don’t be afraid to ask others how they handled a difficult situation. Some of our best ideas came from seeing an old friend at the grocery store and asking questions: ‘Do you know about this?’ Someone is always willing to share and set you on a path to figuring it out for yourself.”