Saturday, August 22, 2015

Only One

We all remember the story Jesus told of the Good Shepherd who was willing to leave 99 sheep safe in the fold while He searched for the one who was missing. I’ve always felt kinship to that story because most of my life’s ministries have been to just one person at a time.

My children are 7 years apart in age so that I’ve joked that I essentially raised two “onlys.”   The most effective portion of my teaching career consisted of individualized interventions for troubled readers. And when I’ve taught Sunday school over the years – well, let’s just say I’ve never drawn a crowd. Many Sundays I’ve presented my carefully prepared lessons to just one or two students. 

My books are not best sellers; they average just one sale a week at Amazon. And the past eleven years I’ve taken care of just one little old lady, my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. 

Through this lifetime of service to “ones,” the Lord has taught me that He views success very differently than we do.  We look at quarterly gains, area covered, and dollars earned, and if the numbers are pleasing we call ourselves successful.  But in God’s economy, individual lives are of inestimable worth.  

My friend, Abby, over at Little Birdie Blessings, recently posted a link to this blog on her Facebook page (Abby’s blog is beautiful and encouraging, check it out). The quote she shared reached thousands of people, and one lady—just one—said that my blog had been helpful to her on that day. I just smiled because I realized that this woman is so precious to the Lord that it was not too much for Him to spur me to write the helpful blog post and then touch Abby’s willing heart to share it, all so that this one woman who is so precious to our Lord could be helped. 

God doesn’t count success as we do.  The very young and the very old are neglected members of our society; these vulnerable lives are so easily overlooked. They can’t take care of themselves and so God calls us to be vessels for His tender care. When we offer our hands and hearts to the Lord in service to just one person in need, we are pleasing to Him. 

Caregiving and parenting are difficult assignments and often frustrating, but we can put to rest any thought that we aren’t accomplishing very much in this world when the needs of just one person keep us busy. In God’s eyes, that one individual is of great worth, and we are following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd when we spend ourselves on behalf of just one.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Find a Little Respite

Caregivers need respite, and by that I mean time away from the responsibilities of caregiving. My favorite form of getting away from it all is not very exciting, but is rejuvenating for me; I putter around our farm taking photos as I go. I find that the beauty of God's creation refreshes my spirit.

I urge each of you to find your own respite and invite you to share a bit of mine over at my other blog today: At Home in Karola, Kansas. You'll find my other form of respite there too, because the imaginary town of Karola is the setting of my novel, The Children Are Tender.  I had so much fun writing this book! The work was all-encompassing so that during the hours I spent creating the characters of Karola, I was given a vacation from the stresses of my caregiving responsibilities.

These two activities--writing and spending time outdoors, have saved my sanity during my eleven years of caregiving. I believe that creative endeavors such as writing, quilting, painting, knitting and crocheting, etc. are wonderful respite activities, and I also think that fresh air and exercise are especially important to the well being of folks who are enduring stress. 

Here's a prayer that caregivers who read this post are able to find their own happy combination of creative activities plus time spent appreciating the beauty of nature so that caregiving responsibilities don't overwhelm. 


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Father, Forgive Them

Anger isn't a constant state for my Alzheimer's mom; much, even most of the time she is pleasant and quiet. But during her restless times, most often in the late afternoons, she lashes out.

In her anger she feels I am not meeting her needs properly, and she becomes vindictive, trying to think of things she can do or say that will upset me. The anger itself becomes a separate entity that can't be reasoned with. It is no good to point out her pleasant surroundings and the large chart on her door that lists her schedule. It doesn't help to tell her that I'm in her room a minimum of eight times a day, seeing that her needs are met. In these moods she doesn't want explanations, she wants a target. She can't explain why she is so viciously angry, but she is very good at voicing the anger. 

I'm just heart weary.  She surprised me last night by mocking the way I laughed at some little joke my husband made about our silly but sweet yellow lab as we walked with Mom around the driveway, and for some reason this particularly hurt my feelings. I've sometimes felt self-conscious about the way I laugh.  Mom followed her scorn of my laughter with these words:  "My knee hurts, does that make you happy Linda? You like seeing me suffer don't you? Someday you will have to pay for this, the Lord is taking notes of this."

I replied, "Ohhh Mama, you'd better hope He isn't." 

But you know I've wondered about this. In someone who doesn't have Alzheimer's, Mom's behavior would be labeled "sin." Isn't she getting herself into deep trouble with the Lord?

When I brought this issue before the Lord, I instantly thought of Jesus' words regarding the people who tortured and killed him: "Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).

Well...if ever there was someone who doesn't know what she is doing, I'm sure it would be a 91 year old woman who's had Alzheimer's disease for eleven years.  I felt so betrayed when Mom, angered because I hadn't answered her phone call requesting saltines to go with her coke, called 911 and reported elder abuse...but how much deeper was the suffering that the the betrayal by His own people inflicted upon Jesus.

And then I remembered another verse that says whatever we bind on earth is bound in Heaven (Matthew 18:18).

If I refuse to forgive Mom, I hurt not only myself, I hurt her by deepening her sin before the Lord.  If I refuse to pray, with our Savior, "Lord forgive her, she doesn't know what she is doing," then I make it more likely that Mom will remain bound by her own sin even as I allow the crippling effects of unforgiveness to take root in my own life.

"But Lord," I prayed, "She has broken my heart."

In response this thought came: "No, she has not. Your heart is safe in My hands."

Unforgiveness binds us to the ones who hurt us; in a way, it puts us at their mercy. The Bible instructs us to respond to bad treatment with love, and to pray for the ones who persecute us.

These are not happy lessons to learn at the hands of the woman who once adored me and would have been willing to give her own life for mine. The sense of betrayal runs deep. But I'm praying for grace to forgive my mother even as God has forgiven me for my many sins, and to release her from accountability for the wrongs she's dealt me.  If you've also been treated unjustly, perhaps you'd like to pray with me:

Father, we release our loved ones from accountability for the sins they've committed against us. We know You love us and take action against those who hurt us, and so we release them from our blame and any divine rule that would require Your vindication on our behalf. We lift these, our beloved enemies, to You, and we pray: Father, forgive them, they don't understand what they are doing. In Jesus' name, amen.

Comforting Scripture for Caregivers:  

But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” 
 Isaiah 49:4

...God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:26


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Depression's Rx in Two Classic Hymns

This post addresses Christian coping techniques for the reactive depression of dealing with a sad or traumatic life event. It does not address major (clinical) depression.

 Depression is a lurking stumbling block for people who care for loved ones with terminal illnesses.  When a devastating diagnosis is handed down, most of us run like champions out of the gate. The first leg of a caregiving journey has a temporary feel; at first we have no trouble pushing our own  hopes and conveniences aside for the sake of our dear ones who need us.

But after awhile, when the shock has passed and the daily burdens seem heavy, we may become a little bit like Smee. Does anyone remember the character of Smee, Captain Hook's second in command in the film Hook (starring Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman)?  There is a scene in which Smee, who has endured an entire career of enforced service to Hook, has an opportunity to grab some gold and make a run for it. He gives into his darker nature and pays for his treachery, but I'll always remember his Waterloo moment as he said, "What about Smee?  What about ME?"  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1H6wOq75Ow 

I confess that these past few months I've struggled with intermittent episodes of depression punctuated by plaintive cries of "What about MEEE??"

I won't detail my lengthy and self pitying prayers as I outlined for the Lord my sorrow over the loss of the good but thwarted hopes and dreams I'd harbored for these past few years of my life, the years I've spent taking care of Mom instead. But do let me share with you the sweetness of the understanding He provided:

When we pray the salvation prayer, asking forgiveness for the humiliating sins we have been unable to conquer in our own strength, the transaction is completed when we give our lives to Him. The simple prayer that brings the cleansing purchased for us by the Blood of Christ also guarantees the incomprehensibly great gift of eternal life. From that moment, our Lord begins to gently remove the scales from our eyes so that we understand the truth of our situation here on Planet Earth: our lives here are heartbreakingly short. No matter how wealthy or powerful we are, we can't avoid suffering and death. Our only hope lies in throwing in our lot with the God who loved us enough to die for us so that we can live forever with Him. We are not our own, we belong to Him, we were bought with a price, and how He chooses for us to spend our time here is up to Him and not us.

Sometimes we don't even get a vote. This isn't unfair, what would be really unfair is for the Almighty God to go through what He endured for us, and then have us stomp our little feet and say, "I want MY way according to what my pea-sized brain can perceive right NOW. "  If we think about it even for a moment we quickly realize we do not want to dismiss the knowledge and wisdom of the plans of the God who loves us perfectly in favor of our own limited understanding.

It isn't as though He ignores our needs and desires; but when we are in grief over the death of our own dreams, we are blinded to the blessings He's provided. I found a blessed lifting of the sadness that has weighted me the past few months when I finally prayed the prayer that author Jan Karon calls, "The prayer that never fails."  If you are familiar with Karon's Mitford series, you know that prayer is "Thy will be done."   

As my depression began to lift it occurred to me that my secret to feeling better has been a sincere willingness to say, Have Thine Own Way, Lord along with the resultant ability to Count Your Blessings; wisdom epitomized in the two classic hymns of the same titles (if you have time, spend a little while praising the Lord as you read the lyrics to these precious songs--just click on the titles to navigate to The CyberHymnal).

Here are a few of the things I praised God for this morning, along with my prayer that your eyes are opened to your own blessings today.  Hugs and prayers, Linda

The view from my front porch. Locusts singing, birds calling, the air flower-scented; I ask you, how was I able to sink into self-focused sorrow with this outside my door?

Loyalty, love, and goofiness all in one pretty boy. 

The rosebush my kids gave me for Mother's Day 3 years ago. It's now over 6 feet tall and even wider than that. The name of the rose is "Dick Clark;" it was issued in his honor the year he died. That's one of its blossoms in the blog header above. Love it...and those precious grown up children of mine who gifted it to me.




Sunday, July 19, 2015

Rest

I don't have energy.

Mornings aren't too bad, but then I am exhausted in the afternoons.

I don't sleep very well.

When I come to the Lord in prayer I continually feel He is saying, "Rest, Child, rest."

Last spring I had a series of viruses and a terrible strep infection, and so at first I assumed my need for rest was from a physical ill. But that was nearly three months ago!  And so tonight I asked, "Why do I need all this rest, Lord?"

I'd no sooner formulated the question than understanding flooded my mind: I have vastly underestimated the weight of the burden I carry for my mother. I am exhausted by my responsibilities to her, depleted by the emotional roller coaster of her verbal abuse alternating with sweet expressions of kindness, and weighted by the grief of what I've lost along with dread of the further difficulties I'll have to face between now and the time my mother's Alzehimer's journey is finally done. I believe that once Mom is gone, my energy will return, but how terrible to know that the doorway to renewal passes through the valley of the shadow of death.

After an eleven year Alzheimer journey (we had paced ourselves for a predicted three year stint) I am  beyond discomfort over the thought of eulogies and choosing an outfit for the deceased to wear; I have rehearsed these things so often that I believe I will handle my responsibilities with aplomb. But my heart, dear Lord, my heart.  I am so weary.  This morning I prayed for a little sign of encouragement, but if the Lord has placed it before me, I haven't recognized it.

As I prayed about all of this, snippets of Scripture began coming to mind...pressed but not crushed...though they stumble they will not fall, for God will help them at break of day...no fear in love... 

 I've just clicked through to Biblegateway to find the references for each of these verses and lo and behold, here is my encouragement...the verse of the day at Biblegateway's home page is my life verse, Isaiah 41:10: "So do not fear for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand"(Isaiah 41:10 NIV).  

Tonight I'm really appreciating the Lord's promise to hold me up.

Fellow caregivers, don't underestimate the energy draining effects of the burdens you carry for your loved ones. Even if the physical labor is not intense, the emotional burden can affect you in ways you may not recognize. We have arranged for Mom to go to adult daycare at an area nursing home one day a week so that I can have another day away each week--I do grocery shopping and run errands on Thursdays when a local church lady spends the day with my mom, but I never take a day just for myself--I'll report back here to let you know whether it helps!

Here are ideas for finding options for respite care (remember, "respite" is support provided to the caregiver--for example, our respite care lady cleans my kitchen and bathrooms once a week as well as spending time with my mom):
  • Your Area Council on Aging
  • Your state's Department for Aging
  • The Alzheimer Association's 24/7 helpline -- 1.800.272.3900
  • Alzheimer's is a terminal disease, so consider calling your local hospice to see whether there are services such as bathing and administration of medications available through them
  • Familiarize yourself with services covered by Medicare--here is the link for the official booklet about medicare home health services: Medicare Home Health
  • Your local church, friends, word of mouth--this has actually been our best support base over the years. I always say that the little lady who spends time with Mom each week has saved my life, and I found her through our church.  
Prioritize rest and don't be hard on yourself if you need an afternoon nap.  Naps have become a fact of my life the past few months, and I praise God for the time and circumstances that quite often allow me to indulge this need. The difficulty with many of us is that we allow that feeling of "ought to be accomplishing something" to rob us of rest the Lord would provide.  Remember, He gives to his beloved sleep...(Psalm 127:2 RSV).   

Praying for you and grateful for your prayers,

Linda

Monday, July 6, 2015

Insights into a Mind Damaged by Alzheimer's

Coffee stained section from Mom's journal.
Yesterday I was shocked when I read Mom's journal entries for the day. I felt appalled by the complete disconnect with reality; the brokenness of expression revealed the extent of the brain damage she's suffered. There was an almost frightening singsong, sometimes rhyming but nonsensical pattern to some of the words she'd written.  I suppose the brain shrinkage from Alzheimer's along with the plaques and tangles that destroy neural connections can cause symptoms similar to those suffered by the mentally ill. After several pages of disjointed, sometimes illegible entries, Mom ended with these heartrending words:
Where is she? Her ticket say MO
That is where her farm home is.
(Mom grew up on a farm in Missouri)
I realized that I've underestimated the degree to which Mom's thinking processes have been compromised, and because of this I've been unkind when I have only intended to spur her to do for herself what I thought she was still able to do. 

Because my mother has a pre-Alzeheimer's established habit of recording her thoughts in spiral notebooks, her journaling has helped me make a list of reminders for myself that may help other caregivers as well: 
1) Don't assume that our patients understand more than they do. Pay close attention to their responses, even (especially) those that seem at first to make no sense.   
2) Do respond with love and acceptance to irregular behaviors.
3) Don't respond according to the past rules of our relationships with our patients.  In the past it might have been appropriate to respond to our loved ones' seemingly unjustified hostility with self defense or logical argument, but now such responses are ineffective and even cruel in light of the patients' compromised ability to think clearly. 
4) Be willing to try one strategy after another until we find ways to communicate effectively. 
5) Don't assume too much.  Arm ourselves with knowledge about the brain damage of dementia and how it impacts behavior. 
6) Remember that although the mind is damaged, the heart remains intact. Our loved ones still need  kindness, expressions of love, hugs, and approval.  Our disapproval still has the power to hurt.  

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Integrity of a Heart That is His

Anger is a common symptom of patients who suffer traumatic brain injury. When the cause of damage to the brain is an accident, physicians and loved ones are saddened but not shocked by the patient's angry outbursts. However, when an Azheimer patient exhibits anger, we are less likely to draw a correlation between the person's disease and his/her behavior. There are several reasons for this; Alzheimer's often progresses so slowly that changes are gradual, and although we accept the forgetfulness of dementia, we sometimes don't think much about the changes in the brain that cause the memory loss. Alzheimer's patients may look and sound much the same as they always have, because most of the changes of the disease take place within the brain, out of line of our sight and understanding.

I want to share something that will sound a little (or a lot) silly because it is based on an emotional ignorance of the effects of the damage that has taken place in my mother's brain as the result of her Alzheimer's disease:  because of her outbursts of virulent anger, I've been concerned at times for her salvation. She has said such shocking things; such as "I'm thinking of ways I can make myself go to Hell." In her dark moods she is vindictive, and says negative things about the Lord. If her anger was directed only at me, I wouldn't have been overly concerned, but her negative words about our Lord have both shocked and frightened me. 

This isn't a case of worry about whether Mom has accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. For those who suffer fear for their loved ones who have never accepted Christ, the Lord has provided the comfort I recorded in an earlier post (September 18, 2010 "What if My Loved One Is Not Saved?"--be sure to read the comments as well as the main body of the post). My fear for Mom  wasn't over whether she had ever been saved, I knew she had; but her outrageous behaviors brought to mind various Biblical passages that talk about an unforgivable sin or losing what we have gained through Christ.

As I prayed for Mom a few nights ago, this thought came: Your mother is saved. Words spoken from the deceptions of a damaged brain do not taint the integrity of a heart that is Mine.  

I've written this post for those of you who have suffered similar feelings of unease about a loved one with dementia whose behaviors are sometimes shocking, sinful, and even might be categorized as evil.  My mother can't give herself over to evil, because long ago she gave her heart to Christ. Although her thinking has been compromised and her emotions sometimes run out of control because of the deceptions of her damaged brain, the Lord holds her heart safe in His hands. Be reassured that once we give our hearts to Jesus, we are not our own to give away.

Click HERE for the Alzheimer's Associations brain tour and a slide show about the changes that take place in the Alzheimer's-affected brain.