As a hospice volunteer over the years, I have been graced with meeting wonderful souls. Not only those who are in the final stages of life, but also caregivers, who without a thought, took time from work to feed their cherished husband a meal, simply read a book to their wife, or grab a cat nap in the chair next to their dying child’s bed.
One cannot plan a passing, you can only adapt to the situational challenges that arise, especially during the holiday season. One of the most difficult scenarios I’ve encountered, is when a loved one is in Hospice over the holidays, and the main caregiver can’t be there with them as much as they’d like.
The primary reason in my experience; they have to work to pay the surmounting bills. There is an enormous amount of stress as the caregiver is duly concerned with keeping a job, and having guilt about not being with a loved one. Add to that, the grief of impending, inevitable loss and also trying to make holiday plans with loved ones.
Whether you’re taking care of a family member at home, or visiting a relative in a nursing home or hospital – your work-life scenario is guaranteed to go through some changes. Striking any balance between taking care of a loved one, and taking care of business a job or your career, is a courageous quest which can be extremely frustrating.
One of the greatest concerns as a caregiver is that you’re not doing enough. Right behind that, is how your work-life merge is turning upside down in order to accomplish everything you need to do at home and in the workplace.
John the Fire Chief Says Take a Chill
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of volunteering with an incredible man who had been a beloved chief Fire Department chief. I’ll call him John. A tough cookie, he would rarely show a sensitive side. I spent nearly a year visiting him as much as I could. But it was starting to cut into my work load which was expanding with year-end projects as it was December.
Even after a 12 hour day working in the newsroom, I would feel compelled to rush to the nursing home. But in the days prior to his passing I had a business trip that was taking me out of the country. I agonized about this to the point of working full days, and spending an inordinate amount of time at the nursing home with John. My work suffered. I wanted to be there when he passed, and he knew that.
John’s wife remained by his side as much as she could, but also had to work. We got to the point where she and I were coordinating our visits, with friends of the family, so that John would always have someone familiar near by. But the journey was becoming more and more difficult for John’s wife, as they had lost much of their savings in the market crash and she had no choice at seventy years old but to continue working.
The evening before leaving on business, I went to see John at 9 pm which is rather late, but I knew I had to see him. Part of me wanted to cancel my trip, as I became totally attached to this elderly gentleman. Somehow, John knew this.
As I left for home that night, he was completely alert but could barely speak. He pulled me in close, and grabbed my hand with the tight grip of the fireman he was, and formed his lips as if to give a kiss. For the first time he had a tear in his eye, a smile on his face and a serene look on his face. His wife had given me a bag of holiday candy and an ornament for Christmas.
“I’ll see you again John,” I said fighting back tears. He nodded and his wife said he’d told her he wanted me to go on my business trip. John had a strong work ethic. And the strength he exhibited in life, did not change even in the face of death. Life and work must go on.
All of my clients have taught me so much about the divinity, and emotional turmoil of the dying process for family members. But more so, they’ve taught me more about how to live a full life.
Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned on the work-life merge while managing hospice care.
- Drink as you pour. If you’re caring for a family member or volunteering especially during the holiday season, you won’t be any good to anyone else, unless you’re taking care of your immediate needs. That means plenty of sleep, taking breaks at work, or whatever helps you sustain your health and energy levels. Be sure to eat as normally as possible and if you are spending a lot of time with your loved one, brings some snacks along for your visits. Finally, drink a lot of water and stay hydrated. And while it’s a personal preference, it often helps to lift the spirits in your loved ones room a bit. If you are comfortable have a small radio or Cd-player which plays holiday or classical music. This is calming for caregivers, nurses and also your loved one. (that is unless your loved one finds such music disturbing)
- Don’t be attached to outcome. Often we become attached to how we believe a family member should be handling their lives, and managing their death. It comes from a good place within us, but there are many components when a human being is entering their dying process. It’s extremely personal. You can offer suggestions, but rid yourself of any attachments of how YOU think things should be handled. (that is of course if unless you have been asked to do so, or must execute their wishes from a legal standpoint). Speak with other family members on how they may, or may not, want to address the holidays among family, with your loved one who is passing and the caregivers involved.
- View work as a temporary distraction and resource. Try to focus on work, when you’re at work. It’s difficult, but try to relinquish guilt about not being with your loved one or patient 24/7. It’s easy to carry the pain of the personal into the workplace. Perhaps there is someone at work you can have a conversation with. Look into any workplace employee assistance programs. Some employers might offer counseling, legal assistance, or flexibility initiatives for caregivers especially in the end stages of life.
- Meditate and Contemplate to Manage Stress: When we’re going through a family crisis, we simply become more sensitive about everything, and that is bound to follow you into the workplace. Try not to take things personally. All our personal triggers are on fire at all times when a family member is preparing to transition. Don’t shoot from the hip. Find ways to take the stress down a notch through meditation, contemplation, exercise reading a book or listing to relaxing music. You might not be in the mood for any holiday parties, but if you are, it might help you ease the pain of your current journey even temporarily for a bit of an emotional respite.
- Listen and respond with compassion even when conflict arises. You must always be an advocate for your family member or patient. I can’t repeat this enough. Ask any and all questions. But when engaging another caregiver who is attending to your loved one, keep in mind that this relationship is crucial. Ask questions, but don’t be quick to point out the negative unless you know exactly what’s going on. It’s a sensitive time of year for everyone. During the holidays it’s not a bad idea to bring some holiday treats to the staff. I think this is a good idea year-round, but keep in mind that while this might be their job, they are still away from their loved ones during the holidays.
If you’re involved with caring for a family member or interested in being a Hospice volunteer check these links out:
Hospice Foundation of America You’ll find links to help you find a Hospice near you, or information on becoming a volunteer.
Home Care Association of New York State This link will bring you to a number of consumer resources
Also check out: AARP Caregiving Resource Center
I am a member of AARP’s Kitchen Cabinet on Caregiving and Caresupport. All opinions are my own.
Please continue the conversation with me on twitter @JudyMartin8 and use the hashtage #workbliss