Every day there are things we do that we’ve done practically our entire lives. For example, by the time you’re 50, you will have brushed your teeth roughly 33,000 times. You will have changed clothes about 35,000 times; if you’re a clothes horse possibly even 40,000 times. And the number of times you will have looked at your cell phone is, let’s face it, nearly incalculable.
Simply put, we are creatures of habit. We all have an autopilot switch in which we do things without even thinking. We kiss our spouses, take our kids to school, buy a coffee and crack our knuckles. It’s how we roll.
Caregivers have overpowering autopilot switches. Like an octopus on steroids, our tentacles constantly move to keep up with the demands of our loved ones. And as their illness or disease progresses, the more we have on our plate and the harder it is to turn off that switch. So is that a bad thing?
Every day commercial airline pilots use hand controls to take off and land aircrafts, navigate severe weather, turbulence and override faulty equipment. They use the plane’s autopilot system to climb, descend and maintain the desired altitude and direction of the plane. But relying too heavily on computer automation has been shown to erode pilots’ expertise, dull their reflexes and decrease their attentiveness. Simply put, not turning off that autopilot switch can be downright dangerous.
The same is true for caregivers. When we log as many hours as a seasoned pilot has logged flight time, our decision-making ability is adversely compromised, putting ourselves and our loved one at risk.
My Mother is a seasoned caregiver and very good at what she does. She’s taken care of my Father all 55 years of their marriage, 15 of which have been with him having Alzheimer’s. She has cooked thousands of meals, washed limitless loads of laundry, purchased countless groceries, scrubbed toilets, mopped floors, groomed children, fed pets and driven a staggering number of miles. As you can imagine, her autopilot switch is monumental.
But there comes a time when caregivers need to retire. Subconsciously, we think this will come when our loved one passes away. And sometimes it does. But caregivers age faster than normal. Their immune systems are compromised so their bodies break down. Since their focus is their loved one, their autopilot switch is stuck in the “on” position. If they land in the hospital, that switch is forced off. But other times, someone else must step in and take over the controls.
Several months ago, my Mother kept falling and landed in the hospital for 5 days. Since then, her strength is minimal, she relies on a rollator to get around and her energy is easily zapped. She had back surgery three years ago and we just discovered that she stops breathing 18 times every hour each night while sleeping so she needs sleep apnea treatment. To say her body is breaking down is an understatement. This is not her fault. She is carrying around the marks of serving her family, especially her husband for a lifetime.
A couple of months ago, my sister arranged for a caregiver to stay with my parents during the day while I was away dog sitting for the weekend. I was beyond grateful for the help. When I explained that Mom would have a caregiver for two days, she didn’t really say anything in reply. I thought she’d accepted it. I was wrong.
That Saturday morning, when the caregiver arrived, Mom answered the door and said thanks, but no thanks. The caregiver could not have been any nicer. She was there to prepare meals, feed, bathe and dress Dad, take him to the restroom, do laundry, anything we needed. But Mom’s autopilot switch turned on. More than likely she thought, I’ve been doing all that and more for years. I can take care of him myself.
My Mom’s autopilot switch would not budge. Thankfully, Amy the caregiver remained in the driveway. She called me and I came over to escort her in the house. Dad’s recliner was empty, and Mom was in the kitchen preparing lunch, oblivious to his whereabouts.
“Mom! Where’s Dad?”
“He’s in his chair,” she said.
“No, he’s not.”
Amy and I walked down the hall to find my Father using the restroom on the restroom floor. This was exactly why we needed a caregiver. While Amy cleaned him up, I tried to have a gentle but firm conversation with Mom.
“Mom, you can’t do this by yourself.” I asked her what she would have done if either one of them had fallen. But her autopilot switch was on. And to keep her and my Father safe, I had to force it off.
Just as relying heavily on autopilot can erode a pilot’s expertise, dull their reflexes and decrease their attentiveness, so too can a caregiver’s abilities be compromised. Women have a hard time with this. We each think we’re Wonder Woman. If things get hard we just roll up our sleeves, tough it up and work harder. We forget that we’re fallible. We’re limited. We’re human.
Letting someone else step in to take our place as caregiver does not mean our value has diminished. It just means we’re not autonomous. Although we are human beings, we think of ourselves as “human doings”. We base our self-worth on what we accomplish rather than who we were created to be. My Father’s worth has not changed one bit even though he can do far less now than he could years ago. But somehow, we expect more from our able-bodied selves.
I’m sure my Mother knows she can’t keep going like this. But she probably thinks that as long as she is able to care for her husband, she wants to be there for him. Even if it kills her. It could kill her. Caregivers often pass away before their loved ones because of the toll it takes on their health.
The one person who’s remained silent on the matter for obvious reasons is my Father. But if he were in his right mind, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would look at all that she’s done for him over the years with a grateful heart, look at the condition of her body and tell her this is not the way he would want her to live. I know my Father would rather give his life for her than allow her to sacrifice her life for him. I only hope she can turn off the switch before it turns her off.