In November 2015, VITAS Healthcare asked family caregivers to share their personal stories through VITAS.com. We wanted to know: What have you learned? What's your life like? What advice do you have for new caregivers?
While reviewing the stories, we learned a lot - and we are eager to share that information with you. On this page, we've posted the top three entries, as decided by our panel of judges.
Thank you to all of the caregivers who submitted their stories, so others can learn from their experiences.
Top Caregiver Entry
"My Henry was a happy camper"
Written by Mary Chavez
Mary with her husband Henry.
My name is Mary Chavez. I was a caregiver to my husband for 11 years and I am now a volunteer for VITAS Healthcare.
In 2001 I became a caregiver overnight. My husband suffered a massive stroke and was left paralyzed. I took an early retirement and became a 24/7 caregiver. I did not hire a person to help me; I felt I could do it alone, and I did. About two years into it, the caregiving was beginning to take its toll. After lifting Henry repeatedly, my back was in pain and my leg muscles were burning.
Due to my own health problems, I was putting Henry in a corner (so to speak). I noticed Henry was beginning to look depressed. I talked to the doctor about depression and he was able to help with medication. I began to educate myself and found a van made for handicapped passengers (not only to transport my husband, but also to save my back). I purchased a handicap van, and that purchase was worth every penny. My Henry was a happy camper because he was being included in every way.
Here are a few ideas I found helpful:
- Rest is very important. A caregiver should try to rest when his or her patient is sleeping or watching TV.
- Handicap magazines/catalogs are helpful. Look for items that can help you with your patient.
- Try to do things for yourself, like having lunch with a friend, getting your nails done or getting a haircut.
- If possible, take your patient outdoors to sit on the patio or go for a long walk down the street of your neighborhood.
- I read books to my husband. He loved history and, to tell you the truth, I learned things I never knew.
- If you are doing the wash, cooking, changing sheets, etc., place your patient in the same room you are in and let him or her feel included in what you are doing. Actually, let them help you with small things if they're able.
- Take your patient outside to enjoy the sun or shade as you water your plants or pull weeds.
- Most important, ask God for strength, patience, love and contentment. Leaning on God made things so much easier for me.
I was asked if I regret taking early retirement to take care of Henry. All I can say is, as we stood at the altar exchanging our wedding vows; we made a commitment in front of God and to each other. As we say the words "for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part," do we really know what it means? No, we do not know until we are put to the test of love for our spouse.
It says in the Bible that love is patient, kind, gentle, caring, slow to anger, etc. My life with my husband was not perfect. We had problems like everyone else. We made it through 53 years of marriage before he passed. No, I have no regrets…. It was a great joy and a privilege to be a caregiver to my husband.
After my husband passed, I applied at VITAS Healthcare and became a volunteer. I have been volunteering for three and a half years, performing various office duties. Volunteering has filled the hole in my heart. I have made wonderful friends, and it keeps me active. Caregiving was very special to me, and volunteering was one of the best things I did for myself. It is nice to give back.
Runner-Up Caregiver Entry
"I never would have asked for this life, but I am a better person for it."
Written by Jane Parks-McKay
Jane and her husband Tim.
Dateline: Nine years ago. My life changed 100 percent, 24/7, overnight when my husband was injured at work with a brain injury. Little did I know what caregiving would become.
My first thought was, this must be pretty easy. The older gray-haired ladies I'd seen caregiving always seemed so calm and serene and happy taking care of their husbands. I thought I would have time to learn the guitar.
Was all of that ever wrong! The advocacy work that was required of me in the medical and insurance fields was phenomenal. I went from knowing zilch about any of this to becoming a semi-expert in a short time period, but it was time consuming. We were told by the doctor that my husband would recover in two weeks. Three months into it, I was tearing my hair out.
Then I sought help from a local caregiving agency. You cannot do this alone and I learned to ask for help, and to create a community of helpers, friends and those to support us through this. My husband and I learned to advocate for those with traumatic brain injury. I learned to advocate for those in family caregiving.
As for me personally, after nine years of this I've learned to be stronger, to cut through to what is important and to let many things go. I've learned how to be better organized and more focused. I've also learned who my friends are, and I can recognize a fellow caregiver a mile away. I have learned empathy. I would never have asked for this life, but I am a better person for it. And I love my husband more than ever. He still makes my heart go aflutter when he walks into the room!
Runner-Up Caregiver Entry
"Strap in for the ride"
Written by Pamela Rivers
Pamela as a baby, with her mother, Susan (left). Pamela as an adult, with her mother (right).
When I started blogging, I dubbed myself a "master caregiver." Not because I was by any stretch of the imagination a master at it when the role was bestowed upon me. It was more the irony of it, or putting it out there to the universe: that's what I was going to become as I took care of my mother, who had Alzheimer's.
For those of you who are trained for the role, you already have a leg up. For those who, like me, became a caregiver unexpectedly, strap in for the ride.
Being my mother's caregiver definitely had its challenges. There are accidents. You find yourself always doing laundry, giving medication, scheduling appointments-scheduling everything. But I would never trade it in for the world. Oftentimes you feel as though you are behind the eight ball, so to speak, that you're reacting to situations instead of proactively acting, and that it may take a moment, if ever, to get ahead of the caring curve.
It's in those rare quiet times that you have to prepare for the next day and week, that you need to make your to-do list, the doctors list, contact list, shopping list and what-friend-can-I-call-today list. Caregivers have little to no "self" time, and when it came to planning my life's future, that ceased. I didn't want to think of future things, because I was unsure of what that would be for me. I had to learn (with the help of my therapist) that at some point I had to be selfish with my time.
You need to think about something that you want to do and try to find a way to do it. Whether it's getting your hair done, going for a manicure or going for a walk, see if you can put something in place that will give you free time. Look into a daycare facility, respite or a good friend who could give you that free moment.
You also have to learn how to be fast on your feet and, yes, at times, think unconventionally. I triumphed at 10-minute grocery shopping and doing the "Target 5k" (no such thing) in record time. And, boy, did I shine when handling a big oops moment with Mom and finding out how great the Home Depot can be when you need supplies. Yes! The Home Depot!
As a caregiver you must have compassion, but you can't get rattled when accidents or unexpected things happen. Caregiving is a true test of heart and a true test of physical and mental will. It can be tough and often is not rewarded. And yet it's one of the most rewarding roles. In the midst of my journey dealing with Mom's Alzheimer's, she forgot many things. But she never forgot to say thank you.
In exchange for their stories and to provide them with much-need rest and relaxation, the writers of the top three entries published on this page received gift certificates to SpaFinder.com. Thank you to everyone who participated!
Read the official contest rules