“I want one of those watches.”
This is something my father-in-law, for whom we were caregivers for three years, said repeatedly in the fall of 2015, leading up to Christmas.
He had a tendency to watch two things – tennis or golf – on television constantly and a “fitness tracker” device was advertised often.
I don’t know what it was about that commercial or that product that captured his attention so much. Due to a series of “mini-strokes,” his memory was scrambled. He rarely remembered much of anything of consequence.
But there were the occasional exceptions (like the fitness tracker, or the one pair of pants that didn’t fit right), and when those exceptions occurred, everyone in the house knew his mind was set on the topic.
As Christmas 2015 approached, we thought we had the perfect gift for him: the fitness tracker!
Of course, we weren’t exactly sure what it was he would be tracking. He didn’t exercise. He wasn’t keeping track of how many steps he took every day. He didn’t care about graphing progress toward any goal.
But the fitness tracker would be a gift-giving hit!
Christmas morning dawned and we gathered around to open gifts.
Dad opened the fitness tracker. We expected joy, satisfaction, happiness.
We got ……. a mystified Dad wondering what the tracker was.
We explained it was the tracker he had been talking about wanting (for weeks, probably months!). He had no recollection. He also couldn’t really understand why it didn’t show anything on the display (that was our fault for not programming it/charging it up earlier).
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that he didn’t remember wanting the fitness tracker so badly. The incident mirrored so many other patterns in our life together. His retention was impaired. Although he perseverated on select items or experiences, that perseveration evaporated as rapidly as it entered our world.
My thoughts on holidays as caregivers:
Empathy is the best gift of all
One of my ongoing frustrations with Dad’s situation (not with him personally, but with the changes to his cognitive state as a result of his mini-strokes and (possibly) depression) was his utter lack of empathy. He had never been an overtly emotional or empathic individual anyway, but after his mini-strokes, my mother-in-law’s death, and a bout with head and neck cancer, he was even more depleted of the ability to feel someone else’s pain.
His lack of empathy, though, didn’t change the fact that he needed us to empathize with him. He needed us to understand (as long as it lasted) why a commercial promising fitness and fun, correlated with a cool fitness tracker, excited him. (He also needed us to understand his brain dysfunction enough to know he may not actually remember why the commercial lit a particular motivational fire within him.)
Realistic is best when it comes to holiday expectations
I can’t say we’ve ever been a family that has pulled out all the stops in the department of decorating, lavish gift-giving, or constant holiday socializing. However, when my mother-in-law was alive, we had a meticulously defined (and lovely) Christmas Eve tradition. She spent countless hours putting together stockings for every single family member, selecting just the right gift, and orchestrating a spread centered by the Advent candle and the crystal punch bowl.
During our three years as Dad’s caregivers, Christmas Eves were different. Barb (my mother-in-law) was gone, and Christmas Eve was a bit more fragmented. Our kids were growing older, with my daughter away at college, so gone was the frenzy of Christmas mornings with little kids. Still, our foursome was now a group of five, and Christmas morning took on a different tone.
Dad didn’t need the frenzy of a full house on Christmas Eve (he always faded as the day wore on – by 7 p.m. his pain and resilience were always fading).
Key to surviving the caregiving years, especially during the holidays, was being kind to ourselves regarding what we expected the celebrations to look like. Unpredictability is a hallmark of caregiving, especially when schedules are being interrupted by parties, extra errands, and visitors.
See measurement in different ways
If you have ever had a fitness tracker, you may have become obsessed with charting your progress. Did you take more steps than yesterday? Did you “win” a badge on the online app? Did you take enough steps to equate to climbing a skyscraper?
With caregiving, you have to learn to track progress differently. You may not be able to document steady, incremental progress.
With empathy and realistic expectations, however, you may be able to track the most long-lasting benefit of all: the knowledge that you took steps toward helping your loved one (and yourself) reach the goal of having a positive holiday experience.
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.