(This blog submission was written by our Caregiver of the Month for January, Erica Carlson)
In some ways, life resembles a bell curve. As an infant, we begin fairly helpless and need our parents to do everything for us. As we age, we try to give to the world and share our time, energy, and talents with those around us. And then as the seasons pass and the years stack up, we slowly reach out for more assistance, hopefully sharing what we’ve learned from the journey to make the next generation a little wiser.
I’ve recently met a strong, courageous woman named Margaret, and she is a ray of sunshine. I don’t know what she does to keep that light on, but I’ve been able to learn a few lessons during our time together on Sunday mornings and at least one evening a week.
When Margaret greets me in the morning, laying in bed, a smile on her face, I’m reminded of the phrase “aging gracefully.”
“How did you sleep, Margaret?” I ask.
“Oh, wonderful!” is her usual reply.
And our day begins. Feet over the side of the bed, we get her walker, affectionately nicknamed ‘Cadillac,’ in front of her. Up and at ‘em. The morning routine begins: use the restroom, get dressed, insert teeth and hearing aid, brush hair, drink coffee (a nice warm cup of coffee is still one of her favorite parts of the morning), take meds, check blood sugar, take insulin, and eat breakfast while chatting. Once all this is complete, we look at one another and take a breath. Now what? This is where my background as a teacher, mother, and children’s entertainer has come in handy.
During a pandemic, our precious seniors are the most at-risk group. Many of them are literally stuck at home, bored…bored…BORED! My heart has hurt for them since the beginning back in March 2020. I’ve tried to check in with my own older family members, senior members of my church, and friends and neighbors who might need some extra attention. Margaret is an exception because we can actually BE TOGETHER…inside! It’s a gift to spend time in the presence of someone these days. I don’t take that gift and responsibility lightly.
When I first met Margaret, I tried to listen more than I talked. I wanted to hear her story and meet her where she is. We looked at photo albums the first day. I heard about how she was an only child and grew up playing dress-up with her cats. I made a mental note about her creativity and resourcefulness. If anyone could get a cat into a bonnet, they are probably pretty strong and stubborn.
Margaret married Karl when she was 18-years-old. They enjoyed their early years of marriage together before Karl went overseas to play the organ during World War II, traveling all around northeast Europe with a chaplain. They were in charge of presiding over and playing music at funerals. Having learned to play by ear, he only knew one song: “The Old Rugged Cross.” He soon wrote to Margaret back then and asked her to send him a hymnal to diversify his repertoire. Karl was away during the birth of their son, so when he returned to meet a cute 7-month-old boy, I’m sure it was the beginning of Margaret and Karl’s Big Adventure. Later in life, they spent winters in Florida for 25 years or so. When she talks of Florida, she gets wistful and I can tell she is traveling back to memories of sunshine and laughter. She’s told me how they used to love dancing together. When we listen to Glen Miller’s music, she leans back, eyes closed, worlds away. It’s beautiful and gives me chills every time. Karl eventually developed Alzheimer’s and slowly declined at home, with Margaret. He would sometimes wake at night, leave their home, and try to break into a car on the street…in the winter…barefoot. Margaret would coax him back inside and return him to bed. This “normal” for Margaret and Karl lasted 8 years. She is one strong, loving lady.
I learned early on that Margaret likes oysters. Likes oysters to a level I hadn’t realized one could like them. She actually had oyster shells in a Ziploc in her kitchen cabinet! The real deal! We quickly made plans to make oyster rockerfeller (the only kind I could get on board with eating…bacon is a main ingredient after all) for our “Christmas celebration” together. We found her recipe, I shopped for the ingredients before my scheduled Sunday shift, and she directed me, her sous chef, around her kitchen, preparing our feast.
I remember a few times I asked her if I was doing it “right” – cutting the oysters to the proper size or filling the shells full enough. She waved her hand and said, “Oh it will be fine!” I guess when you get to be 97, you seriously don’t sweat the small stuff. I’m happy to report that the oysters were delicious and Margaret claims that as her favorite memory or our time together thus far.
I’ve tried to keep Margaret “entertained, distracted, and fulfilled” as best I can. I’ve been a balloon artist for over 20 years, so I brought my balloons and floor pump over one day to twist her a balloon bouquet to diversify her view and make her smile. I had learned that Karl always called her ‘Tiger,’ so I made a balloon version to keep her company. She also has a grand-dog named Benji, so I made an inflated pup to sit on her table, bright-eyed and cheery with his tongue hanging to the side. Of all three sculptures, Benji is looking the best 3 weeks later. He’s resilient like Margaret.
I’ve tried to mix it up with the meals we have. I think food is a love language and cooking for someone is holy work. Keeping her low sugar and carbohydrate needs in mind, we’ve made cabbage rolls, buttermilk pancakes with blueberries and sugar-free syrup (thanks to her neighbor for letting me bop over and borrow baking soda at 9am on a Sunday!), stuffed peppers, and beef vegetable soup. I can’t tell if Margaret’s lost sense of smell affects her ability to taste food, but she always has high praise for these meals. A few weeks ago, she asked, “You like to cook, don’t you?”
It snowed a couple Sundays ago. I allotted extra time to make it to Margaret’s home, but got an idea before I left. I asked my husband, Tim, to bring our three children (ages 7, 5, and 3) over to Margaret’s back patio to build a snowman in front of her back door.
He was on board (not surprising as he is used to going along with my spontaneous ideas after 11 years of marriage). Props to Tim for getting three young kids in snow gear AND making a voyage across town on a snowy morning. Margaret got to watch my kids through her back door, waving and smiling as they stomped through the snow and licked small handfuls pulled from her freshly covered patio table.
Tim had brought a carrot for the nose, made a smile and even eyebrows out of sticks, and we used the bottle caps from the chili sauce used in the cabbage rolls recipe for the eyes. Some dried hydrangea blooms completed the snowman as a patch of hair on top. Hearing Margaret laugh during this spectacle was medicinal.
Another, less-exciting activity was coloring snarky adult coloring books. Margaret picked the page that said “Hair up. Bra off. Sweats on. Pop cork.” This about sums up her realistic, no nonsense view of life and how comfort and wine are necessities. I chose a page from the coloring book for Moms with a large, striped tent that read “This is my circus and these are my monkeys.” Margaret did pretty well staying in the lines and sticking with it before a little arm pain got the best of her and she needed a rest.
Margaret told me I bored her the most when I suggested we make a birdfeeder out of cheerios and yarn. I taped the end of the yarn to make it a “needle” of sorts. My church shared this idea with us as a gift idea for older adults on Valentine’s Day, so I thought Margaret might like a little birdfeeder outside her window. Diversifying the view seemed like a good idea. Well, with temps in the teens, she hasn’t seen much action at this bird feeder, but I’m hopeful as spring will come eventually.
The other night, we watched her favorite movie: “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a timeless story of three men who return from WWII and try to reacclimate into their families and society. I stayed about 1.5 hours after my shift ended to finish the movie. I felt like a teen breaking curfew, texting Tim, “The movie isn’t quite done, yet. I’ll be home a little late.” I was grateful for the chance to watch this movie and know it’s Margaret’s favorite. I might be her caregiver, but she is giving me the chance to see the world through her eyes a bit, and I’m better for it.
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, I asked Margaret to be my Valentine. We’ll make it our own little “Galentine’s Day.” We are going to make heart-shaped buttermilk pancakes with blueberries and I’m going to give her her very first pedicure. I know. Her first one. I couldn’t believe it either when I heard her admit that. What an honor that will be. I’m still trying to get her on board with some bright glittery polish rather than the neutral mauve she usually wears. She’s pretty progressive in many ways, but she’s still a classy lady at heart.
I’m grateful to be working at a company that values relationships. I’m grateful to have met Margaret and have the opportunity to laugh with her while watching clips of The Carol Burnett Show, serve her food, do her laundry, and help her navigate this phase of her life with all the grace possible.
Always There Home Care is a provider of one-on-one senior home care services in Columbus, Ohio. Our 24-Hour Home Care services have been helping seniors stay at home with compassionate, loving care since 2004. Call today to schedule a Free In Home Care Assessment for your senior loved one and find out how your senior loved one can be thriving at home.
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