What the Caregiver Learned

Lee Woodruff

Lee Woodruff

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of guest blogs by Lee Woodruff.

When my husband Bob was critically injured by a roadside bomb while reporting on the war in Iraq, I could only react. I didn’t have time to gain the wisdom of all the caregivers who had come before me.

Like most of us thrust into instant crisis mode, I operated from the gut. And I mostly learned through trial and error, by doing and moving through the moment. I had an amazing support network of healthcare professionals, family and friends, but on most days, without Bob beside me, I felt incredibly alone.

In retrospect, with the luxury of Bob’s miraculous recovery I can look back and evaluate, even marvel at what we have come through as a family and a couple. I have the clarity of hindsight that there were certain things I did right. And certainly there were others I could have done differently or better. For whatever its worth, I share lessons from both sides here.

Three Things I Did Right:

Keep moving and focus on one daily thing for you. Maintaining your pre-caregiver schedule is impossible, but everyone kept telling me to do something for myself. I decided to focus on just one familiar part of my old life that would make me feel like my old self-my early-morning lap swimming. That one hour was the only time all day that I could focus solely on myself and let my mind wander or daydream. It was a chance to center myself and keep me physically fit before the intensity of the day began.

Advocate every step of the way. I knew that one oversight, one wrong decision, one skipped medication could have dire consequences for my husband-and ultimately, for our family. I learned how to communicate with the doctors, to question, to seek second opinions, to never be complacent and to check Bob’s medication schedule after hospital shift changes. No one knows the patient like their loved ones.

Subscribe to “the chit system.” In the immediate aftermath of an injury or illness, friends and acquaintances rush in with offers to help. I told everyone who asked what they could do that I would give them an IOU. Then, at some point I would call on them to do something helpful, whether it was take a child to an afterschool activity or bring over a meal. I would call in these “chits” at times when I really needed them. This made the people who offered the help feel good-and it made me feel as if I weren’t asking for a “favor” all the time.

Three Things I Would Have Done Differently:

Ask more friends for help. I had lots of wonderful help from friends and neighbors, but there were many times I stubbornly tried to do many things by myself. I was afraid to burden others. In the end, I burned myself out or simply became frustrated.

Have a better handle on our finances and future. Whether it be everyday expenses, estate or insurance matters. I would urge every spouse to have a “master folder” containing all the family’s important financial highlights. Include phone numbers of financial consultants or lawyers who can give you answers during times of duress. And be prepared for the future beyond the next few years. Give yourself that peace of mind. There are many websites that can help you organize what you need to know to take control of life past 50. I highly recommend AARP’s Decide. Create. Share (www.aarp.org/decide). This program has simple steps that take the fear out of the process and walk you through what you need to know.

Seek professional emotional support early. I should have listened to all of the family members urging me to “talk to someone” and to consider an antidepressant to combat situational depression. When the wheels finally came off the bus for me and the adrenaline gave out, I crashed. Anxiety and worry crept into my nights and waking thoughts. I needed “body armor,” as Bob’s neuropsychologist finally told me. And I needed to feel a little bit like myself again in order to be able to help our family. Don’t put off taking care of your own emotional needs, get yourself the help you deserve so you can help everyone else in the equation.

Visit Lee on her website www.leewoodruff.com and follow her on Twitter (@LeeMWoodruff)