“Family caregivers are faced with the question of when and how to let go.” (315) This is when the caregiver must learn to walk the crooked line between letting go of the care-ee and nurturing her/his own spirit. Not easily done. I feel like I’m standing on the end of a high dive overlooking an olympic sized pool that is my future. I have two choices. One is to take the plunge off without thinking about it to help my father. The other is to slowly and deliberately back down the stairs, don some water wings and step into the shallow end to care for myself. I can’t help but wonder what might happen if the choices were reversed? Could I jump to save myself and proceed with caution to see to my father’s dying needs? I know what I should do, but lack the energy to do it. The irony is that I’ve been so busy looking after others that I’ve abandoned me, and I’m no longer sure where to look to find me. It’s when you’re feeling lost like this that Sheehy says “it’s time to save yourself.” (340) “Recent clinical studies show that long-term caregivers are at high risk for sleep deprivation, immune system deficiency, muscle and joint problems, depression, chronic anxiety, loss of concentration and premature death.” (49)
Another underrated aspect of caregiving is being (wo)man enough to tackle the astronomical bills associated with a chronic illness. The money aspect of this job cannot be ignored any more than grumpy patients or bed sores. The caregiver must attack a pile of Medicare forms with the wisdom of Solomon, the frugality of Scrooge and the prayer of an alcoholic. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The price of healthcare is skyrocketing. It is often the caregiver who must run the gauntlet of bureaucratic red tape. Sheehy explains in easy to understand language how the “system” works, both for and against, the patient. In my opinion, there are two must reads for everyone in my age bracket. For a short but startling account of how the Hospital/Medicare partnership works, go straight to page 283. Politics schmolitics. Ours is a healthcare system that is as much in need of repair as the hospital recliner that sits by the side of the patient’s bed. (If you’ve ever tried to sleep in one of those things, you know what I’m talking about.)
Passages Epilogue is a mini-course in what the future could look like for you and me. “Who will take care of us?”(359) is more than a rhetorical question. The answer is “us” (359) and it must be answered in the near, not distant, future. “The only way families are going to be able to afford the shift from institutional care to home care for seniors is if government help to support family caregivers. Passages is a call to action.” (359)
You might think a book like Passages would be dry and hard to read. It’s not. It’s got information for those who like to read with a highlighter nearby. It’s got drama for those who dream of going toe-to-toe with a real person, not corporate answering machines. It’s got an incredible love story. It’s even got a happy ending. Sheehy’s husband, for whom she cared for 17 years, found the peace to die (355), while she found the courage to live. Good news for caregivers everywhere.
Passages can be found at all the major book outlets. Do yourself a favor. Pick up a copy. Then do what I’m doing, spread the word. Caregiving, like growing old, is not for the faint of heart. This book could well be the last word on the subject. Except, of course, for mine.