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Lessons in caring for aging parents

Going for a doctor’s visit is generally no one’s idea of a good time. It is just a fact of life that we participate in from time to time without much thought. However, as we age, those visits can take on a life of their own.

No longer are they a quick, before noon, relatively unplanned in-and-out. They are much more of a long-term commitment. They often require planning that would boggle the mind of a logistical expert, and, that’s just for run-of-the-mill stuff. If you are talking about anything that is either yet to be diagnosed or a serious/chronic diagnosis, well, now you are talking Golden Anniversary level commitment that can be so overwhelming that it paralyzes even the most prudent planner. At that point, the patient usually needs help from others. This is where a caregiver comes in – typically a family member(s) or a trusted person that is responsible for coordination and transportation to and from visits, physical and emotional support for the patient and relaying all pertinent information to the rest of the family. Just the inherent dynamics of this type of situation can result in chaos if proper planning is not in place.

I had the honor and privilege of being one of the caregivers for my grandmother. I was able to take her to several oncology visits, as well as her radiation treatments the last few months of her life. At that point, she was in good spirits and able to function very well. We drove from Brookhaven to Natchez everyday for six weeks. Not only did we get to spend real uninterrupted quality time together, she and I received valuable on-the-job training about navigating any and all doctor’s visits with minimal chaos. Here’s some of the things we learned:

• Bring a cooler with light snacks and drinks – nothing that will melt. You will be at the appointment much longer than expected, and you may be sent to several different “spur of the moment” appointments or tests while you are there.

• Get cash – small bills. Most coffee shops and cafeterias in hospitals take debit cards, but they are not always open, and you may have to opt for the vending machine.

• Have a trashcan (with a liner), wet rag (or wet wipes), tissues and a towel in your car. Even if there is no scheduled “procedure” for that visit, it doesn’t mean that one will not happen. Always be prepared for nausea. You may want to have plain crackers and ginger ale on hand as well.

• Bring something to pass the time — reading material, games, sewing projects, etc. As the caregiver, you will be spending a lot of “down time” with the patient. This may be a perfect opportunity to reconnect or develop a deeper relationship. One way to start this process is to find an activity that you like to do together. It could be as simple as reading and discussing the same book. Focusing on something other than the health care issues can help maintain a more positive attitude for both patient and caregiver. Instead of dreading the wait time at the doctor’s office, you may start to look forward to it.

• If you are a sandwich generation caregiver (meaning you still have children at home), make arrangements for your children for the whole day – even if you are only supposed to be at the doctor’s office for “an hour or so.” You may also want to make tentative arrangements for your children for the day after the scheduled visit. It is not uncommon for the patient to have to go for bloodwork or a small procedure the day after a doctor’s visit.

• Have ONE notebook (paper or electronic) to take notes, record questions as you think about them, concerns you may have or changes in patient. I used an iPad so that I could easily send the notes taken at doctor’s visits to other caregivers in the family via email, as well as keep them orderly. If you use a paper notebook, keep it in a central location so it can be accessed by anyone participating in the caregiving process. If you use something electronic, keep one running word document that is electronically shared between all caregivers.

• Don’t be afraid to ask the doctor to read over your “notes” about the visit. This way, you will be sure that you are understanding everything, as well as passing on correct information. Doing this one thing can be invaluable to the patient and caregiver, especially if/when more doctors or family member get involved in the situation.

• Most importantly, be patient. Be calm. Accept that change and uncertainty may temporarily be your new normal.

Heather Emory holds a master’s degree in psychology and teaches in the Behavioral Science Division at Hinds Community College.