Saturday, January 5, 2008

How I Became a Family Caregiving Consultant

I've been daydreaming today about doing local booksignings. It's been a long time since I've done one of those.

I think I'll start by talking about how I was introduced to the Caregiving Consulting work I came to do. It wasn't part of my game plan. I went to school to get a Masters Degree in Transpersonal (spiritual) Psychology and intended to do private practice personal coaching, lead support groups and teach workshops for a living. Instead I ran out of money before I got started and had to find a regular job. Doing office work at the Alzheimer's Association and leading support groups there was the only one I found.

I was none too pleased with this. I knew nothing about Alzheimer's Disease and hated the idea of doing office work but figured the support group training would help while I figured out what to do next.

The first day the executive director handed me a copy of The 36-Hour Day, considered at the time to be the Alzheimer's Caregiving Bible, had me watch some videos on Alzheimer's Disease and two weeks later left me alone in charge of the office while she went to get something to eat.

I had a big stack of paperwork and filing to do on my desk and was sitting there dejectedly trying to imagine how a Masters degree in spiritually-oriented psychology was going to be of any use in this when the phone rang. The man on the other end was involved in a family argument about how to take care of his dad. He said his father lived alone on a ranch far out in the country and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. His father had lived in that house his entire life and always said that he would rather wander out into the woods and die like all natural born creatures do than to be shut up in a nursing home away from the place he loved at the end of his life. But now his other relatives were refusing to honor his wishes. None of them could leave their families and jobs to live with him and they were all fighting about how (or if) they should take him away and have him placed. I suggested a few services they might take advantage of but spent most of the call listening and helping the caller sort out his feelings about the ethics of following through on his own request.

A day or two later I was left alone again and received a call from a woman taking care of her demented mother at home who was having what people in the field call a "catastrophic incident". She was extremely agitated, screaming obscenities and was accusing the caregiver of trying to steal from her. The woman on the phone was at wit's end and said "I've had enough of this—YOU talk to her!!" and, to my horror, handed the phone to her ranting mother. Keep in mind I had NO training at this point beyond a basic introduction, had never talked to a demented person in my life, and had no idea of what to do.

I listened to the mother's rage and vitriolic screaming for a few minutes, freaked out silently for awhile, and finally thought "this isn't what I get paid to do." I interrupted the raving and said the first thing that came into my head. "Mrs. So and So, could you help me with something?" Immediately, Mrs. So and So snapped out of her rage. "Of course, dear! What can I do for you?"

Then I didn't know what to say so I stammered out the truth. "I'm brand new on this job and I don't know how to help you and I have SO much I have to do! Could we do something else?"

"Absolutely!" she said. "Don't you worry about a thing. I'll take care of it." And then she hung up the phone.

About twenty minutes later the caregiver called back. "You're a miracle worker! What did you do? She's been happy and sitting quietly reading a book upside down ever since."

I was stunned. I didn't know why what I did worked but I never forgot it. By asking the patient to take care of me, by treating her with respect and letting her feel like she still had value, I somehow got through.

From that point on I realized how my Transpersonal Psychology background was going to matter in the work I had taken on to do. One client after another asked for "practical" help but the help that made the biggest difference was listening and honoring each person's sanctity as a human being.

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