Caregiving is rarely easy. I am astounded at how my sister Alisha rose to the challenge. She was an executive at a Fortune 100 company, with two kids in college. She managed Mom's medications, kept her schedule of doctors' appointments, and made sure Mom was comfortable while she was still at home.
We all did what we could to help. My brother Everett, the youngest of us, took Mom to her many doctor's appointments throughout the week—the podiatrist, cardiologist, physician, you name it. Others ran out for groceries or to fill prescriptions, or helped keep the house orderly. But, as I said, Alisha stepped up and took on the most.
So when my mom passed away, Alisha needed personal time. After dedicating so much to Mom's daily care, [Alisha] needed time and space to grieve, perhaps more than the rest of us. My siblings and I made sure Alisha got that, and she came back stronger and whole, pursuing life with natural vigor.
Aside from that lesson, my siblings and I learned four things from the experience:
Whenever possible, caregiving needs to be a team effort. It's just too much for one person to take on alone. If you are an only child caring for a parent, try to get some paid help or look into government assistance programs. Don't feel guilty if you need help: You can still be there for all the important decisions, and, believe me, you'll get time with your parent if you want it. But to be the best caregiver possible, you need to take care of yourself, too, and that means finding some time for yourself.
From the outset, make a commitment that you will never make the person feel like a burden. This is hard, because let's face it, sometimes caregiving is a burden. But, like anything in life, if you face this with optimism, patience, grace, and acceptance, it will be better for everyone, including you. In our case, we reminded ourselves daily of all our parents had done for us. And that helped.
We talked as a family about that day when we'd have to make a decision about Mom—to be blunt, about whether to "pull the plug." In the end, we chose not to, but that is a very circumstantial decision, and it has to be made with all family members. It can be excruciating, but once you reach a decision, try to move forward with minimal division, strife, and enmity among the siblings. Remember that your parents would want you to stick together as a family, no matter what, and try to honor that.
Appreciate the simple things, the moments that may not have meant anything before. Be aware and sensitive to whatever is of importance to the person receiving the care. Maybe playing bingo, or music. Whenever I came to visit her, Mom wanted me to read the Bible to her. So I read Bible verses to her, much like a parent reading to a little kid from a school book, because that's what comforted and soothed her. We ate her favorite foods, talked, and watched the “Rugrats” cartoon, which she had fallen in love with while taking care of the grandkids. If we knew we would miss an episode, we'd record it so we could watch it later.
Among the most rewarding moments of this journey came when Bill Cosby called. He and I are friends. I said I couldn't speak long, because I was with my mother in the hospital. He knew I was very close to my mom, and he asked about her condition and the name of the hospital. He was coming to D.C. the next week for a performance and said he would visit my mom.
I got a call from the hospital Sunday morning about 7 o'clock, and he's already there. I could hear my mother cracking up in the background. I was a little worried, because the doctors had said not to let Mom exert too much energy because of her pulmonary hypertension.
I raced over to the hospital and found Bill holding court with all the doctors and the nurses. My mom is strapped in a chair (she couldn't walk) and she's laughing her head off. Just to see her smiling, laughing with Bill Cosby, after all that she had gone through, that was tremendous.
OK, Bill Cosby is famous. But that's not the point of that story. The point is that a friend made an extra effort to support my family during a difficult time. And it meant the world to us. The lesson is that, no matter how busy you get, always be a good friend and neighbor. Our society puts so much emphasis on things and money and status, but the important things in life still boil down to the type of person you are, the character you show when times are tough.