Helping Families Through Life Transitions

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Mel Coppola, President and Owner, Hearts In Care, LLC.
Eden Alternative Educator and Mentor
I always knew I wanted children–in fact, I wanted 5!  And in my mid-twenties I became pregnant with the first of my two wonderful daughters.
In preparation for motherhood, I read every book about pregnancy and child-rearing I could get my hands on. I went to Lamaze classes and prepped myself for natural childbirth. I spent time with other young mothers and their children practicing, so-to-speak and learning from their experiences. I bought and tried out all the things you need to have for infants.  I listened to people of all ages and genders who eagerly shared with me what they considered to be pearls of wisdom.  And I was surrounded by a loving family who supported me in every way possible. I basically did everything I could to make the transition from young married woman to perfect parent.
As you can probably guess, things didn’t quite go according to my carefully laid-out plans. Life transitions are funny that way.
Those of us who work in Eldercare deal with people every single day who are in the throes of life transitions. A large part of our focus, of course, is on the Elders who are either moving into our community or beginning to receive our services in another setting such as their home or a short-term rehab. We have come a long way in improving the welcoming practices for Elders than were used in the past. We recognize that these practices help ease their transition into their new role. But what about the family care partners?
My culture change education came shortly after my mother passed away. I had been her caregiver off and on for many years as she lived with mental illness. I had also been a caregiver for an aunt I adored as well as for my older brother, who died less than a year before my mom. (I use the word caregiver here intentionally as I did not yet understand the power of care partnership and how it could enhance our care experience.) I went through so many transitions during those periods; some happened as quickly as dominos falling-boom, boom, boom-and other times there were several transitions happening concurrently and I felt as though I were swirling in a whirlwind.  To be honest, I didn’t really understand what was happening until much later when I could look back and see clearly.  Hindsight is, after all, 20/20.
Unlike choosing to have a baby and spending lots of time in focused preparation, becoming a care partner for someone you love generally comes at you in the form of some type of crisis-a diagnosis, an accident, a stroke, a fall. You are thrust into a situation for which you are not prepared. Even if you have been diligent and have your legal and financial ducks in a row, you simply are not prepared emotionally, physically or mentally for the journey you have just begun.
For one thing, you don’t know what you don’t know. And the problem with that is that you don’t even know that you don’t know it!
There is no crash course here-no cliff notes to read. You might be able to read something about a particular disease and there are articles and websites galore that talk about caregiving. So you will learn the importance of support groups and asking for help-things like that.  Important, yes, but not what you need to help you transition through a myriad of roles.
Add to your lack of knowledge the fact that you are in mourning-that’s right-life transitions are, after all, about loss and grief. You grieve for the part of you that you are losing as you step into your new role. Remember the five stages of grief-denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance? Well, depending on the circumstances, you might not have the luxury of allowing yourself to experience all of these emotions until long afterward. And that’s if you can even see the larger picture of what is happening.
So how can we help care partners through these times and transitions? Well those of us who are knowledgeable in culture change values and principles have a toolbox at our disposal.
  • Be empathetic. Have an awareness of what they are going through. Tell and show them that you understand and want to help.
  • Be attuned to the plagues of loneliness, helplessness and boredom in family care partners just as much as in the Elder themselves. Help them to maintain loving relationships, offer ways they can give care, and help provide times where fun, spontaneous things can occur.
  • Get to know the family care partner. It’s just as important we get to know them as anyone else on the team. Our core values tell us to “know each person.”
  • Impress on family care partners the importance of care partnership and the multitude of ways all can give and receive care. This shift can really help them to let go of the old role and see how their new role is just as important.
  • Help family members see that we are all part of a caring, collaborative care partner team, with their loved one right at the center. Let them know that they will always be an integral part of that team.
  • Include family care partners in all care plan meetings. Participating in decision-making and being in-the-know helps make sense of the chaos they are experiencing.
  • Slow down and make time for them when they are with you. Really BE with them and focus on how they are doing. Ask open ended questions and actively listen.
  • Empower family members with education. It’s the antidote to fear.
  • Make it easier rather than more difficult for them to be a daily part of their loved one’s life.
  • Assure them that you are there for them and with them throughout the journey and the many transitions that are before them.
We have an obligation as Eldercare providers and advocates to do everything in our power to help Elders live their best lives. Ensuring their loved ones are also living lives filled with well-being, purpose and meaning while they undergo life’s transitions goes a long way toward that goal.