As I sat waiting in the hospital with my sister and my dad, I knew that our family’s Christmas break plans were never going to materialize. My mom had suffered a stroke sometime around Christmas. Waiting for the neurologist to read results of her MRI, we speculated about what was ahead. In spite of Dad’s denial, we knew this day would come, since Mom had suffered from mixed dementia for the past 10 years.
Mom was no longer walking, barely talking, and would require 24-hour care. In these circumstances, I knew it is not uncommon for the spouse to go into denial or shut down emotionally in unusual ways. Sometimes they just cannot cope with reality. Due to our dad’s limitations, my sister and I knew that much of the weight of providing emotional support and planning and orchestrating our mom’s care in this final stage of her life would land squarely on our shoulders.
Schedule Turned Upside Down
Suddenly my already taxed schedule had turned upside down. I did not feel ready for this new challenge. Over the past five years, we had been forced to rearrange family life in order to survive and continue to homeschool in this economy. Now circumstances had thrown us an even greater curve ball. How could we even begin to accomplish what needed to be done to preserve our family life and continue to homeschool, while still acting as an advocate and caregiver for ailing parents?
I remember feeling compassion for homeschool moms in this stage of life when I worked as Class
Day coordinator for eight years. So many friends at class day were now struggling daily with this reality. I have watched over the years as my friend Mary and so many other Heritage moms struggled and survived this challenge.
Several years ago, I watched as one Heritage mom would lovingly guide her elderly mom around the campus as she would complete her class day responsibilities. She appeared exhausted. Obviously, circumstances had taken a serious toll on her ability to care for her own needs. Fortunately, she hung in there, and after lovingly guiding her mom through the final stages of life, she finally found the time she needed to take care of herself again. She was finally able to rest, eat properly, and take care of her hair, skin, and wardrobe. Within one month, she transformed, and appeared nearly 10 years younger. I felt compassion for this brave and loving homeschool mom, knowing that one day I would also be in her shoes. She was a wonderful example of caring for an aging parent.
The Sandwich Generation
Someone labeled us as the “The Sandwich Generation.” The name aptly describes parents in the busiest stage of providing for and raising kids, while serving as advocates and caregivers for aging grandparents. Often there are teens in high school just about to launch and establish themselves in life.
The physical and financial struggle of caring for two generations can often leave a family penniless if they are not adequately prepared for the challenge. The pressures of these responsibilities on homeschooling families can be daunting. It is definitely a season where homeschool families must cry out to God for His wisdom, and do all they can to avoid caving under the well-meant suggestions of family and friends making demands and offering “advice” that might steer the family off course.
Many families have stepped out in faith, and their value-based decision has required substantial sacrifice to educate their children. Living in San Diego as a single-income family is an incredible feat for most families. The economy over the past several years has forced many homeschool moms to start home-based businesses or take on a part-time job. Adding the strain of caring for ailing parents during their final stages of life complicates the picture even further. Depending on personalities and circumstances, it can be easy for parents to crumble under the pressure and make choices they later regret.
Another issue many homeschool families face during this season involves sheltering children from the influences of alternate worldviews and lifestyles. Many such families are not from second generation households of faith. They have made a decision to follow Christ, and raise their family according to standards that are contrary to the way they were raised as children. Elderly parents and siblings (now aunts and uncles to our children) may not share our love for God or our transformed values and standards.
When brushing elbows under stressful circumstances with relatives who think and act differently, there are likely to be tensions. Suddenly, family circumstances can thrust our children into constant contact with aunts, uncles, and cousins who have the very antagonistic values, attitudes, and lifestyles we have been hoping to insulate and protect them from during their formative years. The pressures are enormous. How can we find the strength to continue to stand firm in the midst of all this pressure?
What to Do?
1. Remember this is only a season. It may prove to be a grueling test of your strength and character, but it will not last forever. In fact, there is potential for many positive results if you prayerfully make wise choices in how you respond to demands, pressures, and personalities. Perhaps you will someday be able to comfort others going through similar circumstances.
2. Don’t neglect your own spiritual walk or the spiritual walk of your family. Take every opportunity to steal away to a quiet place, read your Bible, and pray.
Since time is so precious right now, your spouse or a supportive relative, (if you are single or widowed), can really help with this one. To help your family through this time, regular devotions and Bible reading with time for private family discussion should also be a high priority. Turn off the phone, and anything that will distract. Once again, you can do anything for 15 minutes. Use these special times to discuss important issues with family. With most families, there may be negative influences they will encounter from family members during this time. Use them as teaching tools.
Radio personality Dennis Prager, shared a story from his youth. He was praising what seemed to be a “perfect” family to an elderly friend and mentor. His friend responded with great wisdom, “That is because you don’t know them!” Her point was that every family is dysfunctional at some level, even our own. Ever since studying Christian Counseling in college, my husband, Ross and I have jokingly referred to this “HDD,” meaning “Human Deficit Disorder,” of course resulting from original sin. If this disorder was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it would explain everything.
Often, when our kids see grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who have made poor choices, they will also eventually see the results of those poor choices, beliefs and lifestyles. For example, the relative who chooses to put their kids in a public school may find them making poor choices in friends, or adopting a worldview that doesn’t regard God or truth. The cousin who chooses to abuse alcohol and drugs is on the road to disaster. The relative who chooses immorality affects and hurts far more lives and families than just their own. The impact is generational.
Our children will see a stage before them where simple cause and effect demonstrates the truths of what we are trying to teach them. They will have the opportunity to observe the emptiness of the unexamined life that does not choose Christ. Rather than allowing them to become depressed or swayed, we need to guide them by using this as a learning tool. Examining the results of sin will help foster compassion for the lost, and gratitude for immediate family, church, lifestyles and choices that God has provided for them. They may even grow in their desire and ability to share Christ with their relatives.
3. Avoid being a perfectionist. This is not the time or season for “perfection.” Deal with it by giving yourself a “break” from perfectionism. God will fill in the blanks. This is a season of your life where there just will not be enough time or energy to meet every goal. It is not healthy for you to be hard on yourself. You will not accomplish every goal you have during this time without a miracle. Let God provide that miracle. So, continually kicking yourself for not meeting your goals perfectly is not going to help anyone. In fact, this can foster a negative rift within your family.
Life is messy. Nothing will ever change that. The only thing that truly lasts in this life is our character and the relationships we build with God and others. If you do nothing else during this season, try your best to demonstrate godly character by building and appreciating the relationships God has provided, whether they include relatives, or the friends who stand by your side to help.
4. Don’t try to do everything yourself. This will only drag you down, and make you vulnerable to make choices that will surely take your family off course. Try to develop a support group of prayer partners and supportive friends in every area of your life.
a. Avoid exhausting yourself by organizing shared responsibilities among friends and family members. If the health of your elderly parent is shaky, it is absolutely impossible for one person to do 100% of the elder care by themselves without wearing out. I have heard it said that having an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s Disease often results in two patients, as the spouse often will wear themselves down trying to care for their loved one. Avoid making yourself a second patient. Draw on every possible relative, neighbor, and friend, as well as people in your church who can help.
b. With homeschooling, do all you can to stay the course. Depending on the ages of your kids, it is healthy to network with other homeschool families who can help you through this time.
Remember, with Heritage, you are surrounded with an amazing network of wonderful families with similar values and goals who can help you through this season. Taking time to develop or plan curriculum might seem a luxury that eludes you. Your older kids may just have to take a crash course in maturity, and take up some of the responsibilities that make family life homeschool work.
I remember a friend saying that sometimes “school” during this season might mean “throwing a text book” their way, and saying, “Read this through, and learn all you can, then tell me about what you learned each Friday. We will come up with a project or test to demonstrate what you have learned later.”
c. Develop a system of accountability. Having a co-op with other homeschool families or attending a class day can provide a valuable, time-saving tool during this time. My biggest downfall has been keeping my kids accountable to their studies, since my focus constantly shifts due to demands on my time. Calling on other homeschool friends or relatives to help keep kids accountable is a healthy way to cope during this season. It sure beats screaming at the kids, and then listening to family tell you to put them in public or private school full time since you can not “handle it” any more.
5. Remember “Why” You Decided to Homeschool. You have deliberately chosen to school “out-of-the-box,” to pass down your values to the next generation. For the past century, we have segregated education from actually living life, where much of true education exists. Someone once said, “Never let school get in the way of a good education!”
In America’s early days, the elderly lived with the family, and a “wake” in the parlor room of any home was a common experience. Over the years, our culture has made an effort to insulate younger citizens from the issues and experience of aging, death and dying. Elders are removed to nursing homes. Unless one works in the geriatric-healthcare field, this unfortunate choice has prevented many of our citizens from facing the realities that come with stages of life and end-of-life issues.
Life is the Classroom
Now is the time where life becomes the classroom, and schedules are secondary. Teaching happens whenever Mom or Dad become available. Working through curriculum happens whenever students are given a chance. While this might make extremely structured families uncomfortable, these circumstances provide us the opportunity to become comfortable with the true flexibility of homeschooling. Education is really happening around the clock.
My friend and homeschooling parent Sharon reflects on her experiences this year with one imperative: “Simplify! I didn’t do any formal writing lessons with Daniel this fall when I was extremely busy with my parents. I just told him to do a power point presentation on the animals he was learning about in his science book. He is still totally into this project, and he’s doing some writing about each animal. It requires no work on my part. I looked for things he could do on his own. Teaching Textbooks for example is a great way to do math with little help needed from parents. I also had Daniel do a lot of reading. Extracurriculars gave my kids things to do without my time being involved, except to get them where they needed to go.”
One curriculum that has been a blessing to my family is www.ALEKS.com. This is a great “hands off” online, artificial intelligence computer program that can take your student all the way through basic math to calculus, and also offers some science courses. It even provides you with report card and a time chart and shows you how hard the student has been working, and for how long. No grading. It fills in the gaps and holes in their education just like a tutor—without the high price. Students don’t complete the courses until they actually prove mastery in each subject. It also has a CLEP Test prep program in some subjects, where students can combine high school and college by preparing to pass the College CLEP Tests and earn college credits during high school.
As families juggle tending to the needs of their aging relatives, there is much to learn about life, responsibility, honoring our parents, serving others and the field of health sciences. Our children may even want to chronicle the stories of their grandparents. We can take advantage of this opportunity to have our children learn and practice skills such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, yard work, auto maintenance, budgeting, bills, and more. As you learn about health issues and needs in honoring and caring for your loved ones, use every opportunity to teach your children about fitness, health science, human biology, the health services industry, and medical careers.
While working as a College and Career Planning Counselor for the past few years, I have seen a number of students bridge from their experiences in caring for aging grandparents into studying for a career in the health care field. With the aging “Baby Boomer” generation, there is no shortage of jobs available in health care, sports medicine and physical therapy, and this trend promises to continue as needs increase.
6. Don’t neglect your relationships with your spouse or children. For spouses, it is a particularly sensitive time. Aging parents will often gladly take all your time, if you will give it. Sometimes you must set reasonable boundaries, to avoid neglecting your own family.
Elderly parents can make the most unusual demands on our time. Our schedules are daunting enough as homeschoolers. Add an elderly parent’s “emergencies” to the mix, and you can throw the best-planned schedule right out the window. I remember one Mom telling my how she got to Class Day late one morning because her Dad made her drive 30 minutes to help solve his “crisis” that morning: He couldn’t open the can of bird seed, and was certain his bird would starve. As dementia sets in, and frustrations arise, elderly parents will often find it difficult to distinguish between true emergencies and a simple problem they need help solving.
My Mom called me over one afternoon as her dementia first started to escalate (when she still could dial the phone): She was certain she heard on the news that all the oxygen was being sucked out of the atmosphere, and she was afraid of suffocating. Of course, that was the last time we left her home alone. As humorous as these stories might seem, our elderly parents often feel out of control and incapable, and the feelings are terrifying. Our job is to calm them down, try to create a safe environment, and try to keep care and visits to a manageable schedule when possible. Eventually they often require 24-hour care and supervision, and we must take additional steps to preserve the health of our immediate family relationships.
This can be a two-way street. It might seem like you and your spouse never have time to spend together when you aren’t thoroughly exhausted. The luxury of long date might not be realistic right now, but how about a spontaneous 30 minute or one-hour date? Maybe your oldest child might sit with grandma while your spouse rescues you for a quick trip to a restaurant or a walk around the neighborhood. Maybe your spouse might read to Grandpa while you get some frozen yogurt with your son.
Going on a walk is also wonderful way to spend time and talk with a family member. A game of ping pong, shooting hoops or swinging the tennis racket with one of your family members is another great way to blow off steam and get the heart rate up. Breakfast in bed or a family dinner is a wonderful way to start the day, whether it is cooked by your husband or your kids. While it is good for the kids to see us honoring our parents, it is also great training for them to pitch in more with dinners, cleaning, and caring for the family. After all, they will also be caring for us one day.
Sharon reflected on her focus for homeschooling during this time, saying “I thought it was important that the time I did have with my kids was used well. Daniel and I did a lot of snuggling and read-alouds. I needed to get the most mileage with my time with him. I didn’t want to spend it all battling through those harder subjects. The time I had with my kids I wanted to be sweet. I thought it was okay to skip certain things in order to keep things as happy as they could be. I really don’t think kids would be that behind even if they skipped most subjects for a year. Mine didn’t, but having that in my mind helped me let things go.”
7. Preserve your health, sanity, and finances by making use of every free or reasonably priced resource available to care for your aging parents. Elder care is terribly expensive. Many parents in the “sandwich generation” are desperately trying to homeschool on one income, save for college, and launch one or more high school students into colleges and careers while caring for their elders. I have seen several families wipe out their savings to pay for elder care. Drastic changes have severely limited federal programs and making it very difficult to fund college if a family has planned ahead financially.
Using elder care resources can help you watch your budget, and find ways to get your parent’s needs met without jeopardizing your childrens’ chances to attend their dream college or dissolving your retirement savings. Remember, it is not unusual to go broke caring for elders, or have to shoulder costs to care for elders who went broke in the process. There are so many resources available to help you find the care your aging parents need during this stage of life. An excellent resource hub is the San Diego Elder Care Directory, published by the Union Tribune. This can be found online at http://www.signonsandiego.com/guides/eldercare/. Here you will find plenty of resources and very knowledgeable people to help you. Each community often has their own support system for information and resources. Search the web or call your local chamber of commerce to see what is available in your area.
Finally, like many homeschool support networks, Heritage also has a website blog. If your family has found good resources and caring Christian professionals in the community, it is a great idea to network on your school’s blog and support your community.
Copyright 2011, Mindy Chenault. Reprinted with permission of the author.