The definition of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting a different result. In my role as caregiver to both my mother and my cat, I visit the edge of insanity on a regular basis.
My cat, Max, has diabetes and must be fed on a schedule. He must also be injected with insulin twice a day, every 12 hours. We’ve learned that injecting him (or “shooting the bat*,” as we’ve come to call it) is easier when he’s preoccupied with eating, which also keeps his blood glucose on an even keel. He gets Fancy Feast, which he usually loves, and Nutro Max Cat crunchies. When he was sick and malnourished from the diabetes, his appetite was alarming. He’d suck down two cans in a sitting (and reject the dry food he used to love). He’d barely acknowledge the thin needle delivering his medication. But now that he’s back to a good weight (about 14 pounds), he still cries for food after he’s been fed. He’ll eat a few bites, walk away and clean himself, then forget there’s food in his dish. I will then walk him back to his still-full dish, but he continues to cry. I tried a number of things to get him to dig in, but I found an answer, quite by accident. He needs to be placed at 9 o’clock to his food dish, with his left shoulder to the wall, and then he will eat. Bizarre but true. If he’s at 6 o’clock to the dish, it might as well be empty.
I go through similar gyrations with Mom. A couple of weeks ago, after Bob and I took her out for lunch, I shlepped her packed suitcase back up to her room (she often packs her suitcase, thinking my brother or I will be taking her elsewhere) and noticed that all of her photo albums were wrapped in brown plastic bags. I asked her why she did this, and she repeated that the place was closing and she was going to have to move. I reassured her that was not the case and suggested she unpack her things. It would give her something to do. I told her we were going away the next weekend to see our nieces, but I’d see her soon after that.
During the following week, I got a call from an RN hired by Genworth, Mom’s long term care insurer. They wanted her re-evaluated. Would that be OK? I told the nurse I would be happy to arrange it and meet her there. I wanted to see how Mom was doing through professional assessment standards and I think she’s a little less stressed if I’m there to coordinate.
On the appointed day, the nurse was running late, but I figured I’d spend a little more quality time with Mom. Up in her room, not only was the stuff still packed in bags from last time, she had packed even MORE stuff. And people were stealing her underwear and makeup! No, Mom, they’re packed in your luggage and brown plastic bags. I unpacked everything, hanging some of her clothes, putting other items in her dresser drawers, showing them to her to reassure her, once again, that her things were still there, still safe, and now being stored and organized for her use. I shuffled the items in her closet, putting her slacks in one section, blouses in another, coat and jackets on the far right.
“All that work” Mom sighed.
This was second nature to me at this point. I must have done this exercise in the various places she’s lived at least twenty times (including her time at my house). This time, I was doing it so I could get a handle on what things she might truly need. I know the next time I see her, everything will be tossed around, if not packed, yet again. But at least I know she’s still got hairspray, soap, toothpaste and Poise Pads (they apparently make great packing material).
After her interview with the nurse, I sat with Mom in the main living area and we chatted. Mom said something about having recently had dinner with Dad.
“Really? When was this?”
“I get confused between Daddy and the one who came after him.”
Me too, Mom. There was no one after Daddy. You made up some other fellow in your head; someone you’ve never been able to name. Someone you think you were married to, who had a hostile family and a wandering eye. His story is fascinating, but he doesn’t exist; at least not in my world.
Then she started listing the things she needs. Knee highs, in white.
“Socks? No problem.”
“I can get you more. Did you try on the new panties we bought?”
“Yeah. I need a different size.”
“Were they too small or too big?”
“Uh, I don’t know. You know that one stole my underwear. But I got even with her. I took one of her blouses.”
Her. They. Him. Stolen. Oy.
“I know it’s a pipe dream, but I’m thinking a I might need a new bathing suit. The ones I have are old and they, you know…”
“The elastic goes bad.”
“OK, we’ll have to go to a department store and you’ll have to try some on.”
“Yeah, OK. I’m thinking it’s also time to see someone about my face again.”
“You want another facelift? That’s kind of expensive, Ma. And you might not be strong enough to deal with it. You don’t heal that well.”
“Well, if I get a twinkle in my eye…”
“Yeah, OK, we’ll see.”
Another facelift. When she’d gone for her LifeStyle Lift back in 2007, my brother was thrilled (he’s a product of modern plastic surgical techniques). I was delighted because she was doing something life-affirming and positive for herself. Now, she lives in a home where the only male is a 26 year old health care aide. But in her head, she could be back in Florida flirting with some spry guy with the bat of an eyelash.
And here I sit, recording my musings on the meaning of caregiving, praying that I am never on the receiving end, hoping that my perspective will be of value to others and wishing that my cat would stop screaming at me for food, at least until the next bat bell rings.**
Shriek. Feed. Shriek. Re-direct.
Pack. Unpack. Re-organize. Placate.
I’m tired. But I’m not going to the funny farm. Not just yet, anyway. Because unlike my charges, I am well aware that the results will continue to be pretty much the same no matter how many times the actions are repeated.
*One of Max’s nicknames is “Bat Boy,” due to his cartoonish looks and distinctive black mask. And “shoot the bat” sounds so much less ominous than “inject with insulin.”
**I set reminders on my iPhone so we’ll remember to deliver Max’s food and insulin on time. These alarms have come to be known as the “Bat Bell.” And when Max arrives in my bedroom at 7:30 am to scream for his breakfast, that too is known as the “Bat Bell.”