When Mary Ann was diagnosed with Parkinson’s twenty-two years ago, our Daughter Lisa was a Senior in high school and our Son Micah was in the Eighth Grade.  They were, of course, both living at home.  I had gone ahead to a new job in Oklahoma City, many hours away.  The family joined me there at the end of the school year.

Since the kids were at home, they knew pretty much from the beginning the name of the Disease with which their Mom had been diagnosed.  For those who are diagnosed after the children are out of the house and living elsewhere, the question is, when should they be told.

I am convinced that more information is better than less information.  Hiding the truth is unsettling to the children and unfair to them.  They are a part of the family.  They need to hear from Mom or Dad, whomever has the disease, what it is and what it means.  Adult children, even young adult children could easily feel betrayed if they found out from someone else through a slip of the tongue what they should have heard from their parents.

Mary Ann chose not to tell family and friends for the first five years after diagnosis.  She did not want to be treated differently on account of the Parkinson’s.  I would have preferred telling family and friends much sooner, but it was her call.  She had the right to decide who should know what about her diagnosis, and when they should know it.

My bias is toward laying out the basic information so that there is no guessing or wondering.  The disease seems to have more power when it is secret than it does when it is out in the open.  For people who care about you to move through the process of coming to accept it, they need to know about it.

When finally the news was out, we could begin to deal openly with the various challenges that came with it.   People were anxious to help to whatever degree they could. The Parkinson’s just became a part of the landscape of our lives.

Caregivers and spouses need to decide as each new dip in the roller coaster comes, how much to tell whom and when to tell them.  I have heard many say, “I didn’t want to worry the kids, so I didn’t tell them what was going on.”  The result of that approach is to increase the concern of the kids since they can’t count on hearing the truth about what is going on.  They wonder what they are not being told.  They worry about how things are really going.

It is not, of course, as easy as deciding to tell them everything all the time.  Since adult children have full lives with worries of their own, they can be overloaded with too much information, drawing them into every bump in the road in their parents’ struggle.

I guess the goal is to find the Golden Mean, the balance that allows them to be confident that they will hear when there is a significant change, but not be drawn into the day to day ups and downs.

The same is so with friends and family.  They are interested in how things are going, but they do not need to be invited to join you on your roller coaster ride.  They have one of their own.

One mistake I have made in the past as I have communicated changes in our situation, is to share a noticeable dip in the roller coaster we are on, but neglect to give a quick follow-up when things are going better.  Especially those with whom we share only occasionally and then only when there is a dramatic change can be left thinking we are at a low point in our struggle when in fact we have come out of it to a much better place.

Gratefully, at least for computer users, there are free websites that can be used to post updates.  That way people who are interested in finding out what is going on can check the site to see how things are going.  Those sites can be used to make sure that people have accurate information on your situation, rather than resorting to the “I heard that…” word of mouth that may confuse the facts.  A couple of sites that come to mind are http://www.caringbridge.org and http://www.carepages.com.

As for the kids, they need to be confident that they will hear about any major changes without being drawn into the day to day ups and downs.  That provides them with a sense of security that allows them to concentrate on their own lives.  We raised them to go out on their own and make lives for themselves.

Friends and family will vary in how much they want to know, but they cannot be a support when troubled times come if they don’t know about the trouble.  Let them know when the troubled times have relented so that they can celebrate with you.

The people in your life care how things are going.  They want to know, just remember that they have lives of their own.

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Traveling fools that we are, we are heading out again tomorrow morning.  Having just returned from Kentucky last Monday, the preparations seem to be going more smoothly than last time.

This time we are heading for the most beautiful Bed and Breakfast that could be imagined.  There are ten rooms (one especially for handicapped), all of them facing a beautiful arm of Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Each room has its own patio or balcony.  There is a library, a reading room (both with fireplaces), a heated and cooled sun porch with games and puzzles and areas for conversation.  The decor is elegant without being pretentious.  There are many watercolors by local artists, one artist in particular.  The quality of the art is impeccable.  There is a garden that spills down the terrace toward the lake.  It is laced with paths and a stream divided by waterfalls, the water from a wonderfully gurgling fountain at the edge of the patio outside the dining room.  The garden is filled with trees and blooming shrubs and Azaleas.

The Owners and Staff are welcoming and engaging.  The breakfast is, of course, many courses, all tasty and what I would call comfortable gourmet.  I just made up that descriptor, but it is the only way of saying it that makes sense to me.  The 4:00pm wine and cheese and freshly baked cookies, sometimes fruit, is a relaxed time for conversation around the serving table or for eating on the patio listening to the fountain and the birds that visit the multiple feeders.  By the way Chocolate Wednesday is a special treat!

What I just described I am remembering from a visit last October.  That trip was a retirement gift from the Congregation that has meant so much to us in these last dozen or so years.  Since one of the owners of the Bed and Breakfast is an active Pastor, there are special rates for those of us in the business, making this trip possible for a pastor living on a pension.  This B&B is called Lookout Point – Lakeside Inn, www.lookoutpointinn.com/

I am excited about this trip.  Part of the reality of Caregiving is that anything can happen in the next few days as we make this trip.  Tomorrow something may emerge that makes it impossible to go.  We may have any number of problems as we travel.  None of that dampens my enthusiasm.  I cannot know what will happen, so I will enjoy what I can, while I can.  Mary Ann enjoyed our last visit and is motivated to make it work.

As always the preparations are many.  Choosing clothes to take along is a special challenge.  As is the case each morning, I gather as many options for clothing as I can hold and carry them to her as she sits on the edge of the bed.  Often it takes what seems to be an interminable amount of time for her to work back and forth through the clothes as the hangers dig into my fingers.  Deciding on clothes for six days of travel is an exhausting experience for the one holding the clothes.

There are pills to be prepared and put in the plastic seven day, four section each day, pill holder.  Then the bottles of pills need to be along in case anything happens to the ones in the daily container.  There are meds for the two skin cancers that have just been removed so that they can be treated properly to enhance the healing process.  One takes Polysporin and a band-aid each day, the other needs to be dabbed with Peroxide three or four times a day.  The Exelon patches need to come along. The black case with liquid band-aids to deal with the Plavix thinned blood if there is a cut comes along.  There are straws and bandages and wipes and adhesive tape, boxes and tubes and containers filled with all sorts of things that have been needed at one time or another in the past.  All are contained in that black case.

There is the booklet with all the medical information including a list of medications, insurance information, doctors names and phone numbers, her living will.  There are snacks to be gathered for the trip.  There are paper towels for the inevitable spills as we travel.  Both wheel chair and transfer chairs will come along.  We may add the bedside commode if there is room. Those who are in the stage of life that includes young children know how hard it is to gather all that is needed so that the odds of the trip going well are increased.  There are never any guarantees about how it will go, no matter how many preparations are made.

Every time we do this, the usual questions come to mind again.  Should we be traveling away from the security of home and familiar medical resources?  Is it more trouble than it is worth?  What if something happens!!

I guess we have decided that if something happens, it will happen.  We can’t control that.  We can sit at home and wait for it to happen so that if it does, we will be close to the familiar.  We are simply choosing not to sit and wait.  Our reasoning is obvious.  We have what appears to be a limited time remaining with enough mobility to even attempt traveling.  We will do it while we can and not do it when we can’t.  We think we still can, so off we go!

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

Mary Ann and I both had appointments with the Cardiologist today.  We knew him as a parishioner before he became our Cardiologist.  We like him very much.  He is good.  Very good.  We are grateful that he is good since Mary Ann has so many problems associated with her heart and its functioning.  He is an important member of the team.  It is a team.  The team includes the Cardiologist, the Parkinson’s Clinic Neurologist, the local General Neurologist, the Gastroenterologist, the Primary Care Physician (General Practitioner),  the Nephrologist, the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, the Dermatologist (who has removed her four Basal Cell skin Cancers), the Endocrinologist, her Physical Therapist, Speech Therapist, Occupational Therapist, Clinical Psychologist, two or three hospitalists, along with numerous medical technicians and nurses of all sorts, some seen only once, some who are practically like family.  We have great medical care.

Each of these people is very good at what he/she does.  Each has specialized in a certain body system or body part.   The Primary Care Physician has the largest chart for Mary Ann, but there is no way he can keep up with all the tests and treatments and medications with so many different people making independent decisions about what to do to treat the problem in their area of expertise.

Here is the obvious problem in this marvelous Team effort.  Mary Ann is actually a single living being who is not simply a gathering of independent systems and body parts.  She is a whole somebody.   Every system is connected to every other system, making up a single functioning human someone. 

Any of you who has been a primary Caregiver for a Loved One with Parkinson’s or any other chronic illness understands very well nature of the your role as a Volunteer Medical professional.  All those people listed above know more than I do about their area of specialty.  I know Mary Ann better than any of them.  I pick her up when she faints or loses her balance.  I know when those problems come in relationship to how much medicine she has taken and when.  I have discovered that when the recommended treatment for her heart is put in place, her Parkinson’s is unmanagable.  I know that when she has some major intestinal activity there is likely to be some fainting and maybe a time of mental confusion.  I know that if there will be a test done that demands her lying still, we need to skip the dose of her main Parkinson’s Med (brand name Sinamet) or the test will almost be impossible to accomplish, because of the dyskinetic movement that is now a side effect of that medication.  I know about how long we have to get from one place to another before she is likely to faint.  

One of the somewhat unique characteristics of Parkinson’s is that there is not much that is consistent and predictable. Medicine may work or may not work on a given day or at a given dosing time.  She may be able to walk long distances without fainting or faint sitting in a chair or immediately on getting up.  She may be up a dozen times on the commode during the night, or just a couple of times.  She may be wobbly or steady, sleepy or restless.  Even the best specialist in the field knows that one regimen of meds may work for one person but not another. 

Your Medical Degree is in the Mail!  You as the Caregiver actually serve as the Primary Care Medical Practitioner.  You need to know what medicine is being given for what symptom(s) and what impact it will have on the others.  The clearest example of the problem of competing treatments came for us when the treatment for Mary Ann’s Congestive Heart Failure and Cardiac Heart Disease stood in direct opposition to the treatment for her Parkinson’s.  The diuretics and low salt diet lowered her blood pressure.   The Parkinson’s meds lowered her blood pressure also, and the progression of the Parkinson’s compromised her body’s ability to adjust quickly enough to keep blood pressure high enough to stand up and remain conscious. 

Let me put it this way.  One doctor said, no pizza and Pepsi, the other one said, yes, pizza and Pepsi.  One treatment was to keep from retaining fluids, making the heart work harder, the other treatment was to keep enough fluids in her body to keep her blood pressure from dropping suddenly.  At one point I inferred from what the Cardiologist that the side effects (the dyskinetic movements) of her main Parkinson’s meds was threatening her heart’s health.  We stopped the Parkinson’s Meds and she turned to stone. 

Caregivers are advocates for the quality of life of their chronically ill partner.  In our case, the doctors we regularly use now understand the narrow margin of functionality within which we live. 

I wonder how many of you who are primary Caregivers have taken your Loved One to the doctor, only to be ignored by the staff and maybe even the doctor, treated as an annoyance who should keep your questions to yourself.  I do not have enough fingers and toes to count the times, either in doctor’ offices or hospital rooms that I needed to explain to the medical staff some of the very basic dimensions of Parkinson’s, the way meds should be given and what the side effects will be. 

Caregivers are the Primary Medical Technicians for their Loved Ones.  Don’t get angry about it, just do it.  Learn everything you can about the disease.  Go to workshops and support groups, whether face to face or online.  Write down the questions and demand answers in terms that you can understand.  Ask what every medicine is supposed to do, what its side effects are and how it will impact other problems and the medicines being taken for them.  Advocate for the best quality of life you can obtain, even if you run into some attitude along the way. 

Like it or not,  you are the Team Leader.  No,  you are not a doctor, you do not have the breadth of knowledge and training, but you know your Loved One better than anyone else.  You are an expert on his or her disease and its impact on your lives.  You see the whole person, not just the separate systems and body parts. 

Our experience has been that any time we have encountered a medical professional who is good, very good, who knows the area well, he/she has always been open and inclusive, listened well and explained well.  Seek them out.  They will help you find the best quality possible for and your Loved One in your time together, however long that may be.

If you have a story to tell from your experiences with medical professionals, tell that story here.  It might help someone who happens to find her/his way to this site.

By the way, today’s news from the Cardiologist was good news.   There has been no measurable deterioration, nothing new in the last six months.   For the moment, we get to keep our current normal.  We can live with that!

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Comments are appreciated.