Things are really bad: really, really, really bad. That is the steady drum beat of depressing news; wars and rumors of wars, lay-offs, foreclosure, the shrinking, never-to-return middle class. For people who are caregivers in the midst of all of this chaos there is another drum beat that is constantly played for them: the loss of self, the weary wife, the broken husband, the forgotten children. Have you noticed the language that is being used? People aren’t just losing their jobs; they are being cut off, with an ax, whack! Homes are lost; people are upside down in mortgages. People with dementia are the walking dead, Alzheimer’s is the long good bye. Is it helpful to us to hear this sort of hyped up language all day, every day?
The American people are not living in some dream world, we all know someone who has been touched by dementia; we all know someone who just lost their job. When you are the one out of work, it isn’t a down turn, or a recession, it’s a depression, and a big one. We know. We’ve been there.
Just after 9/11, my husband was laid off from a job with a small family owned company. It was the kind of company that bought all of its employees turkeys for Thanksgiving, held Christmas dinner dances, gave out Valentine candy boxes, and provided summer picnics for the whole family. This company was bought out by an international corporation whose sole aim was to dismantle and destroy the smaller company. Eventually, all of the employees were let go, and everything was sold off. The timing could not have been worse. The months after the attack in New York, no one was hiring, the nation was shell shocked, and everyone was so frightened. Things looked grim for the country, and for our family. Then, completely out of the blue, I was diagnosed with cancer.
We were backed up against the wall, in a nightmare of no income, and a major health crisis. There are only two choices when people are in the kind of situation we were in: you can stand there against that wall and feel desperate and helpless, or you can change direction. This is the huge lesson that we learned in those troubled days; there is an up side to down. There is always an opening, always a path out of the dark place.
In our case, the opening we found was to follow our hearts. We decided to do those things that we had always thought about doing, talked about doing, but never had the courage to try. In the middle of all of the fear and uncertainty, my husband, Tom went back to graduate school to study gerontology and become a specialist in aging. I started writing, seriously, with my life depending on it. These were brave and bold moves, born out of desperation, but they saved our lives.
Tom and I both know that if we hadn’t been faced with such terrible problems, we would not have made such courageous choices. It is in crisis that the seeds of opportunity are planted. It takes courage and faith to make the changes necessary to survive, but we can take our lives in our own hands and not only survive these times, but thrive. In the personal crisis that we faced several years ago, we learned the power of turning away from fear, the power of turning toward opportunity. It has been a long road back for us, but we are the wiser and the better for it, just as all people who serve as caregivers learn. There truly is an upside of down. Please hold on to this idea when you are exhausted, fed up, shaky, lonely, at the end of your rope. You will never, ever regret the time you spent caring for someone who is living with dementia. This is not the time to be afraid; this is the time to be wildly optimistic, and to take that risk, to do that thing that you’ve always wanted to do. After all, when things are this bad, the only way is up!