This past week I attended a symposium titled “Aging and Addictions” at the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach. This is the fourth time I’ve attended a workshop at Hanley and they’ve all been very worthwhile. The presenters this week were John Dyben and “Dr. Jamie” Huysman. Dr. Jamie has been on Oprah and Geraldo many times. I don’t watch those shows but his name did sound vaguely familiar. I’d heard Rev. Dyben speak before at Hanley. He’s both a mental health professional and an ordained minister. Both he and Dr. Jamie are excellent presenters.
The workshop focused on providing care to the care-givers of the elderly addicted. It was pointed out that:
(1) 80% of care-givers for older adults are family members
(2) There are 65-million care-givers of older adults
(3) Most addiction in the elderly is to prescription pain meds (opiates)or alcohol, and most primary care doctors don’t focus on either a patient’s alcohol use or prescription med over-use.
(4) Our population is rapidly aging due to the “boomers” reaching age 65.
(5) Many elderly see multiple doctors and are on a cornucopia of meds for various conditions both physical and psychological. Over-medication is a problem and primary care doctors are writing most of the scripts for psychoactive meds and many are poorly informed about these medications, their interactions, and their potential for misuse.
That’s the big picture. However, what struck me was the presenters focus on care-giver fatigue and the need for self-care. Being a licensed counselor I’m a professional care-giver, but I’ve also been a family care-giver. My mother was seriously bipolar, and I am an only child. I was her primary care-giver for the 14 years after my father died in 1986. During that time she had three stints in the hospital and rehab for physical problems (broken hip, broken femur, stroke), as well as five or six brief psych hospitalizations. There weren’t too many periods of stability during that 14-year span. It was draining. She spent the last four years of her life living in a nursing home, partially paralyzed. I visited her daily. And, although I am a Christian, much of the time I felt alone in the battle. I know God is a good God, and I have a fair amount of trust, but it was painful to watch my mother struggle and feel helpless to do much about it.
I’m also a classic codependent. I attend Celebrate Recovery most weeks and the small men’s sharing group I attend is the codependency/anger group. Most codependent folks also have a lot of unresolved anger. Dr. Jamie pointed that out but I had already noted that relationship myself. Codependents are care-takers and being a care-taker is draining. We “take care” of other people, we often live out their lives, and we put our needs on the back-burner. That’s draining, it’s frustrating and a sure-fire path to frustration, burn-out and anger. It comes with a sense of helplessness and dependency that leads to a simmering anger, that sometimes becomes an explosive anger.
There is a difference between being a care-giver and a care-taker. Being a care-giver is a role which is usually thrust on us by life’s circumstances (aging, illness, accidents, etc). Being a care-taker is a role we unconsciously or unwittingly choose. But once we have been educated on our codependent, care-taker nature we are free to choose. We can choose better boundaries (learning to say no) and we can engage in better self-care strategies. We can learn to take care of ourselves first. We care-takers have a problem with the flight attendant’s directive before each flight that should there be a decompression in the cabin to take the oxygen first before we think of our children or those around us. Now, that just doesn’t feel right to us care-takers. Back in the 1980s, I read about codependency, but that was a problem for other people. It wasn’t relevant as yet, or perhaps I was just in denial.
Codependent care-takers typically have a lot of guilt. Back in 1993, I discovered cruises as a way of self-care. Pretty much every year after that I went on a three or four nite cruise to the Bahamas or Cozumel. I always gave my mother plenty of lead time on my plans and I made arrangements for someone else to look in on her. I always called her at least once from the ship, which at the time was an expensive proposition. I went to great lengths to make sure she was taken care of—and still I felt guilty.
Many professional counselors are seriously codependent. It seems to go with the territory, and most of us are unable to distinguish between our healthy impulse to be a care-giver and the unhealthy impulse to be a care-taker. Another counselor, who is a good friend, has been complaining about poor sleep—and in almost the next sentence complains about a particular client who calls frequently waking her at six a.m in a crisis. She takes the calls and patiently listens to their whining. This might happen to me once, but on the next call they would get an earful and the directive to never, ever call me before eight a.m. again. In one of my not so grace-filled moments I yelled at my friend. Her response was, “It’s my job.” I might add, this is a pro-bono client.
Being a Jesus-follower complicates my struggle with boundaries. What would Jesus do? Would He take the call at six a.m every morning and patiently listen and then pray with His client? Maybe, I don’t know. Maybe, he would respond like He did with the helpless invalid at the Pool of Bethesda and ask, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). But whatever He would say would be perfect and it would likely help them grow. And I suspect He would both help them grow up,and grow in their love and reliance on the Father. I also think He would help them understand that they have a role in care-giving others as well—that they keep it most surely when they give it away.
What did Jesus do for self-care? Well, I know he occasionally went to parties at the homes of sinners, but I suspect He went not so much to relax, but because “those people” were His ministry. I know He spent a lot of time in the wee morning hours going off to a secluded place to pray and be with His Father. He was recharging, spending time alone with THE Source. He also went on short cruises but those were with fishermen and only over night. The boats were too small to have a Hollywood Revue in the theater or a midnight buffet after the ice sculptures.
But seriously: What’s in your noggin’? Is your role going to be care-giver or care-taker?