by Cele Keeper
Most of the oldies in HGPS know I’ve been around since the earth was cooling down. Now, to the many iterations of my varied, busy and mostly satisfying life, I have added and become a caregiver.
Sam, my absolutely remarkable spouse of 65 years this recent June 10th, has been laid low by (you can’t make this stuff up) “failed back surgery syndrome.” In short, the back surgery to correct lumbar spinal stenosis didn’t.
So, since about December of 2010 he has been plagued by increasingly terrible hip, thigh, leg, shin and sometimes ankle pain, all referred pain from his back. I share caring for Sam with some very able women who help with his many daily needs, including driving us to unending, weekly and occasionally daily doctor appointments, (his and mine), grocery shopping and keeping us and the house in order. I am aware of how blessed I am.
But this piece is supposed to be about caring for the caregiver, so how do I do that? One way is to keep my professional life active. Using my well-trained brain for something besides filling pill bottles is another blessing. Weekly, I consult with /supervise clinical directors at two different non-profit agencies. (They come to my home.) I also go to and run a weekly supervision group at The Women’s Home, an agency that is run primarily on a group modality (two psycho-dy groups, many psycho-educational groups and groups for women recovering from drug or alcohol addictions.)
Owning that I am an addicted political junkie, I take a class at Women’s Institute from Dr. Richard Murray (UH Political Science professor) every time he offers one, which is two times a year. And if the UH Law School offers a First Amendment elective anytime soon, I will sign up for that, if Sam’s health permits.
I write occasional op-ed pieces about things that need ranting about and The Houston Chronicle has used most of them.
I wrote a memoir, published in 2010, entitled “It’s Never Too Late to Grow Up.” Three weeks after my book signing, Sam’s back problems appeared and required major surgery, so my 15 minutes of fame lasted about 15 minutes. I was not able to travel or market the book, but that was really okay. Sam is my first priority.
I get a lot of phone calls from friends asking, “What can I do?” My response is always the same: “Get me outta here.” So, there are lunch and supper and theatre and meetings with men and women friends. Sam says he would love for me to stay with him, but he knows that’s crazy. I must, he says, try to keep a somewhat normal life going. I love him for that.
We are also very honest with each other NOW. A couple of weeks ago I made a date for lunch with two of my writing buddies. Sam had a doctor’s appointment that day, but he urged me to keep the date. When I got home, he was a seriously unhappy camper, very quiet, not reporting on what the doctor had to say. He didn’t feel like talking, he said. So, quiet ensued. Later in the afternoon I said, “I don’t know if you’re mad at me for keeping the lunch date, or mad at yourself for not saying what you really wanted.” The tension evaporated. If he is feeling really terrible, he will ask me to stay and I am happy to do that.
Almost a week later, the situation was reversed. I got furious at something Sam did. Then it came to me that I thought his plan was a poor one, but I didn’t say so when he was hatching it. That anger should have been directed at me, not at Sam.
When a couple reaches advanced years as we have done, it is a little bit like each of us meeting a new person. Illnesses arrive unpredicted and unwelcome. Situations and needs change and new accommodations must be made and adjusted to. What is so wonderful is that we are spending these years learning new ways to be together. And, yes, many of our old ways of relating still work very well.
If I take care of myself as I feel that I am doing, then whatever awaits us, I believe I can handle.
Cele S. Keeper