The isolation of becoming a caregiver led Teena Gates to find support in the most unexpected of places.
She moaned luxuriously as she stretched out on my bed.
With bright eyes shining, she stared at me as I took her paw in mine and rasped my nail file over her black glossy claw. Surely things have reached a new level, when I’m giving my German shepherd a manicure in my bed at 3 a.m.
#GoogleDog, so named because she can ‘search and find’, has proven to be a valuable resource for both myself and Dad, who’s 95 and suffers with vascular dementia. I rescued Google from a DSPCA animal shelter, but in truth I think she rescued us.
When I visited the shelter nestled up in the Dublin Mountains four years ago, it was with the intention of getting a tiny Jack Russell. At the time, I was looking for a companion dog for dad, who was living with me, but feeling lonely when I went to work. When I arrived home with Google at my side, he met us at the door grinning, and asked where I was going to stable the horse! Two years and two serious falls later, Google has found new purpose as a support dog, while my dad’s world is imploding, and mine with it.
Dad was 93 when his first serious fall accelerated his dementia, but despite his advancing years it still took me by surprise. Since then we’ve been surrounded by alarms, monitors and cameras, to protect dad, and to alert me if he’s getting out of bed or heading for the stairs or street unobserved.
But GoogleDog is better than any alarm. Instinctively and without training, she comes running for me if dad starts to wander at night. During the day when he’s distressed and I’m frustrated, she’s always ready with a damp nose, silky ears and soft eyes, offering love and reassurance to whichever of us needs it most. Because it’s not just dad who gets sad.
As dad’s dependence on me grows, my life as I know it changes. Inevitably and irrevocably, I am no longer the same person who began this journey two years ago. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I have grown emotionally in some respects. My sense of humour has sharpened, my patience has increased exponentially, and my cooking has improved beyond all recognition... But filing my dog’s nails in the early hours of the morning after putting dad back to bed, I ponder on how much I rely on her for adult conversation.
There are many occasions when dad’s dementia prevents him from joining me on planet Earth, and GoogleDog is the closest thing I have to a friend. She has become my confidant and tipping my finger against a soft velvet ear as she pads around the house at my side, frequently puts the world to rights.
I’m relieved to say that I still have friends of the two-legged variety, but most of my relationships have distinctly changed. Even with the greatest empathy in the world, friends find it hard to understand that when I say I must leave in one hour, I really mean it. Every minute in traffic after that, risks leaving a paid carer stranded at home with dad, when they should be rushing to their next client.
Then there’s the conversation. I used to talk about my working world of news and politics, always knowing the latest gossip and the newest report, constantly up-to-date on every level of current affairs. I would have adventures to share about swimming rivers, climbing mountains, and travelling around the country with kayaks and bikes. I had the drama of taking part in triathlons and marathon swims, and camping along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.
Now my topics tends to centre on the deterioration of my dad’s health, how many times I got up in the night, what I have growing in the garden, the admittedly amusing adventures of GoogleDog, and occasional accounts of the struggle to complete forms for supports and services. Not to mention the difficulty of making ends meet, after leaving full-time employment.
I imagine I sound desperate, boring and limited. That may not be true, but I’m acutely aware of my shortcomings in bringing entertainment to the table. I no longer know the questions to ask my old friends about the relevant comings and goings in their own lives. I seem to have lost touch with their realities and it’s unrealistic to expect them to be in touch with mine. Most are still there for me, but we just can’t seem to connect in the same way, and I can feel us drifting further and further apart.
One former friend and colleague formally terminated our friendship by email as they ‘could see I would need more support than they were willing or able to give’. I’ve also pushed some people away myself. I feel in turn that I can’t offer the same level of support that I used to, and I jealously guard the short few hours of relaxation that I have away from the house and dad. I find I’m selfish about my free time and I’m selecting friendships more carefully, which is both practical and dreadful.
The coronavirus pandemic was horrendous. I may have felt isolated before, but in the four months of lockdown I really suffered and learned a vital lesson about the importance of friendship.
I realised that I want friends and need friends, and that friendships need to be nurtured and minded. I started to reach out to fellow carers on social media and instantly found warm connections. Although our stories are all different, there are enough familiar points to forge a friendship on common ground. Only a carer can get excited about the discovery of a pink sheet that will hold three litres of liquid away from a mattress. (Message me if you haven’t discovered that one yet!).
Fellow carers understand when you dash back home at a moment’s notice or drop the phone in the middle of a conversation. We have stories to swap about battles with government, learning how to care, developing our skillsets and the general frustrations and joy. We remind ourselves of the joy. Because in cataloguing the difficulties, it’s easy to forget that we choose to care, we want to care, we love to care. But it’s okay to acknowledge that we can also be lonely.
Based on my experience of being lonely, locked away at home as a new carer and feeling totally abandoned during COVID-19, I’ve drafted ten top tips for reinventing my social life. I’m going to work hard on all of these, and I’ll let you know how I get on.
NPS-ALL-NP-00291 May 2021
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