A lesson in caregiving

Three years ago, my wife had her right knee replaced. A couple of weeks ago, she had the other knee replaced. She was in a lot of chronic pain before the surgery. Now that she’s recovering, she’s in a more chronic pain, but it’s the kind that results from having a joint of metal and plastic melded to her femur and tibia.

This also means for a couple of weeks now I’ve been largely her sole caregiver; hence I’ve had a hard time finding the time to post. There’s lots of physical therapy she is supposed to do three times a day but often can’t manage. At least initially this meant that I did a lot of her joint movement for her. It also means sticking pillows under her knees and elevating her legs on an incline. Also there’s lots of icepacks to wrap around the new joint, blankets to drape over her and pillows to adjust.

There’s lots of other stuff to do for her too: shoes to put on her and tediously getting her pants on. I make all the meals and clean up afterward too. I have a myriad of other chores that she would normally do, including laundry and feeding our cats twice a day. I help her shower, dry off, put her underwear on and push in chairs so that she can get seated properly to eat. There’s a water bottle she persistently wants full of ice. And if I find some spare minutes, there will likely lots of ad-hoc calls for more aid.

I can usually work in a walk if she is stable, elevated and has an ice pack on the joint. I also use this time to dash to various stores so we don’t starve. Being her sole caregiver, I can’t be too careful. I use an N95 mask whenever I am in public indoor spaces.

If I were 25 it probably would be less of a deal. But I am 65. Three years ago I went through the same thing. While it was a lot of hassle then I don’t recall it affecting me as much. Her first day home was particularly exhausting. My back hurt badly and I felt run ragged since I’d been hopping for almost fourteen hours. Part of it is that there seemed more to do and there was more pain this time. But it’s also that on some level I must be declining a bit.

The pandemic didn’t help. Through it all I’ve managed to get plenty of aerobic exercise (walking four miles or so a day) but no weight training as I don’t own any weights. I let my YMCA membership lapse and it’s still lapsed as I’m still leery of catching covid-19 there, which I’ve somehow still avoided.

So this post is probably a bit whiny as we are thankfully retired. It’s good to have the time to take care of her, but it’s really a job for younger people. Thank goodness she’s partnered. Otherwise she’d be weeks in a nursing home.

In spite of the hassle of taking care of her, it’s done with love. But it’s also a reeducation in real life and the reality of hard work. I’m astonished by how much work is involved and there’s lots of things she can do by herself. I’m trying to imagine taking care of her if she had Alzheimer’s, for example. There are lots of caregivers doing work like this, and I’m guessing that this work multiplied by at least three.

And yet caregivers, when they are employed, make astonishingly poor wages. They are in chronic high demand but that’s not enough to provide them with a true living wage. The work is tiring, tiresome, demanding, often ad-hoc and frequently frustrating. It can be so persistent and exhausting that it’s unclear if you could get a caregiver regardless of the wages paid.

My wife is improving but there are good days and bad. She can do more things for herself. She manages her medication, and she has quite a list that needs coordinating. I’m not sure I could keep track of them all or administer them properly. Yesterday she had a major complication. Her knee improved but her calf was swollen and hot to the touch. The physical therapist had her get an ultrasound at our local hospital. They found a blood clot behind her knee and she’s now on a blood thinner. Hopefully it will improve. She’s close to moving from her walker to a cane, which would be a big improvement.

So many of us sneer at people who are caregivers. It’s like they’re only good enough to be a caregiver. My reality is that it’s one of the hardest jobs you will ever have. Caregivers deserve a living wage, not to mention our admiration and courage. If you don’t believe me, there’s a good chance you will find out one of these days. It’s not for the faint of heart.

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