By Janet Dunnett
I know I was not the first grey-haired child in history to hurtle into a crowded Emergency Room trailing behind a stretcher, fizzing in shame as everyone turned to look. But on a hot August night in 2008, with my mother banging the rails of her stretcher and screaming that I was killing her, I felt alone.
Later that night, a chubby intern with thick glasses said not to worry. Mom probably had an infection. Perhaps her metabolism had become sluggish, so the right dose last week of one or another of her many pills was an overdose now. He shrugged. “Meds get tricky with old girls like your mother.” He scribbled on his clipboard. Without another word, he jabbed a needle into Mom’s arm as she screamed in shock. “This will calm her down.”
My relief was seasoned with a dash of irritation. Why do doctors tell us not to worry in the middle of the night, as if more intelligent caregivers would not overreact? And what was this bit about calling an octogenarian an old girl? I knew by now in the caregiver game that tongue-biting worked better than tongue-lashing. It all got me thinking.
Within days of that awful night, my mother was back to her sweet self, telling me what a good daughter I was and how much she appreciated having me around. I breathed easier, but I couldn’t shake the dawning insight. If my trauma was garden-variety, then there must be a tribe of us out there, unpaid family caregivers, probably feeling belittled, confused and isolated by conditions just like I was in. “Nothing to worry about” was probably twisting all our lives in knots.
The tribe of family caregivers has far more women than men. Is there a gene tag for caregiving that is epigenetically slower to switch on in men? Perhaps it is simply how we are socialized as little girls. It is a safe bet that most of us didn’t see the job coming, or wanted it when it did. Most important, few of us had any training in the complex tasks involved to take it on, let alone thrive.
Is there anything special about his caregiving daughterhood? I think we understand each other. Though most of us are far too busy. In crisis, we women tend to befriend, while men are hardwired to shake their fists at the threat, or else make a run for it. That makes us willing caregivers. We women also admit more readily to our feelings of fear, fury or futility, while men seem more often to be trapped in bravado. I see the daughterhood everywhere.
Excerpted from The Dwindling: A Daughter’s Caregiving Journey to the Edge of Life, by Janet Dunnett