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Who cares for the caregiver?

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I take care of a very nice 73 year old lady with a very complicated medical history. When medical professionals describe a patient as “complicated”, what they mean generally is that the patient is medically vulnerable and likely has several chronic illnesses, requires many levels of treatments and specialized care, and utilizes a lot of resources. These are the patients with whom you really need to spend time. These are not your 10 minute “cough” visits, or your 10 minute “refill my birth control” visits. These are the long, “let’s make sure we go through each of your pill bottles together Mr. Jones” visits.

So, I take care of a very nice 73 year old complex patient. When you have a patient like that, sometimes seeing his/her name on the schedule can really be frustrating because I never know if this is going to be an easy visit or a hard visit, is she going to have complaints I can’t figure out, will I even be able to give her the care she needs today, and will I be able to do that without falling behind in the schedule and making my other patients mad?

On this particular day, I saw her name again on my schedule for the 6th time in only a two month period of time. The 6th time. In two months. As I am talking with her during this appointment, it was shaping up to be a relatively easy visit until I asked about her husband. I knew her husband. He was not a patient of mine but he had been with her to some of her appointments with me in the past but hadn’t been to the clinic in a while. He’d been very ill and has had a quick decline in health since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Among a lot of other signs and symptoms, Parkinson’s patients begin to have a behavioral change often marked by extreme apathy and lack of empathy. She tearfully told me about the daily struggles of having to care for him as his main caregiver and that her husband of 53 years doesn’t seem to care about her anymore or show any emotion at all (although she knows it’s the disease). She cried when I asked her if she ever got a break and said that no one has ever asked her that. She said that coming to the doctor’s office is a break for her. She enjoys the wait in the waiting room and the discussions with her doctors and immediately I knew then why she had been to see me so many times these last two months.

Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. Many caregivers are also burdened by guilt if they spend time on themselves rather than on their ill loved ones. If you are a caregiver, please practice self care and ask for help. If you know a caregiver, be aware and observant. Offer help.

For all of us, sometimes, someone wants to just talk and be heard. My sweet, medically complicated 73 year old patient came to see me 6 times in 2 months just to talk. Not to complain. Not to frustrate me. Not to throw off my schedule. She wanted a break, she wanted to sit in my waiting room and she wanted to talk to someone. Sometimes someone just wants to be asked the banal question “how are you?”, and then feel like someone cares about the answer. And if not your doctor, then who?

Jill the Squirrel, watercolor

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