I attended weekly support group while caring for my father who was diagnosed with dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. We felt we could go on forever when caregiving was uneventful. The reality was that caring for a loved one with dementia is unpredictable and the road zig-zags quite a bit. During those zaggy moments, when we felt weak and stressed beyond what we could bear, a sense of humor (even a sick sense of humor) helped us get through the week.
Today, the following will raise eyebrows and invite criticism. But back in the early days, it worked for us. At least, after you’ve read about The Proverbial 2″ x 4″, you’ll gain an appreciation for how far we’ve come.
Join me as I reflect upon a time when a fun-spirited award provided relief and strength to family caregivers whose priority was to care for their spouse or parent at home.
During the weekly support group meetings, we took turns sharing our caregiving experiences. Most of us were caregivers for family members with dementia — Alzheimer’s, vascular, and Parkinson’s. Two decades ago, Lewy bodies, frontotemporal lobe, and other causes of dementia were rarely mentioned.
We celebrated when things went well and helped one another when things went poorly. Support group provided a constructive outlet to release our frustrations in confidence.
After having an unusually difficult weekend with my father, I felt heartened by fellow members’ moans, head shaking, and words of understanding, as I shared my experience. “I felt like bopping him over the head with a 2 x 4,” I added. The dozen attendees, including the facilitator, laughed. One pantomimed the action and while others gave a thumbs up in agreement.
That moment gave me the strength I needed to carry on. Knowing that others truly understood what I was going through, I felt uplifted by the group members’ support. When my father did something that made my heart beat faster (and not in a good way), I’d take a deep breath, exhale, and go on caregiving with a big smile.
Each week, we told our stories and grew stronger with others’ support. Some caregivers even referred to that 2 x 4 moment.
After a couple meetings, we figured we should award The Proverbial 2″ x 4″ to the caregiver who struggled the most that week. The award was given in name only. That was until two caregivers brought in…
The Proverbial 2″ x 4″
We laughed! What an amazing gesture! Thanks to the initiative and creativity of two caregivers, we had an actual award to give to a caregiver for the week. The award recipient would then return the 2 x 4 during the next support group meeting and tell his/her story. Week after week the stories were uplifting and funny.
One caregiver kept it behind the passenger seat in her car. When her husband tried to open the door while she was driving (a common occurrence), instead of shouting, she caught a glimpse of the The Proverbial 2″ x 4″ and smiled. Reaching out to distract him, she spoke in a friendlier tone. Her husband listened. She admitted that she felt our support in that award.
Every morning, a caregiver grew increasingly frustrated by his wife’s refusal to eat her breakfast. When he came home from support group, he placed the award in one of the kitchen table chairs and forgot about it. The following morning, he caught a glimpse of The Proverbial 2″ x 4″ and smiled. His wife surprised him when she asked, “What are you looking at? Who are you smiling at?” Smiling, he drew from a deeper well of patience as he helped her with breakfast.
Week after week, people gained enough strength to keep on going with The Proverbial 2″ x 4″.
It wasn’t until one afternoon, when a caregiver admitted to nearly using The Proverbial 2″ x 4″ on her mom. We realized then the inherent danger of our award. That day, we went back to awarding in name only. For many years, it hung on the wall as a reminder that we’re all in this together. Of course, each time a new caregiver joined the group, we delighted in retelling the story.
As I reflect on the 20 years since my father was diagnosed with dementia, I consider how much progress we’ve made. Yes, the stigma remains, but awareness is growing as the voices are heard of more people with dementia. At this pace, in the next decade or two when we Boomers are on the receiving end of care, I can only hope our caregivers will find the strength to go on and keep smiling.