Thursday, June 30, 2011

VOICES of the VILLAGE: Shawnee Penkacik

Shawnee Penkacik
By Cara Moore, Investigative Reporter

Caregiver Village is all about caregivers. Most of us think about caregivers as older people – middle-aged, at least – caring for an aging parent. One of my airhead friends even said to me recently, “You write about caregivers? Ick! Caregivers are never very cool.”

Anyone who thinks caregivers are never very cool hasn’t met Shawnee Penkacik. Shawnee is not only cool, she’s young, vibrant and beautiful. She’s no middle-aged fuddy-duddy, I’ll tell you that! But Shawnee IS a caregiver. And she is very, very much a part of Caregiver Village. Let me tell you her story.

When you meet Shawnee, the first thing that gets your attention is the way she introduces herself. “I’m the mother of nine children,” she says.

“Whoa – stop right there!” is my instant response. I can barely handle one teenaged son – how on earth (not to mention why) would someone handle nine kids! But we’ll get there…

Shawnee starts off right away talking about her personal caregiver life as the mother of two sons with Mitochondrial disease, a disease that, frankly, I had to have her spell first, and then explain to me. It’s something I’ve never heard of, but as Shawnee talks about the disease she also shares that it’s much more common that anyone thought.

Shawnee pointed me to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation website where I learned a lot more about this disease. She also suggested I check out the website The diagnosis is tricky, as the disease affects so much of the body and looks different on different people. “Over 20% of moms are accused of Munchausen syndrome,” says Shawnee. I know what that means: the docs think they’re making stuff up just to get attention.

“When my first son was born, I had no idea what was wrong. He just slept all the time, and never wanted to eat,” says Shawnee. “When my second son was born showing some of the same symptoms, the doctors just thought I was projecting my experience with my first son on this baby. They were wrong – he’s also affected by the disease.”

As we talk, Shawnee shares a little bit more about herself. “I never thought I’d have kids,” she says. “The doctors told me that my spine was too affected by scoliosis to be able to get pregnant. I was OK with that, too. Guess God had other plans for me!” Shawnee talks about the challenges of getting her kids to their medical appointments, but she always says it in a positive way.

“I don’t drive (I have M.S.), but my friends, my mom and my husband drive me and the kids. I’m so lucky!” says Shawnee.

“But NINE kids,” I say. “What’s THAT about?”

“We just figured each baby was a blessing from God that we were meant to have,” she replies, and then continues to talk about how “lucky” she is.

“So many other parents of kids with this disease have it so much harder. We don’t have to worry about oxygen or other problems. I did have to learn how to put a feeding tube down my infant son without getting it into his lungs – that was scary. But otherwise, we’ve been really blessed.”

When I talked to Shawnee she was busy packing. “We’re moving to Arizona in a few days,” she tells me. “My husband got transferred, so we’ve started packing and will move there soon.”

As for connecting with health care professionals there, Shawnee has already hooked up with a mom’s support group, who is helping her find great medical support. She’s positive and looking forward to the move, excited, as well, that her husband can also find a dad’s support group there.

“My husband, who is my best friend and biggest supporter, handles it differently than I do,” she says. “I think it’s just harder for him to express his feelings, even though he’s willing to do whatever needs done to help the kids and me.”

Shawnee says her biggest caregiving challenge comes from talking with the health care providers. “I had to learn to keep a journal and to document everything. Most importantly, though, I had to learn to stand up and fight for my kids. That was hard for me to do at first, but it’s been the toughest challenge and the most important thing I’ve learned.”

Connecting with other caregivers has been the best stress-reliever for Shawnee. “Many of the moms I connect with online have it so much harder than I do. I think, in many ways, my problems are really just inconveniences, especially compared to other moms.”

Learning about the disease and educating herself about caregiving has been extremely valuable, too. “I found a scheduler through Caregiver Village that is essential to helping me keep track of all the daily medications my kids take – even though it was designed for people with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s perfect for me! I’ve also learned a lot more about taking care of myself, and am trying hard to do that,” Shawnee says.

I can only imagine how hard keeping a marriage intact would be with nine kids, not to mention two kids with very special medical challenges. When I ask Shawnee how she does it she replies, “It’s easy: we laugh a lot. We try to have a weekly date night, too.” Shawnee talks about her husband with fondness and a genuine sense of romance.

“Sharing my story is one way I can help other people,” says Shawnee. “It can feel like you’re all alone – but there are actually lots of us facing really tough caregiving situations. If we can support each other it makes the whole experience a lot easier.”

I think sharing Shawnee’s story can be more than encouraging. For me, at least, it provides some kind of perspective that maybe my own caregiving challenges aren’t all so bad. If Shawnee can feel lucky and blessed, so can I!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

VOICES of the VILLAGE: Lisa Cerasoli

By Cara Moore, investigative reporter

Lisa and her Gram
Editor’s note: Lisa Cerasoli is the author of “When Nora Jo Fades Away,” a book selected for the Village Chronicles caregiver game book club discussion in Episode 2. Lisa makes a guest appearance in the game; she also hosts a real Book Club in Caregiver Village called “It’s Hip to Care!”

Lisa Cerasoli is one of the funniest, most fun people I have had the privilege to meet recently. She’s full of life, energy and sass. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that she named her daughter “Jazz” – I think, for Lisa, life is a full-on riff, just setting the stage for us to get up and start dancing.

What does surprise me is how Lisa took to caregiving. She’s an actor; a Hollywood pro. But clearly, when her family called, Lisa was just as ready to dive head-first, full-steam-ahead into caregiving as she had been into acting.

And of course for Lisa, it wasn’t enough just to head to the Michigan home lands. No, Lisa also found a husband, had a baby and wrote a couple of books.

Typical Lisa style!

When I first met Lisa her Gram was living with her, providing her with not only funny stories and great life experiences, but also with real-life caregiving moments. The kind of moments that make you question your sanity, your judgment and your ability to continue the caregiving role. But Lisa was devoted. She was committed to caring for her Gram, as long as needed.

Then suddenly, not long before Christmas, Lisa’s Gram died. I was really worried about my new friend: how would she cope with such a monumental loss? Would it be devastating to Lisa and her family?

When I checked back in with Lisa recently, I wasn’t really surprised at her perspective. For Lisa, losing her Gram was not the end of something, but rather the beginning.

But I’ll let Lisa tell her own story, in her own words (warning: Lisa is colorful, as my own gram used to say!)… 

Life on Hiatus

I feel like this is just a quick break from the Universe before I’m assigned another “task” -- this sudden onset of FREE time. Even the week Gram was dying in our home, we had hospice and relatives weaving in and out at all hours, and many would ask if they could be next in line. The atmosphere was (for lack of a better word) jovial, all considered. I hadn’t slept in a dozen days, and so I’d chuckle and then nod at each and every request. But that jovial vibe they were all experiencing was really more “Gram” than me. That’s what everyone was so drawn to. Even in her most labor-intensive hours of death, her lighthearted spirit permeated every room in our home.

When you incidentally become a caregiver, you discover a whole bunch of crazy shit. One thing that really blew me away was that not everybody can do it. Some of my biggest mentors and most cherished family members are not cut out for caregiving. So I’d use and abuse them for other tasks when they’d volunteer to help, like grocery shopping, detailing my car or helping me tile a floor. (I know -- I seriously abused them.) It’s funny, though -- they were grateful for it. They were glad to help in a way they felt comfortable doing. And I am no good at grocery shopping, so we all have our talents.

Gram died on December 16, 2010. And January was just plain weird. I cried in my car. I cried while reading my kid The Cat in the Hat. I cried during disco bowling (and not because I didn’t break a hundred). I cried when I watched The Dr. Oz Show. Gram and my daughter, Jazz and I used to watch it every day after Jazz came home from school. One of my last memories was an episode he did on breast care. Gram literally broke out her boobs and gave herself an exam right along with the TV, and Jazz and I were laughing so hard we couldn’t get the words out to stop her. I cried so much, I had begun feeling like a real fool crying over a nearly ninety-year-old woman.

One night during “the reading hour” tears were streaming down my face, into my ears, off my chin, etc.. and Jazz said, “Mommy, are you sad over G.G. again?” I nodded, “Yes.” I was missing her Great Grandma. Then she ran to the window and looked up into the night sky and said, “Mom, come look. See that bright star right there? I bet that’s G.G. ‘cause she was loud and she was really bright. You don’t need to cry anymore. If you’re ever sad again, just look up into the sky and you can wave to her.” We both waved away, and I stopped crying. I had to. I got hit with a gigantic dose of wisdom from a five-year-old and crying seemed pointless after that. But my grieving didn’t end there... Oh, no...

I left with Jazz for Los Angeles and Las Vegas the end of January. We had friends and family who invited us out for an extended stay. We readily accepted and ran to the airport like we were being chased by a pack of rabid wolves. And then we extended our Out West Adventure from three to ten weeks. Talk about weird ... my husband started to wonder if we were coming back! I worked like a madwoman on writing and other endeavors, like my documentary, 50 DAYS with Alzheimer’s. Jazz played with her triplet cousins and lived part-time with the grandparents in Vegas, too. She learned how to be a happy, carefree kid. And I learned how to be a real, live mom -- you know, one with rules and consequences and an inexhaustible amount of time for their kid(s). This stuff didn’t exist in our former “caregiving” lives.

June 1st was Jazzy’s sixth birthday. Pete and I invited fifteen kids over for water sports in the backyard. Okay, I invited the fifteen kids; Pete was my unwitting hostage. Thank God he’s a special education teacher! That never could have happened last year. Pete and I also went for a three hour walk along Lake Superior one day (which ended with a couple of beers at a local nano brewery, Black Rocks). It was a fresh adventure for the two of us as a married couple.

The truth is, the last six months have been an experiment in “making it” without Gram. And life is more relaxed. It’s calm. It’s easy. But, it’s not the same. There is an emptiness that stalks me. It doesn’t happen all the time. This wave of longing doesn’t frequent me like anxiety used to when I was knee-deep in caregiving, that’s for sure, but it lurks and strikes randomly. I miss the hell out of her. We all do. The house misses her. And it’s going to take a lot longer to get over than I imagined back when I was busy whining about my lack of FREE time while she was busy losing her memories and her mind.

So, now that I am six months out of caregiving, people have asked me, “Would you do it again?” Yes, yes I would. I’d do it without thinking or blinking, just like I have done for the last eight years. And I answered “yes” to this question during the most emotionally and physically draining days of my six year adventure with Gram, the amazing Miss Nora Jo. I answered “yes” while bathing her in bed and while she was screaming from being moved because her pain was so intense (but I had to change her, nonetheless). And I answered “yes” after spending several nights curled up on the tile floor bedside her because I was afraid it would be our last night together. Yes, I’d take care of another loved one because I believe caregiving chooses us. So, if I am chosen again, I am ready. In my mind, this is just a hiatus.

And, “yes,” I’d even do it for my mother-in-law, but, you know, she’d have to say, “Pretty please with sugar and a six-pack on top?” 

Lisa Cerasoli
Author of, As Nora Jo Fades Away
Host of It’s HIP to Care @ Caregiver Village

Friday, June 3, 2011

VOICES of the VILLAGE: Meet Sharon Brothers

By Cara Moore, Caregiver Village investigative reporter

I’m so pleased to be able to introduce you to Sharon Brothers in this “Voices of the Village” segment. Interviewing Sharon was a bit like interviewing myself as we have so much in common!

Sharon is a passionate advocate for family caregivers, so I asked her, “How did you become so involved in family caregiver issues?”

“It all started with a phone call,” says Sharon. “I know a lot of other family caregivers can relate. One minute your life is filled to the max with kids, work, friends, and just the ordinary stuff of living. The next minute – out of the blue – the phone rings.”

I’ll let Sharon take her story from here. 

I was sitting in front of the neighborhood ballet studio waiting for my daughter’s class to finish. I had rushed out of the house to get there in time…I have a bit of a reputation for being the mom who keeps her daughters waiting for their ride…so this time I was going to be on time!

As usual, I was half-way through a number of projects at home – dinner on the stove, mail all over the counter, clothes fresh from the dryer - and just left everything where it was. I was only going to be gone a minute.

And then my cell phone rang. It was my mother’s cell phone number, so I answered it, expecting some news about my sister, an update from her doctor’s visit or just a general, chatty ‘hello.’

But it was not my mother’s voice. It was a stranger’s voice, who started out by identifying himself as a paramedic. He said, "I’m taking your mother to the trauma center."

"What happened? Where’s my dad?" I asked.

"Your dad was taken to the rural hospital close to the accident site," he replied. "I can’t tell you anything else but you can call the hospital directly."

I’ll bet you know that feeling of having your world shift significantly in an instant. Somehow I sensed that my own world would never be the same after that moment, but I didn’t know exactly how. My routine, my chores, my daily order of life was off-kilter. I didn’t know what to do or how to do this, so I did what I knew: I started driving.

The trauma center in my city was about 40 minutes away. During that drive, my cell phone rang twice with calls from the hospital social worker, urging me to hurry; suggesting that I not come alone. She would give me no additional details; the implications were clear: it would not be good news.

As I parked in front of the hospital I had the sensation that this was as far as I could go on auto-pilot. From here, I’d need information or help to navigate the next steps. I felt shaken to my bones, as much with the unknown as from the fear of what was to come. I sat, frozen in my car, while my young daughter asked, “What can I do, mom?” I could only look at her with a frozen look, knowing that I was failing at that very moment in my job as a mom: to shield her from the worst life had to offer. I knew that we would soon see the worst, up close and very, very personal.

Minutes passed. I decided that, rather than face what I believed I’d find inside the hospital, I should find out about my dad. He must have been only slightly injured to have been taken to a small rural hospital.

Three disconnected, badly transferred calls later, I was speaking with a physician. He began, “We did everything we could for him….” and ended with “we couldn’t save him.” I never really heard the words that came between.

My protective mom instinct left in that moment and I wailed long and loud. I had convinced myself that this would be the good news – what could possibly be worse? My daughter grabbed my cell phone out of my hands, dialed my husband, and said into the phone in a shaken, anguished voice, “Dad, you’ve got to come NOW. Mom needs you NOW.”

I sat, frozen in the car until my husband arrived. We entered the hospital together, and began a journey that continued late into the night, and for several years to come. I became, in that instant, a family caregiver.

I don’t know about you, but I get chills listening to Sharon’s story. It seems to me she captures the essence of what it means to have your life turned upside down by an event that turns you from parent, boss, employee and friend into a new life definition of being a caregiver.

I asked Sharon for a quick update on what has happened since that night. 

“A lot has happened. I learned that no matter how long I’d been involved on the professional side of caregiving, when my own family was involved the needs I faced were exactly the same as every other family caregiver. I learned to navigate my way through acute care, long-term care and rehab. Sometimes, I learned to just be quiet and be patient – not in my nature! 

“Sometimes, I learned to strongly advocate for my mother, who survived and, within a year was able to walk and live independently – against all predictions of everyone who cared for her in those early days following the accident. 

“And one week ago, my mother, five years after the accident that took the life of my dad, married a man with whom she’s passionately in love. The only negative part of this story is that they are so in love that it feels like being around teenagers – and it’s my MOM!”

Now I know where Sharon gets the passion and the intensity she brings to the Caregiver Village development team. She’s walked in the shoes of the family caregiver – and she’s helping build a place where we can connect, learn, share and grow as we face similar challenges together.

Sharon Brothers is the Vice President and Content Specialist for Caregiver Village. She has a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of British Columbia and has dedicated her career to helping create programs and services that meet the needs of the aging and those that care for them. Find Sharon in Caregiver Village on the web or on the Caregiver Village Facebook page.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

VOICES from the VILLAGE: Jennie Shortridge

Jennie Shortridge
You may have heard the advice new writers are given by the pros: “Write what you know.”

My new friend, Jennie Shortridge, the author of the book Eating Heaven, does exactly that.

I had never met Jennie or even heard about her until my own book club (the one you’ll get to eavesdrop on during the Village Chronicles game) picked Eating Heaven to read, based on recommendations and reviews from other book clubs. Once I read the book (READ it – you’ll LOVE it!), I knew I needed to meet the author.

Jennie is an amazingly accessible person. I sent her an email and arranged to meet her in her home town, Seattle, during a quick trip I was making to the West Coast to visit my brother. What a pleasure! Jennie’s a down-to-earth, warm person who clearly wrote what she knew in this book. Jennie knows caregiving.

“When my stepmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, like Ellie, the only thing I really knew how to do for her was cook all her favorite foods… one last time. It was an amazing experience to share her last months with her, and through her grace I learned a lot about both living and dying,” Jennie told me.

The book isn’t just about caregiving, though. It starts on a theme that seems, to Jennie, to be universal to all women.

“As women, we learn that we’re supposed to look a certain way. We get it from the magazines, and from all the media. But all of us love to eat, love to cook, and love to nourish, and those things can be in opposition to each other. In Eating Heaven, I wanted to write a book on how this tears us up inside sometimes.”

The themes of eating, nourishing through food, and body image do, indeed, form much of the book’s broader story. At the heart of the book, though – and at the heart of Jennie’s personal experience, is the theme of caregiving.

“The book came from a deeper place, even, than the experiences I had with my step mom. I had lost other people in my life. As a middle child, it’s in my nature to care for other people. It was important to understand how to do this in a way that makes sense, without it being judgmental, overbearing or other things that aren’t really very helpful – or becoming paralyzed by fear of death. Fear of our own mortality can be paralyzing – it’s frightening.”

Jennie – and Eleanor – find that caregiving turns from being the hardest work ever to the most rewarding work ever.

“Looking at caregiving from my own experience, you start out feeling obligated – you’re the one person who should or could. You dive in: you’re going to be the best caregiver ever. Then you get burned out and it feels like just plain hard work. Then you start to realize that all the effort you’re putting into the caregiving work is resulting in a relationship that changes – blossoms, perhaps - in a new way. You may feel a gratitude for small things, and you realize that what you’ve done really does make a difference. Pretty soon, little tiny moments of recognition that your effort is worth it start appearing. Even better, you feel your heart has grown, and you’re a more rounded, loving, open person as the result. Your life is fuller for the experience.”

In Eating Heaven, Eleanor, much like many family members, is an “accidental caregiver.” It isn’t until Uncle Benny comes home from the hospital and the hospice worker asks Eleanor where she is going to sleep that she realizes she’s now his primary caregiver.

“Caregiving is the ultimate act of giving up yourself in service to someone. I do think that a big part of our life is to be in service to others, but caregiving takes this to a whole new level. Your entire life has to shift. That’s a huge change. We may resist it at first, as Eleanor does, and we may need to take breaks and do what we need to do for ourselves. We DO need to get help, often.

“The hospice worker in Eating Heaven is very much modeled after the hospice worker my step-mom had. She was funny and no-nonsense, and helped us understand what the ‘new normal’ was in our lives. Getting help is imperative. Sometimes you even need someone else to help you figure out how to cope with your own feelings and experiences.”

Jennie is a fan, as well, of finding communities to help you with caregiving emotions and tasks.

“Anytime you can embrace and engage a community around anything in your life, it makes the experience easier. It gives you a place for communication, idea sharing, resources sharing and emotional bonding. Finding someone to cry and laugh with; someone who understands things no one else can understand – that is very much a part of letting yourself or your loved one become a part of a community, whether a facility community or a support community.

Through it all, Jennie has learned that caregiving is a time of practical adjustment.

“Caregiving is like so many other times in our life: having a baby, getting a divorce. These are adjustment times, when things will never again be the way they were before. There’s a new normal now, and it’s just what we do now.”

What I love most about Jennie, though, is her perspective on being with a loved one who is dying.

“Being with someone who is actually dying and who passes can be joyous in an amazing way. Just like Eleanor realizes in the book, that experience is the termination of a life, but it’s also the completion of a cycle. The person has allowed you – wanted you – to be with them, and you’re somehow part of this incredible experience. Yes, there’s pain and loss, but there’s also a sort of release and bliss that’s hard to explain until you’ve been a part of it.

“There’s a certain peace. You’ve been through the hard parts and the sadness. You’ve worked through much of this, and now that they’re gone, you’ve dealt with much of this loss and can now feel peace.”

Eating Heaven is an incredible book, but the real story, for me, is the person behind the book, Jennie Shortridge. She’s one of the pure, strong voices from Caregiver Village.