Vickie Cammack: A caregiver’s view: Do you see what I see?

A few months ago at the start of a busy day, I gave my feisty 90-year-old mother a call. I was worried. She had been nauseated and a little feverish for the past few days.

Alarmingly, she had lost her interest in cooking, her chief passion, and didn’t even want to walk into the kitchen or consider eating when I spoke with her the night before. On the phone that morning, she sounded confused and said she felt dizzy. She complained that her heart was pounding. I dropped everything, relieved that finally she had agreed to go to the hospital.

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I provided the intake clerk with all my mother’s pertinent information — medical number, medications, my contact information. I provided most of her medical history. My mother described her symptoms but was not as sharp as she usually is. Her sentences were incomplete. Her words were slurred.

I did my best to fill in the blanks. I emphasized that my mom is usually a bright, vibrant, articulate woman. This is not like my mom, I said. I didn’t want anyone making assumptions about her capacity because of her age.

My fears were not unfounded. Health-care professionals often mistakenly assume that older people who seem confused and disoriented have pre-existing dementia or mental illness. A failure to diagnose delirium, a relatively common experience of hospitalized older adults, can be life-threatening.

The term visionary is rarely used to describe family or “natural” caregivers. Yet vision is indispensable when we take care. No professional care provider, no matter how trained or prepared, can see what we see — what was, what is and what can be for our family members and friends.

Visionaries make the truth visible. Caregiving requires us to share our knowledge with certainty, our intuitions with confidence and our stories with pride. When we do this, we not only provide critical care information, we help everyone involved to care and connect in more meaningful ways.

The Centre for Health Care of the Elderly reports that in a recent study, up to 67 per cent of delirium cases weren’t recognized by physicians and 43 per cent of cases weren’t recognized by nurses caring for the patients. The centre considers the problem prevalent enough that it created the website This Is Not My Mom, encouraging caregivers to talk about sudden or rapid changes in the person they’re caring for, even if no one asks.

Throughout our day at the hospital, many tests were conducted with my mother. Each time a new nurse, doctor or technician appeared, we repeated the context, the symptoms and, just as importantly, how mom was before she fell ill. I described her passion for baking. I even slipped in a mention of the elaborate birthday cakes that she bakes and painstakingly decorates with her arthritic fingers for each of her great-grandchildren.

I did this because I wanted them to see what I know. I wanted them to appreciate what has been in my mother’s life, and to spark for them what is possible.

Happily, the cause of my mother’s distress was found to be simple dehydration. A couple of bags of intravenous fluid and she was well on her way back to normal. When she asked me to go down to the hospital gift shop and pick up her favourite cooking magazine, I started to relax.

I could imagine her standing in the kitchen, baking up a storm once again. The doctor saw it, too. She gave my mother discharge instructions to drink plenty of fluids and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “take it easy in the kitchen.”

 

Vickie Cammack has established groundbreaking organizations dedicated to strengthening community and addressing isolation. She is a member of the Order of Canada.

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