TRAVERSE CITY — “Serenity is peace during the storm.”
The cross-stitch in Vanessa Fox Gruenwald’s living room is both an affirmation and a quiet plea for strength.
For more than 10 years the Suttons Bay artist has given up her life to care for sick and elderly loved ones: first her father, then her sister, and now her mother.
“My full-time job is sitting at the desk,” she said, referring to her living-room office, where she deals with her mother’s affairs, from getting to the bottom of a “contract” her mom was hoodwinked into signing to researching medications and visual impairment aids to help with her mom’s macular degeneration. Once or twice a week, regardless of the weather, Fox Gruenwald also makes the drive to Cadillac where her 89-year-old mother, Hilda, lives alone.
The work of caring for others is draining both physically and emotionally. And it’s harder when a caregiver carries the burden alone. That’s why Fox Gruenwald established the Leelanau Care Givers Support Group aimed at adult children struggling with the task of caring for aging parents or chronically ill spouses.
The group will meet twice a month beginning Jan. 14 at the Suttons Bay/Bingham Fire Hall community room in Suttons Bay.
Besides comparing experiences and feelings such as guilt and anger, group members also will be able to share sitters, issues and solutions, and helpful resources, like the book “Elder Rage, or Take My Father ... Please!: How to Survive Caring for Aging Parents” by Jacqueline Marcell, whose humor helped get Fox Gruenwald through the roughest times.
“We do what we have to while we have to because it’s the nature of the body,” she said. “But when you take on a patient or the care of another, you become a patient yourself. The salve of knowing someone else understands is really the only medicine that’s available to us.
Fox Gruenwald said she created the group to preserve herself and her best friendship and to give other adult caregivers a chance to speak and be heard.
“One of the base motivators is that I feared I would lose my best gal,” she said. “She will listen as long as I spew. But she’s got her own stuff, she’s got children.”
The support group will be a welcome relief for retiree Diane Paré, who has cared for her husband for the last three years with only one four-hour respite a week.
“It makes me feel trapped,” said Paré, of Suttons Bay, whose husband was in the hospital seven times last year alone for complications from diabetes, congestive heart failure, prostate cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “That’s really the way a lot of people feel. I can’t say that in public. A lot of people don’t want to hear it. People think I’m very positive and outgoing but I do have my very dark days. Now I have somewhere to take it and dump it.”
Cathy Fenlon cared for her husband, who had cancer, for three years before he died. Now she hopes to get support with issues she’s facing with her elderly parents, who live three hours away in St. Ignace.
“It’s pretty hard to watch your parents, Mom having medication issues, Dad having issues that may be Alzheimer’s,” said Fenlon, of Lake Leelanau, who juggles her work as a self-employed landscaper with driving to the U.P. to accompany her parents to their medical appointments. “They’ve always been my rock. So for me being their rock is hard on me. It is emotionally draining. You have got to be an advocate for yourself.”
Fox Gruenwald expected that her sister, Calli, would care for their mother after Gruenwald saw their father through dementia. Instead she found herself caring for all three.
“I was counting on her to care of Mom, and then my brother-in-law got sick and she had to focus on her husband. After he died, she was getting sicker and sicker with Non-Hodgkin’s (lymphoma). I made her a room here and less than two months to the day he died, she died,” said Fox Gruenwald. “I thought she and I would grow old together. That was our insurance: we would always have each other.”
Now Fox Gruenwald, a mixed media artist who lost her day job when she stayed home to care for her sister, may never work again.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever have the energy,” she said. “I do what I have to do but I don’t see myself working again.”
For more information about the support group, write LeelanauCareGivers@yahoo.com.