For Katie, the decision to become a caregiver wasn’t a decision at all. She was raised in a family where caregiving for loved ones was a natural and expected part of life in the family. So, when her husband’s father figure needed a dedicated caregiver, Katie knew she had to step up.
“This is a person who’s had a life and should be treated with as much dignity as possible,” she said. “It was complicated. But I did my best.”
Doing her best meant prioritizing the health and care of someone who wasn’t legally family. Katie’s husband, Derek, was an only-child whose parents divorced when he was young. His mother, Velma, began dating a man named Rich—a relationship that lasted more than 15 years before Rich got sick. In that time, Katie and Derek’s kids were raised to see him as their grandfather.
When Rich’s health declined from congestive heart failure, Katie dug in. She would do whatever it took to be his primary caregiver for the last few months of his life.
‘I was so incredibly angry’
It wasn’t that Rich didn’t have family of his own, but his own children never seemed interested in being caregivers to their father.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that his son had never met us, and was perfectly fine with us taking care of everything his dying father needed,” Katie said. “I was so incredibly angry.”
Katie visited Rich’s house several times a week to prepare his medications and meals, as well as clean his growing wounds. With a pair of pre-teens at home and maintaining her own career, Katie said caring for Rich wasn’t her only obligation.
Looking back, she said she doesn’t know how she balanced it all.
“It’s very stressful to try and do it all, to make hours that weren’t there,” Katie said. “But things had to be done, so I did them.”
At the same time, Katie was also feeling socially isolated. Her friends were as supportive as they could be, but none of them had been through the experience of being a caregiver. Adding to her feelings of helplessness, Katie faced additional challenges because she wasn’t related to Rich and had no power of attorney to make decisions she knew would be in his best interest.
One resource Katie recalls as being useful to her and the family was a part-time home health nurse. While the nurse visited Rich a few times per week and provided excellent care, it was the assistance she provided to Katie that was most beneficial.
“I could talk with her and learn. She was great, and she was honest with us,” Katie said. “I appreciate that she didn’t sugarcoat anything.”
‘Make sure there’s a plan.’
When Rich died in April 2021, it was the end of a difficult journey. But Katie said she lives with the peace of knowing she improved his life and made the end as comfortable as it could be.
“It’s not something I’ll forget about,” she said. “I still get emotional thinking or talking about it.”
The experience led her to think about her children, and what her own end-of-life care will look like for them. Thankfully, she has a strong model to follow: Her own parents have designated a plan for the future, including who in the family will be responsible for their care.
“If my experience could help in any way, I would impress upon anyone reading that this is an important part of your life you can’t overlook,” she said. “Somebody will have to shoulder this burden. It may not be the person you expect, so make sure there’s a plan. Think about that person and help them.”