Audra Rodriguez thought she had her life figured out. In December of 2006, she was 30 years old, working as a physician’s assistant, and was a wife and mother of two young children. She was also a loving daughter, so on Dec. 30, 2006, when her mother, Mary Catherine Shal, had an ischemic stroke in her left middle cerebral artery, Audra didn’t hesitate to add one other role to her hectic life: that of caregiver.
Immediately after her stroke, sixty-six year old Mary was totally dependent upon others for her needs. She was completely aphasic and paralyzed on her right side. Her balance was so impaired that she’d fall to the side even in a sitting position, and for three months, she had a feeding tube inserted, to enable her to get adequate nutrition.
Mary spent the first ten days post-stroke in an acute care hospital, which was followed by six weeks of physical, occupational and speech therapy as an out-patient. In the days and months after her event, Mary also utilized other traditional, and non-traditional, treatments and devices which included: an ankle-foot orthosis, a hemi-walker, a cane and an arm brace, as well as massage therapy, botox injections, special speech software on her computer, plus other computer games designed to help her recapture some of her cognitive and language capabilities.
However, despite these various interventions, Mary was rendered dependent upon those around her, and Audra took on the primary caregiving role. But, this new identity of “caregiver” took some time for Audra to get used to. For the first few months after Mary’s stroke, Audra cried nearly every day. All she wanted was to have a simple conversation with her mother, but, instead, she felt like she was caught in a never-ending nightmare. This went on for quite some time, but eventually the day-to-day realities of caring for Mary finally “grounded” Audra, and their life settled into a predictable routine.
Now, six years later, that routine has not changed very much, since Mary continues to have a “mixed bag” of residuals. She’s still mostly aphasic, but, luckily, she can understand language, so since her handwriting has improved, she’s now able to write answers to simple questions put to her. But, Mary’s right arm remains paralyzed, and she has physical pain in her right shoulder and leg, as well as recurring balance problems, all of which make it difficult for her to be very self-sufficient.
Audra’s caregiver responsibilities for Mary are fairly typical, essentially, doing everything for Mary that she can’t do for herself, including:
Bathing Mary, performing related hygiene / grooming, and helping her get dressed
Giving Mary her medications and other medical “treatments”
Making doctor’s appointments and taking Mary to them
Managing Mary’s finances
Handling all of Mary’s laundry and clothes maintenance
Plus, doing the usual cooking, cleaning and daily upkeep for Mary and, of course, keeping a watchful eye on her at all times.
Providing this palliative care for Mary has created a “new normal” for the Rodriguez household. But unfortunately it’s also caused Audra and her family to occasionally feel “imprisoned,” in spite of their close and loving bond with Mary. Since she can’t be left alone, whenever Mary doesn’t want to participate in activities that the Rodriguez family likes to do, the family sometimes doesn’t do them, or Audra and her husband have to take turns accompanying their daughters on outings, so that one of them can remain home with Mary. And, if they do take Mary with them, it requires much planning and preparation to enable her to go. But the family takes all of this in stride. Audra’s husband, Elias, is currently is in the US Navy reserves. One of the Navy’s mottos is “Adapt and Overcome,” so Audra says that’s exactly what her family is trying to do.
The greatest challenge that Audra faces right now is juggling her caregiver responsibilities with those as a wife, and as a mother to her girls, aged four and five. Audra also still works as a physician’s assistant, but she had to switch from working a regular schedule to working on an “as needed” basis. She’s also started working with a “dog sitting” company and has begun walking dogs. As a dog lover, she thoroughly enjoys having these “30 minutes of peace” from her hectic world, a few times a week.
Aside from actually caring for her mother, Audra feels that her greatest achievement as a caregiver has been to develop a website to help other caregivers. The website has been up and running for several months, so Audra’s now directing her attention to another project close to her heart: to start a non-profit foundation that would provide grants to stroke caregivers, to cover respite care. She’s also working on a book about her caregiving experiences. Audra feels that caring for a parent, while raising young children, may still be somewhat unique, however she also feels that stories like her own will become more common in the near future, and that society needs to figure out better ways of dealing with such complex issues.
Audra’s gratified that in helping her mother, she’s also been able to help other people via her website and over the phone. But, in turn, she’s benefited, as well. Like other caregivers before her, she’s learned that stroke doesn’t just happen to the survivor, but rather, stroke happens to the entire family, affecting its financial status, plans and day-to-day operations, as well as the personal relationships between family members. Now, Audra is creating a legacy by sharing these lessons with other caregivers, in the hope that they can benefit from her own experiences and perspective. Audra’s website can be found at: http://www.mystrokecaregiver.com
Audra lives and cares for her mother in Virginia, along with her husband, their two young girls and their four American Eskimo dogs. Anyone who wishes to contact Audra can reach her via her website, or through the Stroke Network. Her SN user id is: asr