As an 82-year-old retired school teacher with dementia, Ruth Jane Davis clearly falls into the “at-risk” category for the coronavirus.
As a 56-year-old caregiver with diabetes and asthma, so does her daughter and primary caregiver Judy Elaine Davis.
“I was telling people before we closed, laughing, that even though they keep talking about the older population, I said I’m the one with diabetes and asthma,” Davis chuckled. “She’s doing better than me.”
Davis works in development – fundraising – at Alzheimer’s & Dementia Services (ADS) of Memphis, which runs two daycare facilities for seniors with the disease. That’s no coincidence – Judy had been bringing her mother to ADS for a while when she applied to work there about four years ago.
Ordinarily, Judy’s day would start at about 5 a.m. – getting mom up, dressed and dropped off at ADS’ Kennedy Park location by 7 a.m. Then, she’d scramble on over to Dorothy’s Place, ADS’ facility on Hickory Hill Rd. for work at 8 a.m. A private caregiver would pick her mother up and care for her until Judy returned from her second job at the FedEx hub, around 10 p.m.
Then COVID-19 happened. Neither Judy nor her mother have been diagnosed with the virus, but in one swoop, the “shelter at home” orders haven’t just threatened the place where Judy works, they’ve also shut down the place she takes her mother so she can go to work.
Ever since the outbreak gained momentum, Judy’s been working limited day hours at ADS – but caring for mom meant hiring a second caregiver to be with her during the day. “She’s getting paid more than minimum wage,” Judy said, but wouldn’t discuss the financial burden further. But what other options does she have?
“She cannot be left at home by herself,” Judy said. “I don’t want to be one of those people standing on TV crying, talkin’ ‘bout she walked out the house and we don’t know where she is. She’s at a point now where she really cannot be left by herself, be- cause people take advantage.”
At ADS, it wasn’t just her mom’s safety and security she could count on.
“At the center, they did 20 to 25 different activities a day,” she said. “And then they had art therapists, music therapists . . . all these people to come in to keep her cognitive skills up, to keep her visually and mentally stimulated.”
“We can do a few things, like her chair tai chi. But the other stuff, not so much,” she said. “But the socialization with other people like her, she’s going to miss that contact. And I can’t sing, so she’s gonna miss out on the music therapy too.”
Then there’s Miss Ruth’s time with her grandkids – or the lack thereof.
“Now that this has happened, I don’t have them around mother,” she said. “So they’re missing that connection with Mother. Mother is miss- ing them. And I’m concerned that they’re OK because I don’t see them. I mean, we see each other (from a distance) but I’m a hugger, and it’s not the same as hugging and kissing.”
Judy’s story paralleled my own in a lot of ways. After losing a job at Ole Miss, I moved back in with my mom in Holly Springs. Gradually, I realized my mother needed my support in more and more ways. Judy’s mom taught school for 30-plus years; so did my mom. I’d even briefly en- rolled my mother in a day program similar to ADS’.
In short, I know how all-consuming caring for an aging mother can be. I overcame feeling like I was being selfish, and started carving out time for my own mental and emotional health. I realized that if I don’t care for the caregiver, then the caregiver won’t be in any shape to provide care.
Thus I couldn’t help but do the math on Judy’s situation: A 56-year-old woman working two jobs while trying to take care of a mother who may or may not remember who you are. Add in two serious health concerns of her own – diabetes and asthma. Judy is unmarried and has no siblings to shoulder some of the load. And while she has a daughter, her daughter has four children of her own.
Oh, and Judy’s has her studies as well – she’s working on an under-graduate degree in organizational leadership at the University of Memphis. She has a paper due on Friday.
Bottom line, it’s a lot. And all of that was before coronavirus.
And so, caregiver-to-caregiver I asked: How is she caring for herself? “I get that all the time, and to be honest, when you’re in the fire, people say that all the time. But it’s really difficult,” she said.
“It’s funny, but I teach classes on this and I’ll be standing there listening to myself, and I’m working two jobs and going to school, right? And you’re supposed to niche out time for yourself. But it’s really difficult. And unfortunately, I have not learned that.
“I preach it. And I show people how to do it,” she continued. “But I have not done that for myself.”
She does have the company of her dog, Miles (yes, that’s “Miles Davis,” thank you). And she describes her circle of care as her endocrinologist, her mother’s doctor and Miles’ vet- erinarian.
Suddenly, I find myself thinking back to her “more at risk than my mother” remark – and realize that despite her cheerful demeanor, it’s no laughing matter. Even with ADS temporarily closed, she’s still clocking in at FedEx, working around people and packages from around the world.
“You don’t know, the person beside you might have the virus,” she said. “They might be a carrier and they don’t know. It’s really heightened that I need to really be cautious and be careful, because it’s not just me.
“I might be the carrier and bring it to my mom.”
Once more, as a caregiver, I noticed her framing her answer in terms of what it meant for caring for her mom. When I ask if she’s scared at all of COVID-19 for herself, she tells of a car crash that nearly killed her when she was in her 20s.
“They had to cut me out,” she said. “And I almost lost both legs. I still have both my legs. And the reason I’m telling you that is because every time I’m hit with a challenge, I always say, “If I was able to pull through that . . . . This is nothing (compared) to that.
“I will survive this,” she added. “And that’s how I’m looking at everything.”