Today was Lynn’s six-month visit with his dentist. Tonight, after his shower, was time to cut his fingernails and file them. Between the two activities I began to think about all the small things a caregiver takes over for their charge that are so important to that person’s self-image and feeling of being clean and neat. Most of these things are those intimate tasks that you shut the door to the bathroom to perform as you scrunch up your face and look in the mirror or drool as the toothpaste runs down your chin. They are also those tasks that on TV comedy skits get a “yuk” when it’s mentioned doing them for someone else but which if you can’t do them for yourself, are demoralizing if they do not get done.
No one wants bad breath or to be speaking to someone with a big chunk of spinach stuck between their teeth. Nor is their anything more annoying that a piece of meat stuck between your back molars and your tongue can’t work it loose. Right? Absolutely! So dental hygiene is really important for everyone; not just to keep your teeth so you can chew food but also because you want to look attractive and not disgusting when someone speaks to you. It’s one thing to floss and brush your own teeth but it’s quite another to do someone else’s. Sticking our big fingers into someone else’s mouth to floss is pretty difficult–there’s just not much room in a mouth. Knowing when you’ve gotten all the chunks out is another–you can’t always see that stuff; sometimes you have to just floss, rinse, repeat till it doesn’t feel weird anymore.
Dental care is very important for maintaining teeth and gums but also, as I mentioned before, for the person’s self-esteem and comfort. When your teeth are dirty, you feel dirty all over. You don’t want to talk up close to anyone for fear your breath stinks. It can really make a person self-conscious and more isolated. Something seemingly so small can be very significant to overall mental health and a positive attitude. So as much as I don’t enjoy leaning into Lynn’s mouth to pick his teeth, brush and rinse, I try to do a good job and not complain, too, much when I have to repeat, and repeat, a process. I must be doing okay because he got a good report today — “look, Mom, no cavities!”
When I hear manicures I envision beauty salons with a manicurist filing fingernails and applying the perfect shade of polish. I’ve never actually had a manicure but that’s what I think it would be like. But for caregivers, giving a manicure to someone can be a scary experience. When you clip your own nails, you know how deep you’re going to avoid pain. Lynn likes his nails short so I admit, I’ve drawn blood a few times and it’s a really bad feeling to see that red spot ooze up. He also has a little anemia at times causing his nails and his skin to be similar in color so it’s not always easy to tell when I’m going, too, deep.
Fingernails though are at least easy to file and cut but for some (and Lynn is one) toenail clipping can be very difficult. Sometimes I think I need the strength of the muscle man at the circus to cut the nail on his big toe! But just like cutting fingernails is important to keep his nails from hanging on clothes or tearing or to keep him from scratching himself (or me) accidentally, foot manicures are also important to keep socks (particularly toe socks like Lynn wears) and shoes from causing cuts to the skin from sharp nails. Foot hygiene is also important because circulation to the foot is often impaired for someone who is immobile so you need to keep a close watch on skin tears, blisters, or wounds so terrible things like gangrene do not set in. That’s an extreme but if you’ve ever seen a poor diabetic’s foot after a foot ulcer goes deep, you’ll never ignore foot care again.
Doing hair care, at least for us, is easy. Lynn has very curly hair and all I have to do is shampoo, rinse and towel dry and he’s good to go. I think about men who are caregivers for their wives or other female family members. Learning to curl and style hair must be tough and probably must give way to simple styles for most. I’m fortunate that Lynn’s sister who cuts hair for a living, cuts and styles his hair when she visits so we don’t have to go anywhere to get it done. Just another reason I’m glad I’m caring for a guy because you can bet that if I had to care for a woman’s hair, I would have a standing appointment at a beauty salon for her for sure.
For me, learning to shave his beard was interesting. Learning to shave so that all the hair was removed by cutting against the way it grows was not instinctual. Also, learning to shave loose skin around the neck or tight places around the mouth or nose was challenging. He’s growing a beard and side-burns for his son’s wedding and I have been a slow learner on how to shape his mustache and side-burns so that they turn out like he wants. Lucky for me again though that he’s not a girl and wants his legs shaved or his underarms. To my male counter-parts: I salute you if you shave legs, underarms, and pluck stray facial hairs. Those things are important to a woman’s image but must be a pain for you to do. Furthermore, if you apply make-up, there’s an angel in heaven smiling at you for your gift to your lady friend. Thank you for those efforts on her behalf.
Sweating the Small Stuff
Those are just a few of the little things in life a caregiver takes on that most people do automatically but which become a challenge when you’re doing them for someone else. They’re very important though and therefore, well worth learning to do. I certainly hope when my day comes and someone needs to care for me, they will do the small stuff, too.