There are Angels Hovering ‘Round
Family Caregivers: Part One
Today, in untold millions of homes across America, someone’s ailing spouse, someone’s fragile parent, or someone’s handicapped child will need some extra care to help them perform the simple activities of daily living... make that several tons of CARE.
Then, that someone’s spouse, or child, or parent will lend their steady and strong hand to help in bathing, dressing, feeding, transporting, and administering medication to their mentally or physically disabled loved one. Because this type of patient care very often amounts to a 24/7 duty, it comes at the cost of taking time away from a job, or even having to quit work entirely to become the ‘unpaid family caregiver.’
Statistics reveal the unsettling thought that 70% of us who make it to 65 will someday require a lot of help from ‘caregivers’ either in the home or in a nursing facility. On average, at the end of life, women will likely require daily help from a caregiver for 3.7 years, and men for 2.2 years. In my experience, those figures seem understated.
A recent study published in the “AARP Bulletin” quoted that 29% of all US adults are already performing duties as family caregivers at least at some level. They take on tasks that are traditionally considered “nursing care,” such as administering injections, performing wound care, and operating needed medical equipment. Understandably, 30% of the family caregivers for the disabled seniors are themselves aged 65 years or older.
The more debilitated the home-bound patient is, for the caregiver there is increased job stress (if employed elsewhere), a sense of hyper-vigilance (chronic and severe worry or fear), feelings of being trapped, and having the sense that their own health is being compromised. One of the most common negatives of being a caregiver is the infringement on their work and leisure time activities. In many cases, the caregiver role becomes a literal full time job in itself. Feelings of resentment and depression can result if there is never any respite away from the sole caregiver role.
Despite the understandable stress of being the ‘go to’ person in charge of a seriously debilitated patient, there can be recognizable non-monetary benefits. Family caregivers report that through this experience they grew emotionally closer to the care recipient, and felt strongly that they had made a positive contribution to that person’s life...something worth more than gold.
Caregivers are naturally helpful and giving people. Their core strength is an altruistic compassion. Their abiding love for their spouse, parent or child, knows no boundaries. They are in truth and indeed ANGELS here on earth.
For this month’s submission I want to laud one of the many family caregivers that I have come to know over the years... Kathleen Kennedy Stubbs... the matriarch of Stubbs Hill Farm. Her first grandchild, Jenny Stubbs Appling, (whom I was proud to deliver a few moons ago) gave Kathleen the moniker “E.” No one knows why, but it stuck. For the past several decades “E” has been a tireless family caregiver. Here is just a bit of history to orient you to why this particular family caregiver is so special to me.
Kathleen started out her working life as a Southern Bell Telephone Company operator for three years in Tupelo and for what was known later as Bell South for seven years in New Albany where she was employed until 1961. She was introduced to her future husband John Embry Stubbs on a blind date and they were married in 1957.
To that union were born Rebecca Stubbs, an RN at the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, John Embry Stubbs, Jr., an accountant, a farmer and a contractor-builder of Poly-Steel Homes, and finally, Ellen K Stubbs, the young lady who now brings us to this discussion of family caregivers.
Ellen was born in Ripley in 1965 and for the first decade of her life seemed to be a perfectly healthy child. In her teens, the first hints that Ellen had a medical problem began to manifest. She began to be clumsy, uncoordinated and was falling more than normal. Local doctors and later neurological specialists were consulted and finally a name was given to Ellen’s disorder...a very rare degenerative neuromuscular disorder called Friedreich’s Ataxia. This disease also caused scoliosis of the spine, deformities of the feet, fatigue, heart abnormalities, and slowed speech. Despite these infirmities, Ellen was extremely bright and affable, with a fantastic memory, a quick wit, and a love of mathematics. Ellen graduated from Ripley High School in 1983, but having become very debilitated by the ravages of her disease, was not physically able to attend college. She was totally wheelchair bound by 1985, but she furthered everyone’s education by tutoring her nieces Jenny and Lauren (now Kirkman) and nephew, Caleb.
Specialists at the time had predicted that Ellen would not survive past her twenties, but they did not factor in the loving care and attention that she would receive from both her parents and extended family.
Her mom, Kathleen, also worked as a switchboard operator at the Tippah County Hospital for many years until Ellen’s decline became too time consuming for her to continue regular public work.
Then in 2007, her husband John Embry, Sr. was stricken with leukemia, a blood and bone marrow cancer which he fought until his death in 2015. For those 8 years, Kathleen provided for two full time patient’s basic necessities. She never flagged and never complained about her duties to Ellen and John, Sr.
Through the ensuing decades, Ellen’s condition continued to slowly spiral downward. She became unable to voluntarily move her extremities, and lost the ability to speak. Behind the eyes of this beloved young woman, was a sharp mind that never forgot anyone. Whenever you visited Ellen and spoke to her, she would flash you the absolutely most gorgeous and charming smile imaginable. She didn’t have to say anything. Seeing that smile on her sweet face was like receiving a blessing from heaven!
Fast forward to a dreadful February 2023. Mid-month, Ellen’s condition took a dramatic turn for the worst. She began to have trouble eating and swallowing and developed a severe urinary tract infection. To cap things off, Ellen and “E” rode out the terrible 2023 Stubbs Hill tornado on the afternoon of February 16. Their beautiful farm home was virtually unscathed but their nearby barn was totally destroyed along with many of their lovely old oak trees. Several homes across the highway were damaged beyond repair, having been blown off their foundations. (Interest-ingly, this was Ellen’s second Stubbs Hill tornado to endure, there having been a similar storm 48 years prior on February 21, 1975.)
Ellen’s problems multiplied after having a feeding tube placed later that same month. After surgery proved problematic, Ellen became septic. Only surviving a few days on life support measures, with her Mother “E” by her side, Ellen’s fight for life finally ended on March 1. She was 57 years old, so the forecaster’s life span predictions fell very short of her actual achievement.
Ellen’s funeral at McBride’s was inspirational and uplifting. I had forgotten how truly beautiful this young lady was! She was then interred near her dad at the ancient Embry Cemetery atop the Stubbs Hill ridge, a serene place which provides a panoramic vista of the entire Tippah River bottom. A person can see forever from that lovely hilltop forest and for a little while ignore all the tornado damage which surrounds you.
Mama “E” managed something I could not. She maintained her composure throughout the entire afternoon and said to me, “I am just not going to let myself break down.” She is perhaps the strongest heroine I know.
At 92, she continues to prepare a log-rolling Sunday dinner for her family every week, and enjoys having anyone and everyone join in. During the work week, I am liable any afternoon to get a phone message where “E” announces, “Hey, Purt, KFC supper will be ready for you to pick up on your way home from work!” (Rebecca has labeled anything her mother prepares as ‘KFC/ Kathleen’s Fine Cooking.’) It might be chicken and dumplings, pork chops and gravy, or Hobo pockets....but whatever she comes up with is always divine.
Kathleen misses Ellen fiercely, but continues to take an interest in the farm animals that Ellen had so much loved to watch in their pasture. The tiny red Scottish Highland cattle and her herd of llamas are a sight to behold atop Stubbs Hill. “E” is excited to be getting a new ‘stud llama’ arriving on the farm this coming weekend.
Real heroes and heroines are all around us. They don’t wear red and blue capes and fly around, and yes, real angels are hovering all around us. They don’t have halos or wings...but if you look you will see them...the untold hundreds of earthbound angels who sacrifice so much of own their lives to care for those they love every single day.