Fight or … that other thing

fight or flight

Some threats are more subtle than others. Zombies, for example, will devour your brain on contact. But dementia creeps in and takes a little at a time, which is ultimately scarier and more threatening than any movie monster.

When faced with a threat — bullets, bullies, zombies or maybe even old age — humans have two primary responses. Here’s how Neil F. Neimark, M.D. defines “fight or flight”:

This fundamental physiologic response forms the foundation of modern-day stress medicine. The “fight or flight response” is our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to “fight” or “flee” from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival.

Grandma was OK when she could see well enough to use her computer and watch TV. But now she can’t do her genealogy research or even change channels, and she feels threatened. Add to that I’m thwarting her hoarding instinct by tossing her trash daily, and she can get downright combative.

I can’t imagine how it feels to relinquish control of every aspect of your life. Driving … shopping … scheduling appointments … deciding whether to see the doctor … those are all out of her hands now. So it’s probably not surprising she freaked out last week when my daughter started looking in Grandma’s purse for her insurance card before their trip to the lab for a Warfarin check. Chloe was only being proactive, but to Grandma it was the ultimate privacy breach.

Grandma yelled and snatched her purse. Chloe looked shocked and ready to burst into tears. I stood up from the table where I was working and turned into mama bear protecting my cub.

“Whoa! There’s no need for that!” I yelled.

“That’s my purse and I don’t like people rooting around in it,” Grandma argued. “I know where my stuff is.”

“Actually, you never know where your stuff is, which is why she was looking,” I said. “Chloe doesn’t want to spend 15 minutes at the front desk this time while you look for something you hid in some drawer at home.”

The episode ended with Grandma finding her card. They went to lab and back with no more drama. Chloe dropped Grandma off and beat a hasty retreat.

A few hours later Grandma rode to the top of the stairs in a panic. “Did that girl take my cell phone?” she asked.

“You mean Chloe? No she never had your phone.” I said.

I followed her back downstairs and we looked for the missing phone. But instead of getting mad, Grandma seemed to check out. She wandered around the room, reciting the reason for the earlier lab visit and explaining she usually went on Tuesdays. She didn’t literally run away, but her mind did. When faced with the implications of being unable to communicate without her missing phone, I guess changing the subject was easier than fighting back.

Eventually we found the phone. It never left the basement. I went back upstairs with my daily headache beginning to throb behind my eyes. Based on Dr. Neimark’s description, I guess my coping mechanism has been activated too:

When we are overwhelmed with excessive stress, our life becomes a series of short-term emergencies. We lose the ability to relax and enjoy the moment. We live from crisis to crisis, with no relief in sight. Burnout is inevitable.

I received a thoughtful email from Grandma’s friend Eileen this week in which she predicted taking care of Grandma will eventually overwhelm me — just as it did her when she cared for her own mother years ago. If she’s right, it seems even the choice of fight or flight — at least in her own home — will be one more choice that’s out of Grandma’s hands.

Image credits: vbaleha / 123RF Stock Photo and anagram1 / 123RF Stock Photo

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