Caring for My Sister – Observations & Learnings

Hip replacement operations have changed a great deal over the years. No longer are patients confined to a hospital bed for long periods of time. Now, weight-bearing is encouraged and supported within hours of recovery from the anaesthetic and patients are discharged from hospital on crutches within two or three days.

Recently my sister had a hip replacement operation, so I offered to spend a few days with her as a support when she first came home from hospital. She had suffered vomiting the day following the operation, probably as a reaction to the anaesthetic, and was still feeling some nausea for several days afterwards, most likely from the powerful analgesics that she had welcomed to suppress the initial post-operative pain.

I arrived the morning after her discharge from hospital the previous evening so witnessed her first very tentative and nervous negotiation descending the fairly steep flight of stairs with her husband one step ahead to steady her and to offer support if needed.

On this first day home she had little energy for anything beyond reaching a reclining chair and doing the few simple exercises recommended by the hospital physiotherapist.

Using two crutches it is not possible to carry a cup of tea or a plate of food, thus a very obvious first step was to quietly take over in the kitchen and encourage her to drink water to flush through the unaccustomed chemicals in her body and to counteract the constipating effects of some of the drugs and of lack of exercise.

It was clear that my arrival changed the dynamics in the household and it felt as though they had all been holding their breath until I arrived and husband and son could now go back to ‘normal’ life. I felt it important to not impose or rearrange the daily rhythm of the household but just be a supportive presence to all and, at the same time, maintain my own rhythm. I visited the nearby town and purchased ingredients for several meals that I could prepare that respected my own dietary choices. I prepared lunches for my sister and I and an evening meal for us all. They were unaware that they had enjoyed several evening meals that were gluten and diary free with no added salt.

Her husband had a number of commitments on this day and on each of the subsequent days that he had not cancelled and was obviously very pleased that I arrived as a support for the family. Their 26-year-old son was also present on the first day and then went off to join a friend on a bike holiday for a few days. It was obvious that my sister was seen as the lynchpin of the family and the thought of her not being there to keep everything flowing was not really on their radar, so best to ignore it – ostrich and head in the sand?

My sister and I do not get together very often as we live 160 miles apart and, owing to the Covid-19 lockdown, we had not seen each other for nearly eighteen months. We enjoyed being together and deepening our appreciation of each other. This visit gave me a stop from the rhythm that I was in when at home and to re-evaluate priorities. Maintaining my own fitness was essential so I continued an early morning online movement and fitness session and went for a walk every day. Most days I was able to write but I had a break from a daily task that I have previously considered a ‘must do’. I was supported in this as I was using a new laptop and didn’t manage to work out how to do it – so I got the message, you have different priorities for a while.

Resting to allow the body to heal is essential after any major operation.

I had taken an adjustable stool with me so each day I encouraged my sister to lie on her bed while I gave a very gentle lower leg and foot massage with some connective tissue movements. She relaxed deeply and I left her to sleep while I went for a walk. By the next day she was going up and down stairs with confidence.

All the family were accustomed to my sister preparing, cooking and serving the evening meal, being responsible for taking out the rubbish, laundry and most other everyday household chores. I took over responsibility for cooking but allowed the others to take on the other chores. This showed them all how my sister had managed nearly everything. And, in particular, showed my sister how she could allow others to take on a share of the household chores – even when she was no longer on crutches.

I was with them for five days and as I left, my brother-in-law said, ‘You’ve shown me what I have to do’ and he also acknowledged that a few years ago when he was recovering from a serious broken leg and on crutches my sister had done everything for him for six months.

Being with my sister during the early days of post-operative recovery offered the opportunity for us to re-establish the bonds of our sisterhood. It was important to not impose and be aware when the opportune moment for me to depart was and allow the family to take responsibility for caring and supporting my sister as she regained her mobility.

On returning home I have phoned my sister several times to find out how her recovery is progressing. She has become aware of how much her family just expects her to ‘do’ everything. And we discussed the fact that we are responsible for much of this as we have always just accepted the role of wife/mother/general factotum without encouraging others to share in the everyday chores of running a household. With this realisation it is an opportunity to cut the apron strings of ‘mummy-hood’ and ‘the good little wife’. No judgement of others or ourself, but a different and more equal way of sharing a house together.

My sister’s compromised physical movements after her operation allowed her to be aware of some niggles that she had been carrying of others not pulling the weight, but she was not addressing them but now she had no choice as she wasn’t physically able to continue to undertake all the tasks.

She noted a pile of clothes on her son’s bedroom floor and resisted the habit to pick them up, and just closed the door, until he woke up to doing his own laundry.

As she needed to rest she did not wish to eat late in the evening so, when she was not using crutches in the house, she made herself an early supper and allowed her husband and son to prepare and cook something for themselves when they came in at around 8pm – a bit of a surprise not to find a prepared and cooked meal awaiting them! In many ways my sister and I are alike, and her realisations had reflections for me as well where I often take ‘the easy route’ and just ‘do it myself’. It is quite usual to take on the patterns of your parents and the ‘duty’ of the ‘stay at home’ wife to conform to the perceived role of general household manager without realising that your children are now adults, and you are doing them – and your husband – no favours by still behaving as though they were young children.

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