Feb 23, 2024

When a ZCP Staff Member Finds Herself in the Role of Family Caregiver

The recent call came on a Sunday night around 11:00 pm from my mother’s cell phone. Except it wasn’t my mother on the other end–it was a friend of hers. 

“Hi, Sarah, this is Pat, and I’m in the ER with your mom, and it’s not good.”

Six hours later I was on a flight to Orange County, California where my mother lives. Within 12 hours of that call, I was in the hospital room with her when the doctor came in to tell us, “It’s stage four cancer that has spread to several places.”

The next several days in the hospital are honestly a blur – oncologists, urologists, palliative care, “ovarian cancer,” “no, possibly, uterine cancer,” “no, likely pancreatic cancer.” Pain medication, more tests, more doctors, PAs, nurses, and on and on and on.

Three weeks beyond that phone call, and I could finally take a breath, for a moment, to think about how I went from getting ready on a Sunday evening for a week of work and my son’s school activities, to finding myself as a caregiver for my aging mother and talking each evening to my family over Zoom from 1,200 miles away. 

So this is what they mean by Sandwich Caregiving, I thought to myself as I responded to work emails late into the night and emailed my book club to let them know I’d be out of town for an extended period of time and would step away for the time being from attending (or hosting) book club.

One phone call. Twelve hours. 1,200 miles. And everything in my life (and my mother’s!) had been turned upside down.

Sarah’s mom, Lorrie, on a walk at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa

By week four as we began to settle into our “new normal,” I began to remember what I had learned in the first Essentials of Mindful Caregiving course I took shortly after joining Zen Caregiving Project.

Pause for just a moment in the doorway.

Take a breath.

Feel the water over my hands as I wash them in between caregiving duties.

Breathe in.

Breathe out. 

Focus on my breath.

The S.T.O.P. Practice


Take a breath. 

Observe my environment. 

Proceed with my activity. 

Putting the pieces together (Sarah’s mom working on a puzzle)

I have an emotional toolkit, I reminded myself as I put a variety of pills into my mom’s new four times a day pill organizer.

Over and over again for the past two months, I am reminded of the value of these courses that we teach. I am also reminded how important it is to remind the caregiver to practice self-care. 

After I tucked my mom into bed at about 8:30 pm during my fourth week, I was reminded of my own need for self-care as I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water and instead sat down at the table for a moment and promptly fell asleep for more than an hour waking up with an imprint of my mom’s placemat on my cheek.

The dishes can wait, I whispered to myself as I crawled into bed to sleep a few hours before the alarm went off to give my mom her 2 a.m. medication.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Tomorrow, I thought, tomorrow, I’ll practice being as kind to myself as I have been to my mother. I can do at least this much. 

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