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MAGAZINE / May-June 2007 / The Dixie Carter Interview

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The Dixie Carter Interview

Not Just Whistling Dixie

Actress Dixie Carter, who passed away last April, achieved fame as the opinionated Julia Sugarbaker on the hit sitcom “Designing Women,” was also a Broadway star, cabaret singer, loving wife to actor Hal Holbrook and mother to Mary Dixie and Ginna. Dixie Carter was also a caregiver. Carter, who was raised in a stately home in McLemoresville, Tennessee, was primary caregiver to her father, Halbert, who passed away shortly before this interview, and she was caring for her aunt at home in California at the time Editor-in-Chief Gary Barg sat down with this designing caregiver for a talk about family, grief and love.  This interview was published in the May-June 2007 issue of Today’s Caregiver.

Gary Barg: I’m so very sorry to hear about your father’s passing a few weeks ago. You had been his caregiver for some time before he passed. Was it a difficult transition for him to move out to Los Angeles?
Dixie Carter: Of course it was, but he handled it in the way he handled things, which was he didn’t make anyone aware of it. He and my mother were very much a part of raising my children because of my divorce from the father of my children; I called upon them, and on all my family, for various kinds of support and assistance. When I moved out to California, my parents would come out, and they would stay on, so the connection there was very strong. My mother died out here in Los Angeles in 1988. The truth was I didn’t think daddy would live 15 minutes after my mother died. I thought that grief would cut him down, and I feared for him. That was the reason why I wanted him to live with me. I dreaded it, because I thought that I would not have my own grief over my mother, but I felt like that’s what needed to happen to give him any kind of a chance for any kind of a life after he lost her. My children actually got down on their knees, bent down by his chair, and said, “Cart” … all his grandchildren called him “Cart” for Albert Carter … they said, “Cart, Momma needs you. You have to go live with her now.” It was so sweet, so moving. So, he agreed to come live with me, but I really didn’t become a caregiver for a long time. He lived with me for 15 years before care was needed.

GB: When did you actively start to care for him?
DC: My father’s father had had Parkinson’s Disease, and so we both knew something was coming on. It started to affect the way that he walked, and it was very difficult to get him to actually exercise. The trembling was getting worse. He’d have to have a certain amount of physical therapy. He would walk, and he would really make the effort to do so, but it was becoming more and more difficult. I want to say this to all of your readers; being in a house with family is home, wherever it is; being in a house with someone you love, someone who loves you enough that they want to share the same domicile with you is in itself a social connection. It’s company; it’s its own kind of comfort and not exactly a lonely existence. You could be in a facility with other people your age, but still be very lonely. Being in the home with one of your children, one of your own, is comforting and so loving, that the attention that I had believed I would need to give by sitting down and conversing on a daily basis for some length turned out not to be necessary.

GB: That’s so very important. I always say that caregiving is such a family issue, and on the flipside of that, kids seeing their parents caring for a loved one is a life-lesson that they will pass down to the next generation.
DC:I’m not saying that it’s easy. When someone goes into the stage where they need physical care, it can be very hard. When I was in New York two years ago, I was on the phone with my father who was in Los Angeles and he said to me, “Precious, I think I’m starting to get some dying illness. I think it’s time for me to go back to Tennessee.” I said, “Yes, Sir, as soon as we leave New York.” My husband, Hal Holbrook, and I moved lock, stock and barrel back with my father to his home. Not many people have that extraordinary luxury or gift, to have the home they were born in to be still standing. He went back there and was not able to walk by the time we arrived. Then these angels came into our lives; angels who were in and around the area, who came in and took eight hour shifts. This one man who worked for me, Juan Castillo, was tremendously attached to my father and volunteered to move in with him. Along with the young man who tended to the garden and the grounds, together they would lift my father into his wheelchair so he could go in and get his breakfast. This all happened out of love and by people whose job wasn’t to do this kind of work, and I couldn’t have done it without them.

GB: Was Hospice involved in the last days?
DC: Hospice came in during the last couple of weeks. There was never any emphasis on, “How long is this going to take?” or “We can’t be doing this for ever.” I thought when Hospice came in; a doctor had to declare that the patient was terminally ill.

GB: The wonderful thing about Hospice care is that they are there as long as the process goes on.
DC: I have to say that in addition to this extraordinary love that my father received from his caregivers in Tennessee, they also turned out to be wonderfully careful. When my father passed away, and he’d been pretty much in that bed for two and a half years, he did not have a single bed sore, and that only comes from an extraordinary love of what you are doing. Hospice came in and I experienced the same thing, the same quality, and the same feelings from them. I think that in general people aren’t aware that this is available to them.

GB: When people like you talk about their experience with Hospice, it helps overcome the misinformation and the lack of knowledge about the process. You’ve done a lot to help really busy people learn about yoga and healthy living, and I guess there is no one busier than a family caregiver. What can you share with caregivers about taking care of themselves?
DC: When my father died, also living in the house was my mother’s baby sister Helen, who had a stroke last August. She’s now here in Los Angeles. She got here a week ago, and she was accompanied by one of the ladies from Hospice who had been looking after my father and her. She’s in my father’s old room, and it’s the only way I could think of that she could be well taken care of, and it’s been a very emotional thing for me. It just seems like that sometimes it’s just more than enough. I don’t do the hands-on caring, but I am very present. I stay on top of the medications, and I pick out what she would wear today, and make sure that things are going alright. So, the folks who work for me here have taken on this additional job, and I have discovered that my back is in knots … completely in knots! Since I made this decision, my back has been totally out. I just started realizing over the past couple of days that if I want these muscle spasms to stop, I’m going to have to back emotionally away from this a little bit, and go out and find some breathing time. I go to church and I depend on prayer a lot. I think that there is need to get more rest than what would usually serve you.

GB: I think that is such an important point, and frankly, hands-on or not, you are a family caregiver, and you have all the stress.
DC: I have all of the responsibility and it’s very weighty. I’m realizing that with my father’s death, the tremendous weakness that comes with grief has not prepared me for having to make this decision about the one remaining person from that generation that I’m still close to. So Hospice has come out here and they really have stepped in; they’ve been here from the get-go. Yesterday, a social worker from Hospice was here, and the day before that, the chaplain was here. There are all kinds of wonderful helpers who come from Hospice. The day after my aunt got here, the wind was blowing so hard where we live that the lights went out for 24 hours and it was not pleasant. I cleverly lit a bunch of candles and got the fires going in the fireplaces, because without the power, we had no heat, and Helen seemed to have a bad reaction to the morphine that had been prescribed her. She was weakening, and her heart was beating badly, and I thought that maybe we should give her some oxygen; but then I looked around at all the candles and fires going, and I said that she was just going to have to make it without some. We managed to place a chair in a hallway, away from everything, and gave some oxygen. So we’ve had our times, and through this all-night vigil, Hospice was right here and never deserted us.

GB: That’s great that you knew to call them and get them involved during all of that.
DC: It creates an absolute bond and a deep understanding … the “words that lie too deep for tears.” If you go through and experience life and death together, you are united, in a mystical and highly spiritual way. The person who is being cared for is in trouble; he or she knows that they’re in trouble, there’s no getting around it, otherwise none of this would be going on. It’s a very hard time, and the shared experience helps people not to feel so lonely. Sometimes I felt so alone in just trying to hold down the fort, because I saw that my father’s health was deteriorating and I was so lonely and frightened. When I got to Tennessee and saw that he had caregivers there, the sense of absolute aloneness changed in me.

GB: What would you say is the most important piece of advice you’d like to leave family caregivers?
DC: Caregiving will be unlike anything you will do in your whole life; it’s a different endeavor from any other endeavor in life. You, the person doing it, get something very rich; a great, great learning experience. My advice would be try; say your prayers and try, and believe that there will be a response to your needs. Believe that as unlikely as it may seem to you, there will be a response to your need; don’t be afraid to ask for it … try.

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