Stroke Smart Magazine
FEATURE: STROKE: FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE
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Stroke: For Better or For Worse
By W. Reed Moran
View the entire comic strip...
Stroke attacks without warning, and few people, even family members, are witness to the onset of symptoms. But when Grandpa Jim had his stroke in 2006, millions of people saw it happen. They followed as his wife Iris found him sitting in his chair, disoriented and unable to speak. They watched as Jim was rushed to the hospital and administered the clot-busting medicine. They worried along with the family and then followed Jim’s recovery.
This was possible because Grandpa Jim is a beloved character in Lynn Johnston’s (pictured above) realistic and bittersweet comic strip, For Better or For Worse.
But fans soon discovered that surviving stroke was just the beginning of the drama. As the storyline progressed, Johnston turned her artistic focus to the relationship between survivor and caregiver a complex dance of compassion, hope, frustration and healing.
As always in her almost 30 years of writing the strip, Johnston’s work was based on a combination of experience, imagination and careful research. “I saw my mother-in-law, Ruth, have a stroke,” recalls Johnston. “When she died shortly thereafter, it was very hard on the whole family. It took years before I was ready to incorporate this in my work.”
Because the characters in For Better or For Worse mature and evolve over the years, Johnston felt the fictional Patterson family eventually would be coping with its own health crisis. “I wanted Grandpa Jim to have some kind of disability that was very, very frustrating for his main caregiver his wife, Iris.”
Johnston’s doctor introduced her to Albert and Louise Lugli, who live near Lynn’s home in Ontario, Canada. In 2006 Albert, 72, suffered a stroke that left him aphasic (unable to speak) and confined to a wheelchair. Fortunately, the Luglis both agreed to become Johnston’s window into the daily struggles and triumphs of the couple’s journey together after stroke.
“I was quite honored,” says Louise of Johnston’s interest in them. In the course of her research Johnston visited the Luglis at home, and accompanied them to appointments for Albert’s physiological and speech therapy. “I’ve been privileged to experience so many things with the family,” says Johnston, “from laughter and difficulties communicating, to how Albert compensates eating with one hand.”
In this way, the Luglis served as the model for what became a public, accurate depiction of what is usually a private and lonely struggle a couple’s daily commitment to each other and to the lifelong stroke recovery journey.
As with the real-life Albert, Grandpa Jim’s stroke leaves him with problems moving his right hand, his right leg, and with his speech. And the practical and sometimes overwhelming consequences of these limitations fall upon those caring for them at home their partners.
“I have developed an enormous admiration for caregivers,” says Johnston. “They become the eyes, ears and legs of their loved ones throughout the daily routine. Nothing illustrates devotion more than that.”
In the comic strip, daughter Elly occasionally is able to help out. But the majority of care,
especially intimate routines such as bed, bathroom and bathing, is shouldered by Iris. The result can be caregiver exhaustion.
Louise Lugli concurs. “At first it was difficult for me to grasp how much Albert required constant care. If he suddenly needed help, he wouldn’t even be able to speak to a 911 operator.”
Johnston decided to portray the dangers of caregiver fatigue in a storyline where Iris finally breaks down and cries in front of Elly. “Feeling overwhelmed is almost an unavoidable part of this relationship,” says Johnston. “People are human, and emotions can easily get the better of caregivers, particularly when they don’t take the time to care for themselves.”
“Self-care for caretakers is of the utmost importance,” adds Johnston. “From a practical
standpoint, if they ignore their own needs it soon becomes impossible to help others.”
Lugli makes a point of caring for herself by eating well, getting enough sleep and exercise. She also has friends over to visit, and enjoys sewing, reading, gardening and playing bridge. “I do get depressed sometimes,” admits Lugli. “It’s alright to feel bad, but I don’t dwell on it.”
Lugli also credits the couple’s abiding love for pulling them through the trying and often
unpredictable challenges of this chapter of their lives a loyal, affectionate relationship mirrored in Johnston’s unfolding story of Grandpa Jim and his wife, Iris.
In the fall of 2007, Johnston has Grandpa Jim’s recovery take another unexpected turn. Whatever the outcome for this fictional family, Johnston says that the issues raised in this storyline have helped her prepare for the later chapters in her own life.
“I now realize that in one way or another, some aspect of this storyline may be inevitable for all of us,” says Johnston. “Whether we eventually become a patient or a caregiver, I believe it’s important to prepare now to be able to give or to receive graciously.”
Johnston says we do this by recognizing we are not immune to the common struggles of life, but that we can learn a lot from how others handle them. “The Lugli family is amazing… they’re a living example of love, integrity and inner strength,” concludes Johnston. “They’ve shown me that health is a gift, one that caring people can
share with one another.”
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