Happiness Can Emerge From the Ashes of Caregiving and Death
Caregiving for someone with Alzheimer’s really puts a lot of stress on you. In my case, I experienced many gray days when I felt like I was in a fog and everything seemed to be just off. And as Mom’s confusion increased and her health deteriorated, it was harder and harder to find any joy and happiness. I must admit I tried. I’d go regularly to exercise. I’d meet friends for lunch or a movie. I snuggled with my dog. I tried to find delight in watching dragonflies dance around my car as I drove to Mom’s nursing home.
When Mom died in 2007, I wasn’t sure what to expect emotionally. I didn’t feel the overwhelming grief that I had felt when a friend had died as a result of a car accident. For me, mourning Mom ended up being a slow, dull pain that at times would seem to lift, but then would suddenly descend on me and reduce me to tears. And it seemed to go on and on.
Finally in January (which was almost 2-1/2 years after she died), I felt the sudden emergence of happiness sprouts in my life, much like the green shoots of plants that begin emerging through the snow in the spring. I was so amazed to suddenly feel better, brighter, and perkier that I wanted to accelerate the process. So when I saw Gretchen Rubin’s book, “The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun,” I knew I had to buy it. Rubin’s effort focused on one overarching happiness assignment each month. Her tasks involved boosting energy (vitality), remembering love (marriage), aiming higher (work), lightening up (parenthood), being serious about play (leisure), making time for friends (friendship), buying some happiness (money), contemplating the heavens (eternity), pursuing a passion (books), paying attention (mindfulness), keeping a contented heart (attitude), and reaching boot camp perfect (happiness).
I’m not as structured as Rubin, but her book did make me reevaluate what I was doing (and not doing) in relation to happiness. For instance, I’ve found that if I walk the dogs early in the morning, I am happier having had the opportunity to watch one of my dogs demand to play in the sprinkler system sprays that we encounter on our route. I’ve tried to be more open to opportunities to “play” that friends offer (Off-road cycling! Museum hopping! Going to basketball games!) and am trying to be more present mentally and emotionally when we get together to visit. I’ve knocked off several things that had been looming on my “to do” list since Mom died, including finishing written and oral exams on my doctorate and cleaning out my “junk room,” thus expanding the space in my life for happiness. I’m trying to refocus my hobbies to try new things, like planting a garden (we got tomatoes and bell peppers this year!) while embracing older ones (like reading).
And what has resulted from these efforts? Pretty much continual happiness! And it turns out that embracing joy and happiness in your life is important to overall health, which may have been battered by caring for someone with dementia. In a series of short recommendations about how to live a healthier life by Harvard Medical doctors in a recent issue of Newsweek, Dr. Harvey Simon suggested seeking and sharing joy. He wrote:
“Patients (and their doctors) tend to overlook the impact of joy on health. It’s hard to know why: perhaps because there is no number to follow, we focus instead on ‘hard’ values for cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, PSA, etc. Those are all important – but so are relationships, personal fulfillment, and optimism. There are plenty of medical studies that link optimism, happiness, and joy with good health.”