Caregiving is a strange beast: while every day can be different because the person for whom we are caring may have different needs or even an emergency, every day is the same in that our lives seem to focus on our loved one and we often let our own wants and needs slide. We can feel stressed from constant changes yet numbed by the sameness of needing to focus on the care of a vulnerable loved one.
Often, we don’t even notice that we’ve slipped into a routine of combined stress and numbness until a friend or family member takes a moment to ask what is new in our lives. If our first thought is that nothing much has changed since we are just caregivers doing what we do, then it’s time to take a look at how we can refresh our attitude toward our lives, and in the process, perhaps refresh the life of the person for whom we are responsible.
How can a caregiver break out of the rut?
Shaking up our routine is often advised when we are in a rut, but many caregivers are faced with loved ones who can be thrown into a panic over even a tiny change in routine, so that is one option that seems closed to caregivers. What is not closed to caregivers? Techniques that can help change our attitude. When our attitude changes our lives change. Even if the change is small, it can often be enough to add a little freshness and some optimism to our thinking and banish some of the harmful negative thinking that may have infused our days.
Mindfulness is more than a trend brought on by those who recognize that we need to address the fact that modern day stress is draining the joy, and sometimes even the life, out of people. Mindfulness is a process of being fully present as we go through our day, paying attention to what we’re doing even as we go about mundane activities. Caregivers can use mindfulness to help them recognize that their own life has more to offer than what they’ve been noticing.
One example many will relate to is that rather than grinding your teeth with impatience as you listen to your dad, who has dementia, talk about the fact that your mom (long deceased) is getting ready for him to take her to the prom, join him in his world. Ask what color he thinks she’ll wear for this special night. That may remind him of the corsage he bought her decades ago. Ask him if he has his own car or is he borrowing his dads? Let yourself go. Get into the story.
Because you are putting your whole mind into listening and joining in the story rather than thinking about the laundry that needs to be done, you will likely feel your “burden” lighten.
Once you’ve done this, you’ll find that you just took a trip down memory lane with your dad and he’s smiling. The biggest bonus may be that you learned something about your parents’ history that you will treasure long after your dad is gone. The laundry will get done eventually, but these precious moments could have been lost forever.
Learn to meditate. It’s been said that if you are too busy to meditate for 10 minutes then you should meditate for an hour. Meditation is another way that we bring ourselves back to living life rather than just going through the motions. Meditation has been shown to alter the brain of those who have developed mild cognitive disorder, as well as calm stress. Get up early or stay up late, whatever works for you. Find a comfortable pillow to sit on as you mindfully breathe and let your mind wander, or go for a walk or a jog. You and only you can decide what helps you free your mind, but do try to find a way.
Faith is related to meditation but not always connected. If you are a person of faith, you can use this time to pray as well as meditate on the fact that you can lean on your god (or gods) to help you through tough times. A session of prayer, for a believer, can be one of the most liberating things that anyone can do, because it reminds you that you are never alone in what you’re doing, even if you often feel that you are.
Make a gratitude list. You may feel that there is nothing to feel grateful for. Example: Your mom died a few months ago after years of caregiving on your part and now your dad has been diagnosed with dementia.
Yet you have some time left with your dad. You have a roof over your head. You have heat and/or air conditioning. You have food. Those are things to be grateful for. Or, your list may start with a big fat zero. That is just fine.
Tomorrow, you may grudgingly write down that you got out of bed that morning. Not everyone can do that. The next day, you write that you were able to get out of bed and that you ate a good breakfast. You get the picture. One baby step at a time; you still have many blessings. This is not about faith unless you want it to be. It’s simply about life, or the universe. Gratitude lists can be game-changers when it comes to mental health, so give it a try.
Make a list of the positive aspects of caregiving. We know the negative aspects. Lack of sleep, stress over our loved one’s health, being constantly on call and, for some, being the family whipping post is a way of life. But there are positive things about long-term caregiving, as well. Most people experience significant personal growth in areas of compassion and patience, increased creativity because we must be ready to cope with the ever-changing needs of our loved one, and deep satisfaction over knowing that we’ve made a huge difference in someone’s life. You could include these gains in your gratitude list if you like. That alone may be enough to refresh your spirit on a low day.