Thanksgiving: Finding gratitude in caregiving

Caregiver, patient expert

Caring for our aging loved ones can be exhausting, frustrating, demanding and time consuming. Since November marks National Alzheimer's Awareness Month, we're honoring Alzheimer's caregivers, but November is also National Caregiver's Month.

Thanksgiving, as another November holiday, reminds me to think of ways that caregiving, tough as it can be, also offers caregivers a time to note the special blessings we've received when we are open to recognizing the gifts. After all, caring for one another is, in my view, one of the answers to "why are we here."

This Thanksgiving - not necessarily the day you are wrestling with the turkey at one home while you cope with a disoriented parent in another - but during the holiday time, you may find that making a gratitude list can help you discover the blessings wrapped in the guise of caring for your loved one.

This exercise is one of the most effective tools I know of to relieve the frustrations that can come with "why me." Self pity, even when seemingly justified, only drains our inner resources. Since we're all human, I'd hazard a guess that few of us have gotten to this point in life without some serious episodes of self pity. However, if we have written a list of what we are grateful for, we can use this list to help sustain us when the going gets tough.

A gratitude list can help balance feelings

Here are a few suggestions to help you get started, however, you will have your unique blessings. Add to your list as life goes on and you will likely see that there are many ways being a caregiver has helped you grow.

Patience far beyond what you had prior to becoming a caregiver *
 Compassion for people who have suffered losses, whether mental or physical

  • Compassion for other caregivers

Less selfishness in all areas of your life

  • Thicker skin - what other people think becomes less important than you knowing you are doing the right thing
  • The satisfaction of knowing you are contributing to the quality of life of another person

Some knowledge that you, too, are important in the scheme of things *
 More accepting of the faults of others

Okay, you've begun. If you stall out, you are only human. Be gentle with yourself. Understand, too, that being willing to be grateful, even if you don't feel any gratitude at the moment, still counts. Gratitude can sneak in if we crack open the door.

When your care receiver is difficult

Some of you will be fortunate enough to be caring for someone who can express gratitude for all you do. Many of you will only hear complaints. For most caregivers, the expressions of gratitude or discontent will vary, depending on the momentary feelings of the care receiver. Perhaps, then, your list could contain an attitude adjustment on your part with these items in mind:

  • Helping someone even if they don't or can't show their own gratitude for your help
  • Doing good things not for the thanks, but for the feeling we get when we do something nice for another person
  • The ability to put ourselves in another's place when he or she is in pain
  • Realizing that when a person isn't responding as we'd like, it may not be because of us, but because of their own emotional or physical pain

Perspective about what really matters in life

What I am most grateful for about caregiving is that it is a constant reminder to keep life in perspective. What matters is people. A loved one can be taken from us in an instant. We, ourselves, are just one breath away from disease or death. While, at first glance, this recognition of the fragility of human life may seem morbid, it is just the opposite. It is freeing. Once we've gotten perspective on what really matters in life everything else that worries us dims in comparison.

Accepting our humanness and that of others - warts and all

Finding gratitude in caregiving really boils down to accepting our own humanness, failings and all, combined with accepting the same humanness in others. Look for something good in an event, even when on the surface there doesn't seem to be anything but bad. Realize that, with all of our grief and worries, we are alive and we are doing our best. There can be satisfaction in that, and gratitude for what life offers will likely not be far behind.

This holiday season, and beyond, look over your gratitude list when the negative emotions start to make inroads into your attitude toward life. Just scanning the list may nudge your mind into an area of healthier thinking.

Make this a happy Thanksgiving by owning your life. Search for your blessings in the everyday tasks that have become yours. Some days, that may mean digging pretty deep. But you can do it. You're a caregiver, right? That means that your heart is at least partially open to change. Opening it just a bit farther can help you appreciate things in your life that are better because you are or have been a caregiver.

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