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The Healing Power of Negative Emotions

For caregivers, 'let it all hang out' can be a therapeutic prescription

2. Announce annoyances

The irks and quirks of everyday living — finding dirty dishes in the sink, for example, or missing another's cue that he or she needs attention — don't come to a halt with the onset of an illness. Instead, they multiply. Caregivers don't want to compound the suffering of the afflicted, obviously, so they often keep their grievances to themselves. Yet this robs family interactions of mutuality — the notion that loved ones have expectations of (and are committed to caring for) each other. Caregivers who refuse to say what's bothering them may eventually brim over with resentment — a sure sign of impending burnout.

The healthier alternative? Caregivers should calmly and constructively express their annoyance to care recipients; just because someone is sick doesn't mean they stop being a fully fledged member of the family. This is a better way to air and settle gripes, because it largely restores the give-and-take of family life before the illness. Caregivers who vent don't resent.

3. Don't suppress sadness

If there's one negative emotion that family caregivers and care recipients seem to avoid the most, it's sadness. Some people fret it's the first step on the path to depression. Others tamp it down because they're afraid it will be seen as a sign of defeat or resignation.

But as anyone who has ever attended a moving funeral service knows, expressing sadness can bring family members closer. Discussing their losses — both actual and anticipated — can bond caregivers and care recipients, giving each a sense that they will face whatever comes together. What's left said, not unsaid, is the real silver lining of this dark cloud.

Barry J. Jacobs is a clinical psychologist and family therapist who writes regularly about caregiving issues for AARP.

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THE LIVES OF ELDERLY CAREGIVERS: A visit with a couple experiencing the caregiving stress of a retirement that didn’t go as planned.

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