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The Saving Power of a Caregiving Journal

How it can help you stave off depression, regain a sense of control

A female caregiver writing in her journal

digitalskillet/Getty Images

En español | While recently rereading the journal that I kept from 2010 to 2017 when I was a dementia caregiver for my stepfather and, later, my mother, I came across this passage from August 28, 2010:

"I stayed at the apartment with my stepfather today while my mother was shopping with my wife. He was frankly paranoid, saying he'd leave and call the police. I talked to him calmly and then distracted him by putting a John Wayne movie on the TV. He did calm down but continued to pick at the skin on his scalp until it bled. I watched him do it, too worn out to argue with him to try to get him to stop."

It was a short entry about one afternoon's inconsequential events, but it captured a lot — the day-to-day situation, its many challenges and its many frustrations. I had forgotten the actual incidents, probably because they were among hundreds of small caregiving interactions that left scant memories. But I felt glad now to have this written report to help me recall what I'd been through and how, on one day at least, I was patient enough to make a positive difference — at least partially.

Throughout my tenure as a family caregiver, I used my journal as a historical record and place to vent without troubling anyone else. Other caregivers’ journals are filled with worry lists or angry diatribes at a loved one's doctors, or used as a means of monitoring their own thoughts and moods. Still others keep gratitude journals in which they write down three moments of joy or humor they experienced during that day for which they felt grateful, as proof that caregiving isn't always gloom, doom and drudgery.

Regardless of the journaling format, research suggests that writing down our experiences decreases the likelihood we'll become depressed. As the website for the branch of popular psychology known as positive psychology notes, journaling “helps [people] build a buffer between their negative thoughts and their sense of well-being.”

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There is something about recording what is happening to us and our emotional reactions that enables family caregivers to stand apart from the onrush of tasks and crises they're immersed in and observe what they're going through, reflect on its greater meanings and feel more in control.

There is no one right way to journal; all who practice it find the focus and style that work for them. But here are some general suggestions to consider for using journaling as an effective coping technique:

Just write. Don't edit

This is not a school assignment. No one is grading you. The important thing is to take the concerns and reactions swirling through your head and deposit them on paper (or a computer screen) so that they preoccupy you less. You don't need to use big words or full sentences or even words at all; drawings work, too. Just empty the contents of your mind without judging yourself.

Write when you want. But read it back infrequently

There is no requirement that you write daily, weekly or even regularly; instead, write whenever some caregiving moment strikes you as moving or important. If you do journal daily, don't read back what you wrote more than weekly; if you write weekly, read back no more than monthly. The time elapsed is necessary to gain greater emotional distance from the immediate experiences and reactions you've recorded to recognize larger trends and realize deeper insights.

Consider the audience. But keep your journal private

If you are having trouble getting started, imagine an audience to whom you are directing your thoughts and feelings about being a family caregiver. Would it be the person you are today or will be five years from now looking back on this trying time? Family members who haven't stepped up to help? The care receiver who may no longer be capable of understanding your words? Your choice will create a context, but keep your actual journal private. You will be less inhibited about speaking your mind fully and honestly.

Think of your journal as travelogue

If the cliché is true that caregiving is a journey, then a caregiver journal is its travelogue, full of new experiences, local color and sometimes complaints about where you've landed. Re-reading it one day, as I recently did, will bring back the sights and sounds, the places where you got lost and the new lingo you picked up along the way. But it will also reveal the longer trajectory of what you learned about yourself through the distances you covered and the destinations you reached.

Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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