For family caregivers, making New Year’s resolutions doesn’t have to be the futile exercise of vowing to lose weight and then eating half a chocolate cake on January 3. It can be, as the Serenity Prayer suggests, a call for the courage to change what they can — their mindsets, for instance, when they must accept loved ones’ medical situations that they can’t change. To get inspired for the coming year, all caregivers should take time in December to think about what’s important to them about continuing to be a caregiver and how they can improve their approach to their duties. Here are some possible resolutions for 2022 to consider.
1. “I will reflect more on the good things I do, rather than on my imperfections as a caregiver.”
We all know the cliché that we’re our own worst enemies. But many caregivers still believe that if they critique themselves harshly enough, they can vanquish their imperfections. Bearing down harder doesn’t usually improve anyone’s performance; it creates a sense of failure. It is by easing up on themselves and relaxing more in their difficult role that caregivers can bring out their best
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Bringing out more of their best requires recognizing the many good things they do. Caregivers sometimes make light of all the tasks they complete each day but lie awake every night with what they didn’t get done weighing heavily on their minds. Negative bias is what the cognitive behavioral therapists call it. Or, stated differently, it is unfairly ignoring the positive. Caregivers should resolve to practice greater self-compassion and to remember each day the powerful impact of their loving care.
2. “I will spend more time cherishing supportive friends and relatives than dwelling on those who have disappointed me.”
Of course, caregivers feel betrayed when people who should be pitching in instead disappear. But if those deserters won’t change — and frequently they don’t, no matter how much family caregivers implore them — then the question arises, How do disappointed caregivers go forward filled with calm determination, not bitterness? The answer lies in focusing on being grateful for the good people who, sometimes unexpectedly, do step up to help. It could be a neighbor, fellow congregant or distant relative. It could be a miracle-working home health aide. Caregivers should resolve to embrace them this year as literal godsends.
3. “I will compartmentalize more, preserving time for myself.”
It’s not as if caregivers don’t know they should practice self-care. But finding the time for self-care activities, such as exercising and doing artwork, is a challenge when there never seems be an end to the caregiving tasks. It takes steely discipline to protect even one hour of guilt-free time a week for rest and replenishment and not to allow a loved one’s needs to intrude. Resolving to defend that hour as if their well-being depends on it will help caregivers make it from January to December without burning out.
4. “I will be grateful for what I’m learning about myself.”
What do loving family members learn about themselves when they become caregivers? Not much at first; they are too immersed in the everyday struggle to realize how they’re growing. But, aside from getting a crash course in reading health insurance explanation-of-benefit forms and navigating byzantine health systems, caregivers typically learn that they are tougher and more resilient than they ever knew. It also dawns on them, sometimes long after caregiving ends, that they have strengthened positive qualities in themselves, such as compassion, patience and quiet self-confidence. Caregivers should resolve in 2022 to pay greater attention to how caregiving is changing them — often for the good.
5. “I will aim for joy.”
Life’s enjoyment doesn’t need to end when caregiving begins. In truth, the circumstances of caregiving are often sad and sometimes dire. What finding joy in being a caregiver requires is taking new pleasure in small things — a care recipient’s smile, a well-cooked meal from a magazine recipe, accurately filling a pillbox. As they dream of returning to their old lives of movies, travel and social outings, caregivers should note what moves them or makes them laugh even when they are buried in adult briefs and drudgery. To resolve to find joy in caregiving is to commit to looking harder for what’s good, if ordinary, in life. It can create a way of thinking that will make every day, even after caregiving, more joyful.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and health care consultant, is the coauthor of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.