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Embracing Tender Memories in Family Caregiving

Take a break from the nonstop to-do list to pause and make an emotional connection

spinner image portrait of woman hugging her mother
Kohei Hara / Getty Images

Five years after my mother’s death from complications of vascular dementia, what I recall most clearly aren’t the dozens of times I took her to doctors’ offices, brought her groceries, fixed her television, called her insurance company or reported on her progress to other family members. What is strongest in my mind are a few tender moments.

There was the cloudy afternoon a few weeks before her death when she seemed confused, afraid and upset. To soothe her, we looked through an old photo album from a beach vacation 30 years earlier, and I commented several times in a quiet voice about how lovely and happy she looked in the photographs. Gradually, she became absorbed in the images of herself and others and became peaceful.

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I remember watching her looking lovingly across the table at my then 21-year-old red-haired son during our last family holiday dinner together.

I see her in my mind’s eye bending forward slightly to admire the yellow and pink spring flowers in the small garden of her nursing home as I pushed her wheelchair slowly along the paved path.

These small moments are powerful memories from my caregiving years that, thankfully, mostly crowd out more troubling recollections of arguments we had about money, or evenings we spent in emergency rooms waiting for her to see a doctor. I felt emotionally connected to my mother during those times in a way that the day-to-day drudgery of caregiving, punctuated by occasional friction, seemed to prevent.

Devoted caregivers are often preoccupied with completing daily tasks for their loved ones or consumed with logistical planning to manage upcoming challenges. With the benefit of hindsight, though, what matters most about caregiving isn’t completing the tasks but creating those too-rare instances of genuine emotional connection. How can family caregivers foster this tenderness? Here are some ideas.

Don’t get caught up in doing

Through whirlwind days of picking up medications, cooking dinners and filling out forms, it is easy for caregivers to adopt a nose-to-the-grindstone approach to looking after their loved ones, with success measured by the number of items they’re able to cross off never-ending to-do lists. But the recipients of these type of caregivers may feel emotionally cut off from them and alone. What’s more, they may feel guilty that they’re burdensome sources of chores. To avoid having that effect, caregivers need to step out of the rigid role of devoted doer.

Prioritize being with, rather doing for

Helping an aging parent or disabled spouse feel comforted and loved requires entirely different skills, including setting tasks aside long enough to be present and responsive to whatever care receivers are feeling, thinking and experiencing. It means turning toward the people they’re tending to, to fully engage them. One way of accomplishing this is by scheduling no-task hours or days. For example, a wife I know who has been caring for years for her husband, who has ALS, found that if they take an hour each evening to simply lie on his hospital bed and cuddle — before they move on to giving him a sponge bath, brushing his teeth and getting him into pajamas — then he doesn’t feel reduced to being a mere object of care. He feels better about himself, and they feel closer to each other. As a result, they both are fortified to go on. The wife has also told me that she is trying to store up memories of these moments because they will have to sustain her after he dies from his progressive neurological disease.

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Use mindfulness to be present

It isn’t easy to be fully present, especially when the reality of seeing a loved one declining and possibly suffering is so painful to caregivers. But being present is essential to creating an emotional connection. Mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing and meditation, are often used to help people live in the moment, rather than from task to task. A simple way to become more mindfully present is with the 5 Senses Exercise, during which individuals intentionally and sequentially take notice of what they are seeing, hearing, feeling, touching and smelling.

Caregivers can also modify this exercise by asking themselves to imagine what their loved one is seeing, hearing, feeling, touching and smelling at the moment or, better yet, inquiring closely about it. It is by embracing care receivers’ experiences that caregivers draw closer, feel true empathy and create long-lasting tenderness.

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.

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