After seven years of intensive caregiving for multiple family members, to say I was burned out is an understatement. The mental and physical stress has been cumulative, and a few months ago I realized I needed a break. I got that and much more thanks to a caregiving respite scholarship from Road Scholar that took me on a life-changing six-day journey in New Mexico.
Road Scholar (once known as Elderhostel) has begun offering caregivers financial assistance of up to $1,300 to join one of its trips in the U.S. that cost $1,400 or less. What a treat. As I searched the many adventures scheduled for May, one title caught my eye: "Finding Your Bliss in the Land of Enchantment." The description sealed it for me: "Learn about the restorative traditions of Santa Fe as you hear about traditional healing techniques, experience a Zen Center and soak in a mineral hot spring."
This particular adventure is one of a handful of Road Scholar trips meant for women only. I predicted I would meet other caregivers. Indeed, each of the 20 women in our group, spanning ages 55 to 85, had current or past caregiving experiences; by the end of the week we each had made strong, supportive connections.
You can see a photo slideshow of our adventure. These were a few highlights:
- A meditation class at Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe. Our instructor, Kathryn Stedham, taught us eyes-open meditation techniques and led us in guided, silent and walking meditations in which we simply counted our breaths in and out up to 10 and then started at 1 again. My dad, who has Alzheimer's, and I listen to a guided meditation app as we go to sleep at night, but since this trip I also do a morning meditation and incorporate the walking meditation throughout my day. Meditation — like yoga, another activity on this trip — is an effective way for caregivers and care recipients to counteract and prevent stress.
- A meditative walk through the labyrinth at Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in Abiquiu, N.M. I set my intention to understand how to best care for my dad and juggle everything else in my life. As I walked the labyrinth I felt my late mom's presence, and a clear message that brought me peace and encouragement: "The road is long, but the path is clear." Caregiving has indeed been a long road, but I need to stay the course and continue to do my best to make our journey as easy and joyful as possible.
- A healing session with an eighth-generation "curandera" (traditional healer). She taught me not to focus on my father's or my imbalance or illness. Instead I should see us always in our wholeness, with all of our wonderful qualities, because the essence of us is limitless and indestructible.
- An excursion to Santa Fe's Ten Thousand Waves. We each received a wonderful treatment at this traditional Japanese mountain spa. I chose the head and neck massage and facial — heavenly!
As our adventure came to a close, we discussed our individual experiences. One recent widow said our trip made her realize that she's ready to re-engage in life and learning. Another woman who had long had chronic pain marveled that over the week the pain had slowly faded and was now gone. I had especially connected with and been inspired by Bev Healy, 80, whose husband served in the same Army division as my dad in World War II (the 10th Mountain Division). She said she felt encouraged toward completion when she walked the labyrinth and was now motivated to finish writing her husband's life story.
For me, this adventure helped me learn that I was actually carrying my bliss within my heart and soul all along. It is in caring for and even in suffering with my loved ones, and in teaching, inspiring and supporting others, that I find my meaning and bliss. This is my path. Sometimes an external journey sends us out into the world only to lead us back to ourselves for our answers. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I realized there's no place like home.
I urge you, my fellow caregivers, to consider applying for a caregiving scholarship for a learning adventure. Road Scholar has a wide variety of trips to choose from. Taking a break from caregiving is not selfish; it's practical. Think of it like a car that can't run on empty. Neither can we. We have to fill our own tanks to create the energy to keep bouncing back to be there for loved ones.
Click here to apply for Road Scholar's caregiving scholarships.
Amy Goyer is AARP's Family and Caregiving Expert and author of AARP's Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. She spends most of her time in Phoenix, where she cares for her 92-year-old dad, Robert, who has Alzheimer's disease. Follow her blog and videos and connect with Amy on Twitter @amygoyer, Facebook and LinkedIn.