While leading a workshop at a conference in Philadelphia several years ago, I told a story about a caregiver I'd treated who said she enjoyed caring for her father with moderate dementia. A middle-aged woman in the audience suddenly hollered, "She must be in denial!" Other attendees murmured in assent.
Their reactions caught me by surprise. It was as if everyone in the room was convinced that caregiving is a dreadful experience. I then asked the group, "Is there anyone here for whom caregiving has been rewarding?"
"It is for me," replied a young man in the front row. "I love my wife and am glad to have the chance to take care of her." The room went silent.
This exchange revealed to me that caregivers' experiences can be as different as night and day. Some feel entrapped and beleaguered. Others regard it as a positive source of worth and pride. Many of us are somewhere in the middle, contending with interwoven negative and positive feelings. Caregiving, in other words, often brings "strains and gains."
I've dedicated my career to helping all caregivers I meet to minimize those strains and maximize those gains. And my new book, AARP Meditations for Caregivers: Practical, Emotional, and Spiritual Support for You and Your Family, tries to do the same.
The possible strains are well publicized in a stream of recent movies, memoirs and magazine features — burnout and depression, social isolation and abandonment, self-neglect and physical decline. The possible gains get less press but are just as powerful. I've heard many caregivers say that they've grown personally and spiritually as a result of caregiving. Others report feeling an enhanced sense of purpose through giving back to someone who's loved them well or keeping the family together during tough times. I've even met caregivers, long ostracized by their relatives, who embrace caregiving as a last chance to rejoin the clan and win approval, acceptance and redemption.
How can family caregivers maximize their potential gains to help offset the severe strains they often feel? Here are some ideas:
Honor your mission: Caregiving is about choosing to give time and make sacrifices to steadfastly care for someone else. That choice is often made for compelling personal, moral and spiritual reasons: "He took good care of me and I owe it to him"; "It's the right thing for a daughter to do"; "My kids are learning about the value of family through watching me give care"; "This is my way of doing God's work in this world." Rather than just reflexively doing what needs to be done, you should take time through writing and conversation to reflect on the reasons underlying your sacrifices. When you keep these higher purposes (what I call a "caregiving mission statement") firmly in mind, it will likely help you better endure the lowlights of the daily caregiving grind.
Remember the future: We have long been told by self-help groups and books that we should live "one day at a time" and "be here now." But, in his revved-up song "Rosalita," rocker Bruce Springsteen sang, "Someday we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny." I ask caregivers, "How do you think you will look back at this time in your life five years from now?" Shift your perspective to some future post-caregiving vantage point from which you can regard yourself now. This can help you more accurately see and appreciate the good work you're doing, despite how difficult it may seem to you each day. That often boosts morale and self-esteem.
Deepen the relationship: The hands-on, time-intensive work of caregiving can affect relationships between caregivers and care recipients differently. Some will be weakened by the drudgery and onerous tasks. Others will be strengthened by the long hours spent together with new levels of intimacy. Spend that time wisely. Get to know your loved one anew as the two of you grapple with the unfolding crisis. Allow your relationship to deepen.
I wonder about the young man at the conference who was glad to take care of his wife. What did he learn about the quality of her character as she dealt with some debilitating illness? What did he learn about his own character as he hung in there with her? What revelations did he gain about the power of their love?
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and family therapist, is a member of the AARP Caregiver Expert Panel and coauthor of the forthcoming AARP Meditations for Caregivers — Practical, Emotional and Spiritual Support for You and Your Family (Da Capo, July 2016). You can read and comment on his columns for AARP, and follow and connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.