5 Strategies for a Caregiver’s Survival
We—who are still trying to figure out our own lives—are fast becoming lifeboats for the faded and fading generations who at one time gave us life. Waving their white hankies, helpless but hopeful, they are asking us to slow down. More than mere assistance, they seek kindness. Just a whisper, some small assurance that their existence, too, has meaning.
My own story, like yours, is both unique and familiar. I help care for a married couple, my own beloved time-travelers. They perceive themselves in the flower of their 30s: They are exasperated when I won’t let them drive or make a sandwich or purchase the shiny gizmo beguiling them on TV. They are also endearing. After almost 70 years of marriage they still hold hands, blow kisses. Frail and often confused—except with each other—they can’t take care of themselves anymore. That’s where my husband and I step in.
If your mother-father-uncle-neighbor-friend is dealing with dementia, Parkinson’s, or an advanced stage of neuropathy, then I know what you’re going through. So are mine. That’s why—as I watch one of my time-travelers totter across the living room—I am writing this urgent note to help you get through your day.
Chances are, you are riding an emotional pendulum between compulsion and commitment. You may feel burdened while selfless, annoyed while gallant, hopeless while hopeful. That’s why this list of five musts is for you. By performing these tasks, you will become a more refreshed, present, and compassionate caregiver. Everything is doable here. No purchase required.
- One dose Ellen. If your time-traveler (let’s call her your “T” for short) is hooked on the news, you may have noticed increased levels of anxiety—ranging from concern when you walk out of the room to panic when you walk out the front door. This is due, in part, to the looping news cycle that grips your T’s life. Your T may be watching the same fire, the same bomb, the same murder every hour or half hour. One way to interrupt this cycle is to tune your television to the Ellen DeGeneres Show. One episode—merely one hour of Ellen—can restore your T to the joyful teen you know she really is. Even if your T seems beyond the reach of language, she will respond to the exultation that is Ellen.
- One dose Frank. I am not sure why—perhaps some medical study has a graph showing how—but Frank Sinatra raises everyone’s cheer factor. He just does. In my own home, I find it’s easier to switch off the television and turn on the music during mealtime. Your T’s attention is naturally broken by the introduction of food, making it easier to change directions. Is your T a wanderer? You can always strap him into the car with Frank and take a drive. Think of Frank as your multitasking survival tool.
- Meditate. Nothing will refresh and refocus you like a good meditation sitting. There are many kinds of meditation techniques around, but I like the simplicity and results of Jyoti meditation. The practice doesn’t discriminate. You can be young or old, in good shape or out; all you need is to be awake. Remember, even though you sit still to meditate, you are also actively engaged. So rather than answering emails or cleaning up while your T dozes, go ahead—mute the TV and give this a try.
- Oxygenate. Have ready by the door where you can see them your gym shoes (stuffed with socks), your car keys, and a full water bottle. Be ready for that moment when you can escape, if only for a 20-minute walk or workout. Whenever your T provides the opportunity, take it. Fight against apathy and lethargy and move it!
- TED talks. I will never forget my first TED talk. I was unloading the dishwasher while cooking a boring dinner and sighing a lot—then, one minute in, I was hooked! The talk was about robotics. Even though the subject was unfamiliar to me, the experience was like opening a window into my mind, refreshing all my same-old, worn-out thoughts with new ones. I promise that you, too, will feel the map of your world unfold, opening to unimagined places and thoughts. The slow decline of most dementia patients casts a long shadow across the caregiver’s life. And yet—even if you have no money, no time, and not enough energy to open a book—a TED talks will remind you that you are still very much alive.
Most of all, remember that the service you render every day for your time-traveler is the kindest and best and right thing to do. At the end of it all—because there will be an end—you’ll have achieved an emotional stretch from strong to gentle. Being present for the Ts in your life will help you notice that the sum of living is ultimately made up of small, not grand, gestures. And perhaps you will, like me, have an experience that will pull you briefly into eternity. At any given moment your T may look at you and the fog that has enveloped him for so long will briefly clear: In that look, at that instant, he will know you and smile. You will be humbled, even grateful—and the world, your world, will be beautiful again.
The Simple Self-Care of Jyoti Meditation
Sit in a pose most comfortable, one you can sustain without moving. Then, silently repeat a loving phrase or name for the Divine that appeals to you. This mantra will help focus your attention and prevent your thoughts from wandering. While you are engaged in repeating this word or phrase, close your eyes and perceive the field of darkness in front of you. Relax and hold your gaze as long as you like while silently repeating your mantra. You will experience a beautiful energy filling and restoring you to your best self. Sit for half an hour if you can—or more. Remember, the laundry will never really be done. You have permission to take some time from your day. For your self. Rejuvenate!