By Elizabeth Guttenberg, LMSW, Senior Care Advisor
Q: My mother has had dementia for about five years, and each month it seems like there’s something new to worry about. How do I keep from burning out and letting this slow deterioration from getting the best of me?
You’ve probably heard the typical spiel that health care professionals give caregivers about identifying your coping skills and practicing self-care many times already. So instead, I’m going to respond with some advice about maintaining good mental health that I’ve gained from my personal and professional experiences with caregiving.
Try to accept the changes and stay in the present. Caregiving for someone with dementia is not only hard—it’s downright confusing! Your mother is constantly losing pieces of herself, but she is still physically there. You feel so many things when you witness those changes: anger, sadness, guilt, fear – and above all, overwhelming anxiety that soon “the other shoe will drop,” and you will lose her forever. The best way to address these complicated feelings is to approach each encounter with curiosity rather than set expectations. The more attached you are to routines and the way things used to be, the more difficult it will be for you to accept what is happening in the present. Try to connect with your mother on any level that you can. Instead of dwelling on what she has lost, work on discovering what makes her smile now. Relish the pieces of her personality that still remain—like her feistiness or her sense of humor. Maintaining contact in these ways and seeing that she can still experience pleasure may help to reduce your fears about the future, too. Consider reading “I’m Still Here” by Dr. John Zeisel, for more in-depth guidance around connecting with your mother’s remaining capabilities versus focusing on what is gone.
Take stock of what you have learned. Caregiving is a constant teacher. In this role, most of us discover and develop skills and abilities we never knew we had. We also learn new things about the loved ones we are caring for – and about friends and relations who surprise us in both good and bad ways. Take time to reflect on what your experiences have taught you and how they can serve you now. Chances are that you have become a wiser, more complete person by caring for someone else. Perhaps you will find ways to apply that knowledge later on. Caregiving for my father taught me how to be more humble and empathetic. How to grow up and be present for people I loved. It also taught me that I enjoy helping others and put me on the path to becoming a social worker. Now I can use what I learned to assist families in crisis, and I love my work! So despite all the hardships and losses I endured as a caregiver, I am very grateful for that experience.
Practice gratitude. This may sound corny, but if you can find at least three things to be grateful for every day, I promise that it will help you deal with the hard stuff. Caregiving gives us a lot to complain about—there is no question about that. But there is joy in the experience as well, whether it’s the moments of clarity in between your mother’s episodes of memory loss, or the new closeness with your once-distant brother as you share information and deliberate on decisions. You can also practice gratitude with your mother. Go for a walk on a sunny day and marvel at the blue sky together. Any way you do it, try to become more aware of these little gifts; they really do count, and acknowledging them can contribute a great deal to your mental well-being.
Want to explore these concepts futher? Contact a Care Advisor at Care.com. We are master’s-level social workers specializing in adult and senior care.
Call us today at (855) 781-1303 or email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org