The call to being a caregiver
Although the negative effects of caregiving on caregivers have been highlighted in both research studies and the media, the positive aspects of caregiving have only recently been explored by researchers and family caregivers themselves.
How do you make caregiving a positive and meaningful experience?
In fact, many family caregivers have shared their experience of the “pain” and “gain” of caregiving (Chappell & Reid, 2002). While we do not want to be wearing rose-coloured glasses about caring for someone with a chronic health condition or the frailties of aging, from a caregiver perspective, we need to be able to explore both sides of caregiving.
Positive aspects of caregiving
Caregivers can experience positive aspects of caregiving in a variety of areas:
- Strengthening the relationship between the family caregiver and care receiver: companionship, responding to a need, empathy, appreciation of the family, giving back to the person what they have received
- Personal fulfillment and growth: mastery of new skills, a sense of purpose and meaningfulness, duty and obligation to the person, reprioritizing, pride
- Caring as meaningful work: a desire to prevent negative outcomes for the person who requires the care (Nolan et al, 1996)
How do you make caregiving a positive and meaningful experience? Understanding your family caregiving story is part of finding meaning (Ayres, 2000).
Exercise: Being a caregiver
1. Write the words “being a caregiver” at the top of your page.
- Take the next minute to look at these words and think about your initial reaction or response to the words “being a caregiver.”
- What is something important that you know about being a family caregiver?
- It is important to pause, reflect, and value your own knowledge about being a caregiver. After you pause and reflect, write down your initial response. It may be a drawing, image, a single word, or short statement.
2. Focus on the words “being a caregiver” and build on your initial response by writing a response to some or all of the questions below.
- What does “being a caregiver” mean to you?
- What else do you know about these words?
- How do these words affect you?
- What feelings go along with these words?
- How do these words affect other people in your life?
- How do we respond differently to the person we care for when we focus on “being a caregiver?”
- What are some different ways you care?
3. Once you have finished, take a minute to review what you have written. Highlight, circle, or note parts of your journal that stand out for you:
- New insights or meanings
- Experiences (note both positive and negative)
What we can and can’t control
Another aspect of finding positive meaning is through our attitudes and feelings about caregiving. Some parts of caregiving we can control and others, not so much.
It is important to recognize what is out of our control:
- Context/background: Who you are caring for, under what conditions, the quality of your relationship
- Stressors: The length of time you have been caring, the type of care you are providing, presence of cognitive impairment, depression or negative behaviours
- Mediators: Coping strategies, access to community resources, social support, balancing meaning/distress
- Outcomes: Distress, depression, self-esteem, mastery
The good news is that how we think and feel about caregiving is under our control.
Meaning is not inherent, it is created. The meaning, how we think and feel about family caregiving, is under our control and therefore we are not victims to the caregiving experience.
In fact, research has shown that caregivers who report positive feelings were less likely to report depression, distress, and poor health (Cohen, Colantonio & Vernich, 2002).
Exercise: What is in your control?
- On the diagram shown here, write a word or short statement in the smallest circle: What is something in your caregiving experience you can control?
- In the larger circle: What is something in your caregiving experience that you can influence?
- In the box: What is something in your caregiving experience that you cannot control or influence?
- Look at the diagram and respond to the following questions:
What does this diagram highlight to you?
How do you balance issues (control, influence, or letting go) in your caregiving experience?
What feelings go along with these words?
How do you “let go” of an issue that you have strong feelings about?
What are some different ways of dealing with this issue?
What services in your local area are good supports in dealing with this issue?
- Once you have finished, take a minute to review what you have written. Highlight, circle, or note parts of your journal that stand out for you:
New insights and meanings
Experience (note both positive and negative)
Positive caregiving techniques
Here are some strategies to assist us in creating a positive, meaningful caregiving experience:
Reframing: Focus on what you can do and what you can control as a family caregiver. When we try and control or influence that which we cannot control or influence, it is like hitting our head against the proverbial brick wall. Emotionally, it leads to negativity, frustration, resentment, and anger. Conversely, controlling and influencing that which we can leads to a sense of achievement and competence.
Letting Go: If you have no control or influence over something, let it go. One of the primary ways we create unhappiness is by holding on to thoughts and feelings; we do not accept what is and resist reality. Work towards becoming skilled at releasing or letting go. Letting go is a decision, a choice. It is one of the controllables!
Distracting: Finding a distraction helps you stay focused on the positive and give attention to your own needs. Learn to take a break from caregiving and use respite services. Take a walk, meditate, do what you need to do in order to replenish yourself. Keep in mind what works for you so when you find yourself in a negative mood you will have a few distractions up your sleeve.
Discovering and developing meaning
Exercise: How do you discover meaning?
Discovering meaning is about exploring what you know, think, and feel about your experiences that will change your course or direction. While many family caregivers do not actively seek meaning, it is linked to more positive outcomes for you and the person you care for.
So, how do we find meaning?
Describe a time when you felt positive about your caregiving experience.
Re-read what you wrote and respond to the following questions:
- What were you seeing and hearing?
- What do you think was going on? How does this relate to what you were doing/seeing/hearing?
- How did this experience make you feel? How does this relate to what you were thinking?
- What are your wants/needs for yourself? For the person you are caring for?
- What have you been doing (past)? Based on what you sense, think, feel, and want/need, what will you do (present)?
Awareness Wheel adapted from: Miller, Sherod and Phyllis Miller. (2011). Core Communications: Maps, Skills and Processes.
Strategies to find meaning in caregiving
Author and speaker Janet Edmunson explores the following 9 strategies to find meaning:
- Finding meaning
- Savour goodness
- Count blessings
- Give and receive kindness
- Hang on to your passions
- Connect with others despite your challenges with time, energy, and interest
- Apply your strengths
- Find new things to look forward to
- Have adventures
Edmunson, Janet. (2006). Finding Meaning with Charles: Caregiving with Love through a Degenerative Disease, www.janetedmunson.com/html/edm_products.html
Chappell N.L. & Reid R.C, 2002, Burden and Well-Being among Caregivers: Examining the Distinction, The Gerontologist; 42, 772-780.
Nolan, A. E., & Tennstedt, S. (1996). "Making the Best of It: Themes of Meaning among Informal Caregivers to the Elderly." Journal of Aging Studies. 10(4): 313-327.
Ayres, L. (2000a). Narratives of family caregiving: Four story types. Research in Nursing & Health, 23, 359-371.
Cohen C., Colantonio A., & Vernich L., Positive Aspects of Caregiving: Rounding Out the Caregiver Experience, International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 17, no. 2 (2002): 184-188.