Op-Ed: 4 Simple Things to Change Your Caregiving Story

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Karen Warner Schuelr
Karen Warner Schueler

My husband was diagnosed out of the blue with stage 4 lung cancer. We never saw it coming; he was a non-smoker and health nut. Plus, he had no alarming symptoms, just some back pain that wasn’t getting better.

On the day he received his unexpected diagnosis, I became a sudden caregiver. Our lives changed immediately, and they never changed back. I cared for him for 18 months, from his diagnosis until his death in April 2016.

There are now 53 million unpaid family caregivers in the U.S. alone, according to an AARP report. When I very suddenly became one of those caregivers, I had just gotten my master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in positive psychology. So I began to apply the research I knew about resilience and well-being to my day-to-day caregiving. It wasn’t perfect or easy, but it did make a difference to my life and to my husband’s.

Here, I’ve put together four simple steps you can take that will make a difference in your caregiving story. I’m sensitive to not putting any more work on caregivers’ plates, so I want to stress the size of these things: They’re all meant to be manageable.

1. Start a daily gratitude journal.

It works, and it doesn’t cost anything. Make it a habit to notice and write down good things that happened, such as:

  • What were one or two good things that happened today?
  • Who was one good person who made a difference?

Why it works: Humans are wired for survival, and during caregiving, that’s your focus. So if you’re exclusively in survival mode, you’re seeing things you need to protect yourself from. If you want to thrive, look for the good, too.

2. Build in mini breaks.

Identify something you love to do and build a mini break around it on as many days as you can. One caregiver I know saves the Sunday crossword puzzle and works on it a little bit every day. Another person makes a cup of tea at 3 p.m. every day and sits quietly with it for 15 minutes before going to the next task. A husband-caregiver gets up super early and goes for a morning run before the day gets underway. I used to walk the dog through the woods behind our house in rain, shine, ice, or snow.

Why it works: There’s evidence that shows that mental health breaks — no matter how short — interrupt ongoing depletion and can restore the energy you’ve spent caregiving.

3. Set small goals for yourself and work toward them.

Choose a manageable goal that, if accomplished, would provide satisfaction. Begin right away to make progress toward it. You might want to start working out, for example. You might want to better understand your finances. Or you might want to declutter your closets.

Write down the goal and break it into subtasks so that you begin to focus on making it happen. If you want to get more exercise, what type? At what time of day could you do it? What workout programs are available online or on TV? Who else could help you?

Why it works: The act of making progress toward our goals — not just succeeding at our goals — gives us a sense of creating something and of being in control of something. All of this raises positive emotions. When we feel good in the moment, we tend to broaden our outlook and see more options than we previously had. This generates a positive upward spiral. The better we feel, the more options we see; the more options we see, the better we care for others.

4. Create a care-leading squad.

What do you need done, and who do you know who’s great at it? Cultivate a group of people you absolutely trust who can help you when you need it.

For example, I am not handy around the house. My friend Nick knows his way around a toolbox. I’m not good at dealing with anything mathematically complicated, like insurance bills, but my friend Richard lives for that. They became “The Handyman” and “The Numbers Guy” on my care-leading squad.

The possibilities are limitless, but other potential helpers include a mentor (someone who has been in your role previously), someone who can cook and freeze meals for you, and a communicator who can keep others updated.

Select the best people for each job and line them up, even if you don’t need them right now. Define “best” as:

  • You can completely be yourself around them and not have to edit yourself or hide your dirty laundry — figuratively and literally.
  • They do what they say they’re going to do, no matter what.

Why it works: Caregivers are notorious for going it alone, and they don’t have to. Other people matter. If you line up your trustworthy squad before you need them, they’ll be ready for you in a crisis, leading to peace of mind when you need it most. And by letting your squad take care of you, you can free yourself up to take care of the one who really matters: the person in your care.

Karen Warner Schueler is an executive coach, president of Tangible Group, and author of The Sudden Caregiver: A Roadmap for Resilient Caregiving, thesuddencaregiver.com.