Mindfulness: A Caregiver’s New Year’s Goal

It’s that time of year when we all stop to reflect on the past year and think about those pressure-filled “New Year’s Resolutions.” But you know what? I already have plenty of pressure when it comes to caregiving for both of my parents. So this year, as I began to make the usual laundry list of personal “resolutions” such as losing weight, exercising every day, eating more healthily, keeping up with paperwork, addressing a whole list of health issues my parents are facing, simplifying their medications and of course cleaning out the garage and the like (things I’m constantly working on anyway,) I’ve decided to create a goal instead of a list of resolutions.

For me, goals are things we work toward – we may or may not actually fully achieve these goals, but by setting goals we can track progress…and progress is what I know I can realistically feel good about. Unrealistic resolutions seem to be a set-up for feeling not-so-good. Who needs that?  Not me! I thought about several goals, and as that began to feel overwhelming in and of itself, I realized there is truly one goal that I know can improve my life and the lives of my beloved parents for whom I am caregiving. The one thing that might give me a fighting chance of not just surviving 2012 but thriving instead. The one skill that can help me address all of those items on my resolutions list: Mindfulness.

Caregiving is inherently a moving target. It involves constant changes - most of which are difficult or impossible to predict. Several years ago, we had at least short periods of “coasting” when my parents were in a routine and no health crises popped up  – sometimes for weeks at a time. Those coasting times gave me a chance to recover, catch up and create the fun, quality-of-life moments with my parents. But now we seldom get to coast. There is barely a chance to catch our breaths before another health problem or change in skills or functioning levels occurs for my parents.

Knowing this makes me vulnerable to run-away thinking about what might happen, how bad things can get, how overwhelmed we will be “if” (insert the myriad of challenges that caregivers can face) happens. That kind of thinking produces anxiety and exhaustion.  I know it’s not productive, and yet I fall prey to it frequently because I’m having so many experiences that validate the fact that there is so frequently just “too much” to deal with. I find myself turning a postitive skill that I posess – the ability to plan ahead – into a negative skill. I often think so constantly about what might happen, worrying about the future, feeling that I can’t possibly take on one more crises….that I miss the current moments and walk around in a state of mindlessness.

Mindlessness – you know how it is – I have my keys and mail in hand as I carry in the groceries while I’m  thinking about picking up Mom’s new medication and then Jackson, our dog, runs up wanting attention and I realize I didn’t give him his vitamins and I think about they way Daddy is feeding him lots of table scraps, and then I worry that Daddy isn’t eating well and I need to find a surgeon for his throat surgery…ugh. The next thing I know I’ve put the eggs in the freezer, tripped over the dogs leash, put my keys in the trash can with the empty grocery bags, lost the important bill that came in the mail…and completely missed the way my parents’ faces lit up when they saw me walk in the door (which is truly the most important thing of all to me.)

Ever had days like that? If you’re a caregiver I’m sure you have!

Practicing mindfulness involves skills like reeling my mind back in and focusing on being in the present moment; dealing with the current issue in front of me and not thinking so many steps ahead that I am paralyzed; fully living and focusing on the good moments with my parents that do happen all the time; experiencing the beauty that is constantly around me; observing and appreciating all that is going on around me; noticing my thoughts, but not judging them or trying to change them.

The truth is, the current moment is all we really have, and especially when we are caregiving for family members who have dementia or other debilitating health issues. It’s so easy to see it like chinese water torture: our loved ones are slowly disappearing right in front of us, one agonizing drip at a time. I want to change that perspective to focus more on what is still there – their essence – instead of what is dwindling.

So my mindfulness goal for 2012 may involve practicing meditation, yoga, journaling and other mindfulness exercises. I will remember to breathe (do you realize how often you hold your breath?!) I may even try to involve my parents in this practice of mindfulness. I’ve been reading books and look forward to reading – or being involved in – current research on mindfulness training for caregivers.

I don’t want to busy myself with so much planning and preparing and, well, worrying. I want to treasure the moments I have with my parents.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress in 2012 – and I’d love to hear from you about how you practice mindfulness in your life as a caregiver, please share resources and your experiences!

Here’s to a 2012 full of total awareness of the many wonderful moments.

Photo credit: Amy Goyer

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