Caregiving and Learning to Breathe

One goes through so many emotions as a caregiver– fear, sadness, anger, joy, surprise, just to name a few- but the one emotion I probably felt most often was simply, overwhelmed. That single feeling of being out of control and always on my guard amplified whatever other emotion I might have been experiencing at any given time. It wasn’t really until Dad already had spent six months or so in his nearby nursing home that I finally learned how to just breathe, instead of react, whenever his weight rose unexpectedly or blood sugar spiked. And breathing, instead of reacting, made all the difference in our relationship.

With this in mind, I was fascinated to read of a new course now being offered to both caregivers and professionals that, in the end, seems to be all about breathing. It’s called the Contemplative Caregiver Course, and it’s sponsored by the San Francisco Zen Center, which is also now developing a senior living center. The course was developed by Jennifer Block, a Buddhist chaplain. I learned about it in an interview that ran in the New Old Age blog on the New York Times’ website.

In the interview, Block speaks of what we can learn when we’re responsive, instead of reactive. When a parent rebukes us for misplacing something, for example, and seems to sum up their lifelong disappointment with our housekeeping (or cooking, or whatever else the hot-button issue might be), her suggestion is to step back (perhaps even physically, by leaving the room) to breathe and recognize our anger. And then try to understand this slap-in-the-face comment may have come out of our parent’s own physical or emotional pain.

“Mom, I think you’re right. I may not be the world’s best housekeeper. I’m sorry I lost your pajamas,” she suggests as one response. “It seems like you’re having a pretty strong response to that, and I’d like to know why it matters so much to you. What’s happening with you today?”

Further in the interview, she suggests becoming aware of the gifts we caregivers are receiving. Now, I tend to bristle a bit on this particular topic- it’s a bit much, I often think, to expect a middle-age child to be grateful when they’re neck-deep in specialist appointments and Depends disposal. But, then I took a moment to reflect, and I remembered what happened when I was finally able to breathe with Dad. It was at that point that I was able to recognize my father’s extraordinary grace. Buried under his irascibility and refusal to recognize his own debilities (and, perhaps, motivating both of these) was his love for life, regardless of where he was living it. Without stumbling on my own toward that Zen advice to simply breathe, and to be open to whatever pain or joy my time with my father might present me, I never would have seen -or learned from -the blessings of his gift.

Photo by timniblett courtesy of Creative Commons