Today, my thoughts are centered on silence -- how do we create it for ourselves when we need it, how do we protect it, how does it contribute to the caregiver's arsenal of tools for self-care?
I find silence is increasingly necessary in my life -- to the point I actively crave it. If I turn on the car radio, for example, it's fine when there's music I enjoy, but then the auto commercial starts blasting at an increased volume and it turns me off, so I turn it off! Same with noise pollution of all kinds. I really wish the dogs next door had an off switch!
I'm grateful that my work situation allows me to have quiet, if not true silence, or I can listen to music of my choosing. This is an empowering thing! I believe we can and need to create a cocoon of silence (or if that's too intense since we aren't usually used to silence and it can make us uncomfortable) an oasis of calming, soothing music as an active antidote to stress. Even taking a calming CD (not a guided meditation which may alter your conscious state too much to drive safely!) of quiet, reflective music with us in the car can provide a very lovely little respite from the noise and stress of the day.
I would love to hear from you what works for you!
Today's topic is sleep. Or, in the case of most caregivers, lack thereof. This was one of the very biggest issues for me, in trying to manage as a caregiver -- there was generally never enough sleep, and what there was tended to be poor quality, oft-interrupted, causing me to generally awaken feeling tired. Not a good way to start the day!
I found that I slept very lightly, in order to hear when I was needed if my mother awakened and got out of bed, which happened quite often. I imagine other caregivers struggle with this same problem. One trick I learned was to place her walker right up next to the bed so that she couldn't get up without using it. As soon as I heard it's particular noise, I was immediately alert and up.
There are a few tried and true remedies for sleep -- I think I've tried them all. Well, that's not true, actually. I never used any prescription sleep aid because I was afraid it would knock me out to the point I wouldn't awaken if I needed to do so, and because they are incredibly addictive. Neither of those seemed like a good idea.
So, here are the old remedies, time honored and tested through the centuries. I figure the reason they are still around is that they work.
Note: You can use these on yourself, and, in most cases, they are safe for your loved one as well, but I'm not giving medical advice -- you should, of course, check with your loved one's doctor to make sure there is nothing to contraindicate them.
1) Warm milk at bedtime -- this one really does work. You can add a drop of vanilla extract for flavoring, or a little bit of honey or cinnamon. Just a small amount can soothe and adds L-tryptophan which makes you sleepy.
2) Lavender aromatherapy -- this is a nice, easy bedtime ritual that can aid sleep. A drop of pure lavender essential oil on a cotton ball tucked into your pillow case, or a spritz of lavender mist on your pillow can bring on sweet dreams. Orange oil also works for this purpose.
3) Melatonin -- There are a number of products on the market with melatonin. The one I prefer is Schiff's Melatonin Ultra which provides 3 mg of melatonin, theanine, GABA vitamin B6 & calcium. I really like that it doesn't leave me with a sleep "hangover", and I still am sleeping lightly enough to wake if needed. That's a real plus for a caregiver. Again, check with your doctor (or your loved one's) to make sure this won't interfere with other medications.
4) Chamomile tea - There are many different combinations or blends of chamomile tea available from your grocery store or health food store. My fave is Sleepy Time. But, I think they all work pretty well.
5) If noise is a problem, and because you need to be available you can't wear earplugs, try a white noise generator, or, even better, a HEPA filter air purifier. The noise generator makes a whooshing sound, sort of like ocean waves -- some have multiple selections for the sounds. The HEPA filter -- I recommend Austin Air if you are looking for the best (I've had mine for 15 years, running 24/7 and never a problem)-- has a dual function in that it creates some white noise while at the same time giving you clean, pure air.
If you want more information about good sleep habits, you can read Deepak Chopra's book, Restful Sleep, for a whole host of ideas to make sleep more rejuvenating and easier to experience. I found many of his ideas helpful and still practice some of them.
There you have my helpful hints for a better night's sleep, while still being there for your loved one -- sweet dreams!
For most caregivers, the path eventually ends with the death of your loved one. That in itself is a tough reality to contend with, despite the fact that it is, at least with Alzheimer's, an expected outcome. And, I've come to realize from personal experience that this loss can bring a level of pain beyond normal grief -- you are experiencing not only the loss of your loved one's physical presence, sometimes after a very prolonged and exhausting decline, but you are also undergoing the "death" of your caregiving role, so that while you are in the midst of grief you also are somehow abruptly without a purpose. It can leave a large hole in the center of your life. The intensity and volatility of your emotions, including sadness, relief, loss, grief, burnout, exhaustion and guilt -- can form a corrosive and toxic mix which would be difficult for anyone to overcome, much less one whose own inner resources may have been so totally depleted that they haven't the ability to cope with this final blow to the psyche.
As I look around, I realize that there are literally millions of others either in this same situation, or soon to be facing it. So what is a person to do to shift toward healing & wholeness? For those who find themselves in this chaotic, confusing, bereft place -- where to turn for help? If you have sacrificed yourself on the altar of daughterly devotion or matrimonial martyrdom and seen your loved one through to the end, how do you rebuild your life and refocus your purpose to find peace, health, loving relationships, balance and joy again?
You can turn to grief support groups, counseling, close friends, spiritual strength through faith, but, it seems to me that none of these are filling this need in full, when the pain goes so deep that you think there's no end. I'm dealing with this from a daughter's perspective, but I know that it also applies, perhaps even more deeply, to a spouse-caregiver, since they experience the loss of their life partner of sometimes decades-long marriage, only to find themselves alone and lost.
I think, at the root of this issue, we, as a society, do not honor the gift of love provided by caregivers , many of whom make incredible sacrifices, personally & professionally, in order to be there for the loved one -- sometimes to the point of not having a life of their own at all (I'm thinking of the sandwich generation caught between caring for elderly parents and children at the same time). Somehow, the context of caregiving needs to change so that caregivers have tacit "permission" and tangible support to perform healthy, necessary self care and also the opportunity to continue to have their own identity and pursuits in life rather than losing that individual creative spark, enthusiasm for living, and sense of purpose by choosing the loving act of caring. One should not have to make the impossible choice to abandon a loved one or go down in flames with them.
I don't have the answers here. I'm not sure anyone does, but I'm sure going to keep asking the questions! Awareness must be brought to these challenging problems as more caregivers are thrust into the role and have to cope -- sink or swim. Please give your own feedback and perspective on this and share whatever insights you have that may be helpful to others on this journey.
I haven't spoken here much about the use of scent, specifically essential oils, also known as the practice of aromatherapy. This is a very ancient art, used by the Egyptians, in Biblical times and by many others through the ages. It's power derives from the fact the when you smell a scent, it connects directly to the limbic part of your brain stem -- the most ancient part of the brain geared toward survival. Your nose/brain connection is immediate and very strong. That's why the scent of a rose, or certain perfume or food that you associate with a person or feeling, is triggered so amazingly whenever your nose picks up that scent, taking you back to a memory associated with the particular scent.
In terms of a stress relief device, the use of essential oils can shift our mood with just such power and certainty, when we understand how to tap into it. The scent of lavender is one of the most calming and balancing of all the oils, and for that reason, you see it (or smell it) in many products for inducing relaxation and sleep -- like bath oils, bath salts, pillows, etc. The important thing when using essential oils is that they must be purely derived and of high quality -- meaning, the distilling process and the original herbs or flower source must be pure.
There are a variety of ways to use essential oils and I highly recommend trying them out. You can diffuse the scent into the room, create a "blend" using the essential oil and a carrier oil, such as jojoba or sweet almond oil, or you can put a drop on a cotton ball or handkerchief -- they can also be used in massage. If you are interested in learning more about essential oils, I recommend the website www.oilladyaromatherapy.com, since its owners represent a wealth of experience and integrity with teaching about and using this precious gift of nature.
I found aromatherapy to be a wonderful addition to my repertoire of caregiver tools -- for my own care and for my mother -- I had a custom blended oil created for her, which I used regularly. She found it very comforting and even the process of putting the oil on her skin was soothing and nurturing-- to us both! This is a transformative and very effective therapy for dealing with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, or for cancer patients and their caregivers, for children with autism, and many, many other uses. And, of course, for self care for the caregiver! Check my resource page for further information, links, and books about the subject.
When I was in the midst of stressful times in caring for my Mom, I often thought about the various things that were at my disposal to help relieve feelings of overwhelm, sadness, uncertainty, things spinning out of control (in a figurative sense) and exhaustion from lack of sleep. There were many tools available, since I was already a student of yoga and meditation, learned Tai Chi, had been a musician most of my life specialized in quiet, relaxation music and breath work techniques and read widely from many excellent authors who taught stress relief techniques. However, the operative word is that I thought about them -- I didn't actually use them. Big difference! Looking back on how bad I felt, this is a mystifying thing to me -- almost as if I deliberately sabotaged myself by ignoring the things I knew would be most helpful & healing. My excuse was (valid, or at least it seemed so to me at the time) that I was too tired and lacked the energy to do these things, but I knew in the depths of my being that these practices would alleviate the negative feelings and both calm and energize me. Yet I still didn't apply my knowledge. Even when I heard from others how vitally important it is to keep yourself well, balanced, healthy, whole. I still crashed and burned out. I'm wondering how many others are feeling the same way? What would be the catalyst that would set you in motion toward better self care? Would words alone do it? An intervention by a friend or family member? A heart attack or other serious health challenge?
Today I was shocked to read in one of the online Care newsletters about caregivers who actually reached a breaking point and snapped, killing either their loved one and/or themselves. The tragedy and pain of that prompted a very deep, visceral response in me, along with the strong desire to reach out to help anyone in that desperate, frightening place on the edge of reason. While I am not a professional psychologist, nor do I have any credentials in that area, I do have good instincts, a great deal of caregiving experience and a compassionate nature with a desire to help others going through the same long, confusing journey.
If you find yourself just needing a sympathic "ear", a bit of direction in finding access to the help you need or know of someone else struggling with issues surrounding care of their loved one, please get in touch or give them contact information for this site so that they can begin to connect to the help and resources they need. There is so very much information on the internet that it can be overwhelming, not to mention extremely time consuming to find it and evaluate it. That's one reason I created this blog and website -- as a service to help identify and define the best resources, cull out the time wasters, and direct others to new resources and information thereby saving them time and frustration in the process.
Karen is a compassionate, enthusiastic student of life, who cared for her mother for 17 years. She brings her insights, compassion, experience and desire to share knowledge and healing to this ongoing conversation with others on the caregiving path. If you are caring for a parent, spouse, friend or other loved one this site offers sanity-saving tips, open-hearted self-care ideas, and an open forum for discussion, connection and sharing resources for the journey.
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