"The most important hour is always the present. The most significant person is precisely the one sitting across from you right now. The most necessary work is always love."
Caregiving is an act of love. One of the most powerful tools we have as humans caring for other humans is the gift of our attention. To be completely in the present moment with your loved one through eye contact, touch, facial expression -- is a sacred and special experience, deepening joy through connection.
I encourage all caregivers, whether professional or family, to find ways to be fully present by sharing an event or activity with this very intentional, conscious focus. It can be as simple as watching a sunset, playing with a kitten, eating a treat together. The quality of the experience and the satisfaction inherent comes from engaging all the senses with attention. If the present moment shared is good, life is good!
"Beginners and outsiders are open to possibilities and don't make assumptions. By extension, they're often better at finding solutions the experts have stopped seeing."
I have a great deal of respect and compassion for caregivers. It is a very challenging role, as I have often mentioned here. One of the reasons is that you have to be a "beginner" over and over, each day, each moment -- caregiving requires looking at your situation with new eyes and a fresh perspective, constantly adapting to changes. As I observe caregivers I find the ones who are able to stay in the "beginner's mind" are usually more successful and less stressed because, as the quote above attests, they are better at finding solutions.
Try using "beginner's mind" when assessing your own state of mental, physical, & emotional/spiritual wellness and how to adapt it to your unique relationships and care situation. You must trust your own instincts because you know yourself and your situation better than the "experts" do! There is plenty of expert advice about caregiving on the internet, in books and blogs, from doctors, friends and family -- but you know best how, or even whether or not, to apply it to your own life. Trust that inner knowing. Nurture it with whatever techniques appeal and work for you. My personal favorites for this type of nurturing are meditation, music & yoga, but you may find taking a walk in nature, riding your bicycle or going to the beach may work better. Be open. Seek to do what is necessary to stay in an attitude of being a beginner. You may find it's quite enlightening and exhilarating to keep open to new ideas, feelings, possibilities. There is a certain perfection in the present moment for each new "beginning".
"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be." ~Lao Tzu
"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."
Throughout my life, I have come to know a deep spiritual truth: We are all connected. According to Chief Seattle, "Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together, All things connect".
To me, this connection called the web of life means that every action we take (or avoid taking) has an impact somewhere, either within our own lives, on other life forms, or upon our environment. This idea has been reiterated by many wise poets, writers, philosophers and theologians, so it is not new. However, I think it applies even more strongly to the relationship of caregiver to care receiver. I'm speaking here of the quality of our caregiving experience, from both sides of the equation.
I've written in this blog of some of the negative consequences caregiving can have, in terms of the caregiver's health, happiness and sense of balance in life. All true. But I want to give some time also to the beautiful compensations, those incredibly precious moments of connection at the soul level, that can be a part of caregiving as well.
Every person and situation is as unique as a fingerprint or snowflake, so generalizing is risky. But I think this is a crucial part of creating a more serene, beneficial experience, so I am willing to go out on this limb.
In caring for my mother, I learned (sometimes the hard way!) that we were incredibly connected -- whether that was judged a good or bad thing was up to me and the perspective I chose. She responded to me on an almost psychic level at times, picking up on emotions and reactions of which I might be totally unaware. She often understood that something was upsetting me, even before I knew it! Though she could not always ferret out the correct reasons, she still related to me from this knowing. I soon realized I could not "fool" her into believing everything was fine if it wasn't. So, I had to clear my own mind and heart before approaching her. I could not hide behind a pretense or falseness. Mom spotted that immediately! She was like a dolphin whose echo-location scanned below the surface, all the way through my innermost self, and saw truth. It reminded me of times as a child when I believed Mom could tell if I was fibbing by looking into my eyes. Perhaps she could -- a mother's own type of radar or a truth-seeking missile.
There were several activities we did to nurture and connect us: music was a powerful device for this. We often sang together, watched musicals on DVD that were her favorites, and listened to hymns or songs by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and other "crooners" from Mom's era. I wish that I'd known about the iPod Project (www.musicandmemory.org and on this site click here) in time to use that with my Mom. But, alas, I learned of it too late.
Another connection was found through flowers, specifically roses -- that lovely flower was Mom's talisman, since she grew a beautiful rose garden which she shared with her friends to uplift and bless them all her life, so it was perfect for reminiscing.
And, lastly, perhaps the most potent of all: simple loving touch. I used gentle, soothing touch with Mom every day -- putting lotion on her skin, gently rubbing her back at bedtime, using aromatherapy oils on her hands and arms, hugging her several times a day, touching her arm or hand as we walked, reaching over to pat her knee as we watched TV or in the car. I used touch along with giving her reassuring words, and loving eye contact. It was this that most often sparked a spontaneous "I love you", or "You're a little sweetheart" (her favorite term of endearment).
Now, in the interest of being completely candid, I must report that I am not a saint. There were days when exhaustion, lack of sleep, worries, distractions, stress or any number of other things got in the way of my being the best caregiver I could be. There were days I didn't much like myself for being tired, short-tempered, upset. I've had to figure out how to forgive myself for not being perfect, for not always knowing how to approach this huge job of being completely responsible for another life. Most days I can do that. I'm still working on it.
I wanted to share this, from my heart, because I know that the one thing caregivers often find in short supply is hope. Hope for a loving positive experience in caring for one they love. My advice is to create that hope and joy one moment at a time. Make this moment count. Use all your creativity and passion to connect through all the senses -- sound, touch, smell, sight and taste. Be present as a healing, loving being right now. Let the next moments and days take care of themselves as much as you can. And find the peace and grace of those beautiful compensations of caring -- one moment at a time.
"It may be when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey."
I have been pondering some deep subjects lately, spurred by both personal twists of fate and by a compassionate response to to the myriad circumstances and struggles of those around me. Some of my close friends are dealing with life and death issues, and many others, whom I know only at a distance, echo a host of seemingly desperate trials. All are searching (at least it seems to me), even as they deal with the daily onslaught of emotions, decisions, caring for others, trying to live their lives with grace and truth and to find a modicum of peace. Finding our balance in a world where the ground is shifting with seismic forces (emotionally and quite literally) beyond our control is a daunting prospect, yet the changes coming at us are constant, unavoidable and accelerating. I think this condition is common to most caregivers, as well, since there is almost always uncertainty and emotional upheaval involved at some point in the caregiving story. It is very easy, indeed, to slide into despair, or to anesthetize ourselves with various escapist paths, such as drugs or alcohol. Or, our response may be to stick our heads firmly in the sands of denial. Or to lose ourselves in an absolutely exhausting, endless "doing". It is less easy to stay present to our lives and ask the hard questions: why are we here, with these people, in this time and place? What is our purpose?
OK, I know I'm getting a bit mystical and metaphysical here, so hold onto your hat! What if the reason we are living here and now is a very high purpose, indeed -- a calling to heal ourselves and our planet? Could it be that the sum of life experiences we have individually lived, loved, worried about, prayed for, meditated on have been simply preparation for this incredibly important work? What higher calling could there possibly be?
I think this call to healing is one felt by most caregivers, whether acknowledged or not, and whether they are professional or family carers. It's a deeply intrinsic, instinctive part of our human psyche to want to heal situations, people, and certainly those we love. So perhaps Wendell Berry is right in saying that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. Maybe it's time to stop struggling and start healing. It only requires a shift in your perspective to cross the chasm. It's not as wide as you might think! Or, when you reach the end of your metaphorical rope, you can choose to just tie a knot in it and hang on...it is your choice. We each choose our coping mechanisms.
I just read a lovely book titled, The Gift of Healing Presence: Encouraging Thoughts for Busy Caregivers, by James E. Miller. In the introduction to the book, Miller writes: "I've created this writing with busy caregivers in mind, all sorts of them -- professionals, family members, friends, volunteers. I hope the following pages of thoughts, quotations, and images will invite you into this subject in a gentle, calming, and affirming way. After all, that's what healing presence is all about."
This is quite a special book, as I realized after reading the first few pages. It offers a caregiver a chance to understand what it means exercise the power of healing presence and to make a difference in very real and deeply moving ways. Miller writes: "Healing presence is a deeply conscious and compassionate sharing of moments with another person that naturally encourages a movement toward greater wholeness." This is a beautiful definition, because the greater wholeness is tangible and mutual -- both the person expressing healing presence, and the one they are with experience a lifing up, a healing. Being attended (on all levels) by a compassionate listener who cares about us is a powerfully transforming gift.
We are so very focused on doing in our current world. One is considered lazy, and beneath contempt if he or she is not constantly striving for more -- be that possessions or power or other earthly goal. Yet, in the end, if we do manage to capture "more" it is a fleeting success we enjoy, empty and lacking. Our response? To try harder still, seek more diligently, actively, ruthlessly, and often, selfishly for that brass ring -- you know, the one thing, that if you have it, you'll be complete. I submit that is a total myth, and we have all been dreaming that same collective dream. It's now time to awaken, not to act, but learn first to "be" -- to be present, to be in the consciousness of healing. This is a major life shift, I'm speaking of and some will find it incomprehensible and maybe even a bit frightening. For others, my hope is that as you read these words, there's a little zing of truth in your being. Pursue that. It is worthy.
I wish you happiness and fulfillment as you discover your "real work" and begin on your "real" life's journey!
"There exists only the present instant, a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence."
As caregivers, we are called on to become a sort of human interface between the recipient of our care and the larger world. We do this in so many ways, some intuitive and relatively easy, others incredibly difficult. We are often the keeper of finances, of medical records, dispenser of medications, the nurse, the liaison with doctors, the housekeeper, the personal shopper, the chef, the confidante. We, in essence become the eyes, ears, hands & heart of our loved one -- protecting them from harm in every way possible and taking up their cause when they are not able. In a sense, that is what makes it so wrenching when our loved one cannot be "cured", as is the case in Alzheimer's Disease.
Often, I think we feel a sense of failure as caregivers (daughters, sons, spouses) that we aren't able to somehow miraculously save them from the fate of the illness. But, even in the midst of such feelings of helplessness, we can find the greatest of gifts: the power of living in the present moment. If you could boil down all of life's peaks and valleys and distill its very core into one simple sentiment, it is finding value and joy in the present moment. This was the precious gift I received daily from my mother.
In her world, there was nothing but the present moment -- and she never lost her childlike joy in discovering and savoring it. Whether she was opening a greeting card and admiring it (for the first or the fiftieth time), petting her cat, eating a bowl of ice cream or watching a sunset, she experienced true delight in that moment. And I did, also, in witnessing the beauty of her response.
If I spread a nice-smelling lavender lotion on her skin, her palpable enjoyment was uplifting because it was so simple and honest. She became alive to her senses with a focus on "now" that was amazing. What if we could all live our lives in this direct, worry-free way? How would it change us? Change the world?
If you are in the midst of your caregiving role, I urge you to take a step back from the "have-to- dos", the "shoulds", the anxiety over possible future problems (which most times never actually happen), and be totally in the moment with your loved one -- feeling the rich reward of a heart full of love, sharing a simple pleasure and making this moment good. Cherish the gift. It is a life-transforming and life-affirming one!
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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