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Caring for Others Starts by Claiming Your Own Optimism Advantage

Terry Paulson, PhD

One of the most important but often forgotten tasks for caregivers is caring for themselves. Caring for a loved one strains even the most resilient people. With an aging population and changes in health care, such as shorter hospital stays, more and more people are being thrust into the role of caregiver. A caregiver is anyone who provides help to another person in need, whether that’s an ill spouse or partner, a disabled child, or an aging relative. If you are a caregiver, you are not alone. More than 65 million Americans provide care to a loved one. If you’re a caregiver, here are some tips to preserve your own health and well-being while caring for others:

Recognize the signs of stress. It’s hard to take care of yourself if you’re not aware that you need help. Look for the signs of stress: feeling exhausted all of the time; getting sick more often than usual; not sleeping enough; feeling impatient, irritable, or overly forgetful; not enjoying the activities you used to enjoy; and withdrawing from others. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.

Don’t expect caregiving to be easy. Taking care of another can be very rewarding, but it is always stressful and demanding. The illusion that life as a caregiver ought to be easy can make every day drudgery. Life has never been easy. In fact, an easy life is a liability. Meeting life’s challenges as a care giver builds strength of character. Achievements earned are appreciated. Optimism isn’t positive thinking on steroids; it comes from a track record of overcoming obstacles. Let the challenges you overcome today earn the pride you deserve. There is a future after caregiving. The confidence and character earned in serving now will bring you well-earned optimism in what you are capable of doing. Visualize that future daily.

There Is never nothing you can do. There is much in life as a caregiver you can’t control, but you do control your attitude and your actions. As a caregiver, you are often learning to play a poor hand well. Whatever you face, the only relevant questions are whether a given action will work and whether additional different actions will be required. Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. Invest any worry time in constructive action to improve your results today. Make a choice and make a move.

Turn adversity and setbacks into a search for opportunities. Life is tough; be tougher. Identify and argue with your own negative beliefs about your role as a care giver. When struggling with catastrophic thoughts that “everything is going wrong,” think of these thoughts as if they were being said by some external person whose mission in life is to make you miserable. Actively dispute those thoughts because most negative self-statement that accompany adversity are inaccurate.

Care enough to set limits and say “No.” Even seasoned caregivers find themselves caught up in the whirlwind of appointments, daily errands, and managing medicine doses. No one can or should do everything. Acknowledge your limits and be firm when deciding what you can and cannot do. After all, true caring is not keeping people dependent by meeting every need. Caring often involves helping others get them back on their feet as quickly as possible. After surgery, a caring push is sometimes needed to get people beyond the pain and back into health. Don’t leave them a victim; encourage them to become a resilient survivor.

Keep perspective. Reframe adversity with a simple question—“In five years, will this matter?” Then get busy turning your setback into a stepping stone for better care. After all, if ruminating about your care giving limitations doesn’t lead to a constructive action you can add to your to-do-list, set it aside and get busy doing something that does. Invest your worry time in constructive action. When there are obstacles, be pragmatic—look for new alternatives, find help, and take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Optimism thrives on the art of the possible. Everyone faces difficulties; not everyone looks for the opportunities in every difficulty. In the darkest room there are often doors ready to be opened.

Be a problem solver. You don’t escape the responsibility for tomorrow by evading it today. Avoiding problems drags you down while facing them lifts you up. Become a problem solver not a problem evader by doing something early in the day to start tackling anything you’ve been avoiding.

Trade perfection for progress and persistence. Beat the myth of perfection on the way to increasing your batting average as a care giver. Focus on the vital Three P’s: Position, Perform and Persist. You’re looking to find your own sweet spot of success— that intersection of your personal passion to serve, your skills, and your mission. Then stay in the game. Failure doesn’t come from falling down, but from staying down. NO is ON spelled backwards!

Stop being your own worst enemy. You wouldn’t talk to others the way you talk to yourself. Treat yourself like you treat those you care about. Just as you would forgive others, forgive yourself. Make room for your mistakes as valued learning opportunities that help you grow as a caregiver. Everyone makes mistakes; the best learn from them. What course-corrections can you make today to get you back on track?

Catch yourself being effective. You may be winning and not know it unless you’re keeping score. Don’t forget to also catch yourself being effective. End your day by scanning for what you did well. Journal that accomplishment in an email to yourself. Collect your “positive” evidence to read when you need a lift. What did you handle well today that you could write in your email? Send it to yourself and review those successes when you’re having a tough day.

Spend time with the right people. Some people bring you up; some take you down. Decrease your time with people who bring you down. The people with whom you most want to spend time you have to schedule time to even see. The people you want to see least have a knack of finding you wherever you are. Make dates with your resident cheerleaders, your emotional support network, your family and friends, and anyone you enjoy spending time with. Remember, the people you most want to spend time with you have to make dates to see; the people you least want to be with will find you wherever you are. Get time to socialize on your weekly calendar.

Let your support communities help. Many caregivers fall into the trap of believing that they have to do everything by themselves. Don’t make that mistake. Accept a helping hand by taking advantage of the many resources and tools available to help you provide care for your loved one. Get connected with organizations that provide training, support groups, and needed services in your area. With family and friends, be prepared with a list of caregiving tasks, small and large, that others can do. When someone asks “Is there anything I can do?” you’re ready to offer them specific choices. One might be willing to take the person you care for on a walk a couple of times a week. Someone else might offer to pick up groceries or cook a meal for you. Remember, if you don’t take care of yourself you won’t be able to care for anyone else.

Take time for mini-stress breaks. Mini-breaks are an easy way to replenish your energy and lower your stress. Try simple activities like taking a walk around the block, listening to music, watching a comedy, taking time with a pet, reading a novel or inspiring book, meditating, closing your eyes for 10 minutes in a comfortable chair, or even taking time to breathe deeply. A few moments of escape from a monotonous or stressful day can change your attitude. There’s much you don’t control as a care giver, but you can control your moments. Do something regularly to lift your mood and energize your spirit.

Plan for the Future. Planning for a future as a care giver is sometimes difficult. One plan may be focused on survival and recovery; the other involves the loss of someone you care for. That means care enough to have the discussion and to deal with necessary paperwork such as healthcare agent, power of attorney, and a will. It’s in everyone’s best interest that you begin this process sooner rather than later. Having essential paperwork under control will allow all to have peace of mind in facing an uncertain future.

Serve and be served. Remember there is power in finding purpose in what you are doing. You can’t sincerely help another without helping yourself. Take time every day to remember your mission and the joy of serving someone you care about.

Bring happiness to your day. Get your face “out of park.” By making a smile your default expression, and let it bring sunshine to your day. Instead of waiting for something or someone to make you happy, choose to be happy every day unless something happens to warrant being unhappy. Even then, get busy dealing with whatever happened so you can reclaim your joy.

Be kind and patient with yourself. Don’t be surprised by occasional bouts of anger or frustration. Instead of feeling guilt, catch yourself and try to find positive ways of coping with these difficult feelings. Talk with supportive friends and professionals, take time to exercise or walk, or try journaling your feelings. You’ll never be perfect. Remember, as a care giver, there’s a new normal. New priorities emerge every day. Sometimes the laundry might not get done, takeout meals may have to replace home cooking. Try to manage each day’s priority as it comes – it’s alright to put the unnecessary on hold. Take a deep breath and remember that the support you are providing is priceless.

Practice good health habits to take care of your body. The stress of caregiving can lead some people to increase unhealthy habits, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, or using prescription medicine improperly. Make time to exercise, eat healthy foods, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep. Remember, good and bad habits are both hard to break. Let your doctor know you are a care giver so they can help monitor your health with regular checkups and screenings.

Take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This act requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for employees who need time off to care for a seriously ill family member. Employers must continue benefits during the leave period; some may allow a flexible or reduced work schedule or even more generous support.

Choose gratitude over griping. Start your day by listing five things you are thankful for. By taking the time to collect joys, you’ll learn that worry and grateful thoughts are incompatible. So, instead of just griping about the biggest hurdles on your to-do-list, start your day by taking a few minutes to actually count your blessings. Every day has the potential of becoming the best day of your year. Every day is a gift. That’s why they call it the “present.” Claiming that daily gift will unleash the power of gratitude in your life. What would you put on your list of blessings?

Let faith give you strength. Faith in God is a consistent source of strength for millions. Serving others in need is a core value of many faiths. Faith can turn menial tasks into a meaningful mission. Instead of blaming God for problems; try calling on His peace and presence to help you overcome adversity. Prayer, meditation and other spiritual practices can ease distress and help you recharge. Even if you feel that prayer may not change God, it very well can change you. Feeling spiritually connected can provide comfort and may also help you to put your situation into perspective.

Take your mission seriously and yourself lightly. Develop the eye of the loon by looking for humor in your caregiving experience and laughing every chance you get. Laughter interrupts the panic cycle of life. Laughter provides an inner upper, an emotional massage, a new perspective for the irritations and disappointments you and those you serve experience. Don’t worry about the doses. Laughter is a non-fattening, contagious, pleasant tranquilizer that doesn’t have any major side effects. Everybody has used the expression, “Someday we’ll laugh about this.” Why wait? Make room for laughter today. Try the gift of a humorous perspective: “Are we having fun yet?” “Some days you’re the bug; some days the windshield!” “This life is a test. It is only a test. If it had been a real life, I would have been given instructions on where to go and what to do.” A sense of humor is too important to leave to chance. Keep an air of playfulness; take time to laugh and smile daily.

Live the action imperative. The most difficult shift is moving your attitude adjustments into action. Claim your own action initiative. Stop the head nodding and do something! Start by doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible, and soon you’re doing the impossible.

Finally, there is nothing like receiving a thank you to make even a tough day as a caregiver more bearable. Sometimes, those you care for don’t have the physical, emotional or mental resources to give you the thanks you deserve. Consider this article as my way of saying thank you to you.

Terry Paulson, PhD,, is a professional speaker, columnist, and author of nine books including his most recent work, The Optimism Advantage.

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