Caring for aging parents is a consumptive role that requires compassion and resilience to keep everything together. Ironically, it’s also a role where often positive feedback is more the exception than the rule while negative feedback flows freely from aging parents and other family members
In this punitive environment, it’s easy for caregivers to feel trapped and disoriented behind a wall of negativity. In our caregiver support groups, we all call this predicament “forgetting yourself,” the painful loss of the person you used to be. Now what?
The short answer is that caregivers need to find ways to remember themselves as the first step in reclaiming what has been forgotten. The long answer, it’s not easy to do and in most cases, cannot be done alone.
This is where support of like-minded peers found in groups proves invaluable. These caregiver group offers participants ample room to tell their story in a non-judgmental setting that provides three important benefits:
- They accept all caregivers where they are.
- They have empathy based on their own issues with caregiving.
- They openly share their experience, insights and resources.
In our groups, one of the tools we use to facilitate the remembering process is called “List Testing.” This simple and easy to complete d self-inventory is designed to counterbalance the chorus of critic’s highly biased narrative from others about the care an adult child is providing an aging parent. Riddled with disapproval and shaming, these critical and many times uninvited voices have a deep and disturbing impact on the well being caregiver. List Testing mitigates this negative messaging by building a contrarian inventory of supportive voices that refute and neutralizes this toxic propaganda. Here is how it works.
Using a sheet of blank paper, caregivers divide the page in half with a vertical line. On one side, they write down in detail all the negative comments, gestures and characterizations that are being used against then. In most cases, it is a cruel and degrading inventory aimed at inflicting pain and shame.
On the other half of paper, caregivers write down in detail all the positive and supportive comments, behaviors and characterizations that spouses, siblings, friends, neighbors, classmates and co-workers has said about them over the years. In most cases, it is a admirable and uplifting inventory aimed at building confidence and self respect.
When the two column inventory iscompleted, caregivers compare the side by side lists, which are polar opposites of each other, and consider this question:
Which of these two lists is the the truth about who you are?
The answer seems so obvious, but many caregivers are reluctant to initially embrace the positive list. Why? It is a stark reminder of the It represents the exaggerated influence of negative feedback from aging parents that causes caregivers to feel like a failure despite a long list of opinions that clearly reject this characterization. Changing this powerful distortion will take but it will never happen without a counterbalancing inventory to offset the pain and shame list.
Regardless of the initial assessment of the lists, caregivers are asked to review the lists every day for the next 30 days. They are also asked to review it a second time on days in which they have interactions with aging parents. Ideally, this should occur before the interaction but reading the lists after the contact is acceptable.
At the end of 30 days of daily review of the lists, caregivers reconsider the same question:
Which of these two lists is the truth about who you are?
Most caregivers by this point who are trapped behind a wall of negativity admit that the portrayal of them by aging parents and other family members is a lie. There no other way to say it. From the beginning, it was a false narrative designed to inflict pain and shame. Why? Experts in the field of psychology and psychiatry will say it’s complicated and the real story may never be known. So be it.
What is known is that this flow of negativity won’t stop on its own. It’s emotional quicksand that never lets go. Caregivers didn’t create it, don’t control it and can’t cure it. That is not their mission. Their work is above all damage control, defending who they are amid the distortions of dishonest feedback. Trequires a daily mobilization of reinforcers who recognize and applaud the values and behaviors of the person who got lost in the caregiving shuffle.
Because it turns out that person is still embedded in the caregiver’s personality, waiting for the tiniest spark of recognition and support to begin push back against the unfair distortions that have questioned its validity. And that spark is at the heart of caregivers remembering themselves and the hope and dreams they were wrapped in. Welcome home…