Navigating Caregiver Dilemmas

As the drama of aging parents unfolds, it reveals itself as layers of interconnected dilemmas that resist heroic attempts to keep everything together. Like an unruly Rubik’s Cube, alignment in one caregiver area seems to trigger chaos in another. Just when driving issues calm down, sibling conflict erupts over money. Just when housing accommodations get better, a parent falls and winds up in the hospital. In the face of this steady stream of dilemmas, the natural instinct is to work harder in search of the illusive strategic mix that will stabilize this disruptive phenomenon. Ironically, upping the work ethic on dilemmas only seems to give birth to new ones, a sorcerer’s apprentice law of dilemma management that runs caregivers ragged. What can make this reality of caregiving better?

Thinking won’t help. The brain buzz of dilemmas is a closed loop swamp of internal dialogues, an emotional rabbit hole of endless backward (repair the past) and forward (control the future) conversations. Caregivers wind up thinking themselves into stress filled knots that make navigation worse.

Putting thinking in its proper place does help. Finding a respite from the brain buzz, a space between the riptides of competing conversations, offers caregivers reprieve, repair, and rejuvenation. Fortunately, the technique for creating this healing space is being used in healthcare to manage other dilemma-riddled life events including chronic illness, depression, substance abuse, and heart disease. This clinically proven approach is called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a secular form of meditation (see this link for a quick summary of the technique Mindfulness Meditation)

The approach is straightforward and accessible to anyone at any time. All it requires is that the caregiver learn how to pay attention “on purpose” to moment-to-moment events in the present. The practice (operative word “practice”) of staying focused on the present creates a space from never-ending brain buzz. This elegant form of compassionate detachment from thoughts and emotions offers caregivers a new perspective from which to observe their dilemmas as well as their habitual patterns of behavior of managing them. All of this is done within the context of kindness, compassion, non-judgment, patience, acceptance, and trust.

Like other healthy habits, regular use of MBSR can have a positive impact on the caregiver well being. It can reduce the stress, anxiety, and depression. For caregivers who want to learn more about MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book entitled Full Catastrophe Living is an excellent resource. He is the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, is perhaps the best-known proponent of using meditation to help patients deal with illness. His book is a terrific introduction for anyone who has considered meditating but was afraid it would be too difficult or would include religious practices they found foreign. Kabat-Zinn focuses on “mindfulness,” a concept that involves living in the moment, paying attention, and simply “being” rather than “doing (see this link to find more about the book Full Catastrophe Living)