How to Cope with Caregiver Stress
On October 30, 1993, my father suffered a debilitating stroke. The next day he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My mother, who was suffering with macular degeneration, osteoporosis, congestive heart failure, restless leg syndrome, and severe hearing loss, became his full-time caregiver.
My parents lived on a farm six miles northwest of McPherson, Kansas, a town of about 14,000 people. It was before there were resources for caregivers, before the Internet, email, or Facebook. It was also before cell phones and affordable calling plans.
In order to avoid being overwhelmed by her feelings of isolation, loneliness, and the stress of caring for a man who was very different from the husband she had known and loved for more than fifty years, my mother had to develop some unique coping skills. She did two things that helped her manage her caregiver anger, guilt, depression, and grief. She drove to the library at least once a week and checked out stacks of self-help books, and she frequently went to her word processor where she would disengage her emotional monitor and write letters to me.
Madelyn’s First Letter About Developing a “Detached” Attitude
She wrote, “I am very disturbed with the advice that is being given to people about ‘doing your own thing and to hell with everyone else.’ I think that attitude is responsible for a lot of the divorces and unhappiness in the world today.
I think Dr. Wayne Dyer had a lot to do with this when he wrote the book, Your Erroneous Zones. I bought that book, and I got so angry and up on my high horse that I couldn’t finish reading it. For one thing, he just kept pounding away at the idea that you should do what you want to do.
As an old lady, I’m here to tell anyone who will listen that life is not made up of doing what you want to do! When a person commits to marriage and parenthood, your time of living your life for yourself is over––FOREVER!
Thank goodness I have learned how to find peace and happiness from within, because to tell you the truth, I can’t see anything so wonderfully exciting or invigorating about getting up in the morning, fixing breakfast, doing the dishes, making the bed, picking up the papers, doing laundry, taking care of your father, fixing lunch, doing the dishes, doing more laundry, more housework, and more work caring for your father.
An exciting day for me might consist of having a good telephone conversation with a friend or possibly meeting an interesting person in the grocery store or on the street. And for this, I should take vitamins? I should try to eat right and exercise so I can prolong this wonderful life experience? HA! No thanks!
My greatest joy in life comes from learning and growing mentally and spiritually, and I’ve discovered that the great thing about having my peace and happiness from within, is that I can stay more or less detached emotionally, and still do what has to be done to give other people a reasonable amount of happiness.”
Three Steps to Developing an Attitude of Creative Indifference
I believe my mother’s “detached” attitude may have been the key to her survival. Several years into her caregiving experience, she decided to stop calling it a “detached attitude” and started referring to it as an “attitude of creative indifference.” When I asked her what the difference was, she said, “No difference. I just like the term ‘creative indifference,’ because ‘detached’ sounds a little cold. You can call it whatever you want to call it. It means not allowing yourself to become emotionally ravaged by the disease or the progression of events.”
As I edited six-and-a-half years of my mother’s letters into the book, Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver, I realized she actually did have a process that helped her maintain her “attitude of creative indifference” toward the people, situations, and events that caused her the greatest amount of emotional stress.
The three steps are:
- Become AWARE of the specific issues that are causing you the greatest amount of emotional stress. When you identify in writing the people, situations, and events that are most troubling, it will provide clarity and allow your subconscious mind to stop gnawing on the problems.
- ACCEPT that you are human and that you are coping with situations that are complex, complicated, and difficult to manage. There will be times when you don’t feel or act as loving, kind, and patient as you wish you could.
- ACT! Identify the things over which you have control. If there is a problem that has a solution, make a plan and carry it out. If you are faced with a situation over which you have no power, authority, or control, you have two choices: You can obsess over it, or you can chose to release your emotional attachment to it. In other words––take care of the things you can change. Release your attachment to the things you cannot.
Developing an attitude of creative indifference will not prevent you from experiencing caregiver anger, frustration, and stress. But if learning how to become a little “detached” helps you avoid becoming totally “unhinged,” it might be worth a try.
Elaine K Sanchez is the author of the unflinchingly honest and surprisingly funny book Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver. She is the co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, an online caregiver support program, and she presents keynotes and workshops at caregiving and elder care conferences around the US. Her passion for helping caregivers cope with the emotional stress of caregiving is based on her own experience of caring for family elders.