Compassionate Caregiving: Back-to-school

Everyone thinks that caregiving is something that comes naturally to us when it is needed. The reality is that it requires a very disciplined specific skill set. Some of the skills needed are inherent, but others require specific education and study.

So, off to school we go to learn that very specific knowledge.

Learn all that you can about the person that you are caring for. Do you understand their needs, wishes, challenges and desires really well? Have you studied up on their specific condition? Do you know what is important to your loved one and what isn’t a priority? This skill will be the underpinning of everything else that you do. Empathy is being able to meet your loved one where they are and the more empathy you have the higher the quality of care you will deliver.

Communication is instrumental. The communication could be a simple as discussing the day ahead or as complex discussing the intricacies of serious health concerns. Whatever the topic, it must be done well. As a rule, it is best to slow down and give communication your full attention. Sometimes it also requires thinking of new ways to communicate. With most families that I serve, I observe this is an area that can make or break relationships between family members. The higher the quality of communication, the more enriched the relationship.

Continue to work on your patience. Staying present is critical to remaining patient. It always is awkward to put yourself second to another and is very challenging to do so. But as a caregiver, that is your sacred promise to your loved one. It might take some reframing from time to time to think about what and why you are doing this for this person. Also, remind yourself that you are making someone’s life easier and more meaningful. If you remain patient, this caregiving job is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.

Remain positive through it all. Everyone loves a positive attitude. When you are happier, the quality of care will improve. Have you ever watched an unhappy or angry person deliver care? Caregiving doesn’t usually go well in that state. Unfortunately, I see where family caregivers allow their frustration to show. With some attention and adjustment, you can become more optimistic in your approach. Everyone’s lives will be enriched if the caregiving is delivered with a positive outlook.

Be a creative problem solver. As you already might know, rarely is there a caregiving day that goes according to plan. It is critical that a caregiver can remain flexible and roll with the changes. There are so many ways to tackle a challenge. My observations are that the most flexible and creative people make great caregivers. It is a learned skill and those of us that are more rigid in our thinking can learn how to reschedule, create a creative a new plan and regroup at a moment’s notice. It will be something that you will need to completely master to deliver the best care possible to your loved one.

The best caregivers are continuous learners. If you know that you have any of the above skills naturally, continue to try to improve upon it. If you think that you have a bit of a blind spot in any of the skills above, seek out more education on that skill. You are caring for your most beloved family member. If you go back-to-school and learn these skills, you will never regret improving your caregiving practice. Your loved one will look back and be extremely grateful that you offered your very best to them. And you will look back on this time with great pride as well. Continually perfect your craft, and you will be so grateful that you did.

Offer them a mini-break. Share caregiving responsibilities when possible. Numerous caregivers spend all day, every day caring and have little or no respite for themselves. They may or may not be trained as a professional caregiver. The one thing we know for sure is that they typically have no time left for themselves and they run the risk of compassion fatigue. Are you in a position where you could step into the role of caregiver for a few hours in a week, to give the primary caregiver a much needed break? Or, can you encourage other family members to discuss ways in which the responsibility of caring could be more evenly divided?

Offer a compassionate ear. Caregivers are known for dutifully performing the role of caring, often without showing any signs that they have worries or concerns in connection with their caregiving role. In reality, there are many caregivers, who are experiencing anxiety and/or stress and could benefit from having someone to confide in. The caregiver will not expect you to solve their problems, but they would be grateful if you were willing to have that supportive conversation. Next time you are with the caregiver, strike up a conversation to find out how they really are and if there is anything you can do to help them. Also, scan for things to share with them that are positive and encouraging. Perhaps you can encourage them to start a gratitude journal or share with them the strength that you observe in them.

Support their extreme self-care that is needed. The caregiver can suffer from mental and physical health problems which might or might not be related to their caregiving duties. It is common for caregivers who choose to focus solely on the well-being of the person they are caring for, to markedly discount or sometimes disregard any personal health concerns they have. Our physicians know that most caregivers are not regularly going to their doctor visits or caring for themselves like they did previously to taking on the caregiving role. You can ask them how they are feeling and encourage them to seek professional medical advice if it appears they may require it. If the health of the caregiver deteriorates, then this could also impact the wellbeing of the person whom they care for. Find creative ways to support the caregiver’s health. Invite them to attend a yoga class with you. Drop off a bath basket for them to enjoy a luxurious bubble bath. Offer to spend some time with their loved one so they can treat themselves to a manicure. Leave them some healthy vegetables from your garden. These dutiful caregivers desperately need to fill their tank with what comforts them. You have the opportunity to support them in this critical time of need.

I often here that “God found the strongest women and made them caregivers.” Although that might be true most of the time, they need us to support them in an active way.

Your kindness and supportive action have significant power. Use your love, skills and initiative to encourage and support the caregivers that give so much of themselves. Sometimes we need someone to simply be there for us. We don’t need them to do anything specific. We just need them to let us know that we are cared for and supported. It is one of the many gifts that make a significant difference in their lives and ours, too.

Laura Nissen is a dementia specialist for Luther Manor Communities in Dubuque.

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