Mindfulness and Caregiving

Guest blog post by Alyssa Smith, MSW, LSW, a meditation instructor, leadership coach, and IJS-trained Wise Aging facilitator.

"Serenity Now Moment at Lake Tahoe," Photo by Keegan Houser on Unsplash
“Serenity Now Moment at Lake Tahoe,” Photo by Keegan Houser on Unsplash

The seething impatience that emerges from the fatigue of answering the same question every 45 seconds. The adrenaline rushes that course through the body in anticipation of bad news with every incoming phone call. The unbearable sadness that surfaces with the prospect of the impending loss of a parent, spouse, friend, sibling, or child.

These are some of the chronic stressors we face as caregivers. We are pressed, in terms of time, energy, and resources, to identify ways to maintain our holistic strength (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual). Mindfulness—the process of noting, and noticing, without judging—offers us ballast amid the turbulence of caring for a loved one.

Simply put, mindfulness entails cultivating our ability to be present in the moment. Mindfulness recognizes how so often we focus on the past and the future, rather than the now. Mindfulness invites a sense of presence—a sense of ‘just this’ and ‘only now.’

Mindfulness offers as a buffer against rumination—specifically, our tendency to anticipate the future and mull over the past. Through mindfulness we cultivate our ability to be present, by focusing our attention and inviting some stillness into our ever-busy minds.

One mindfulness practice that might readily be incorporated into a caregiver’s demanding day entails taking three slow and intentional breaths. With the first breath, you invite your body to land, physically; you feel yourself connect with the earth. With the second breath, you notice whatever is present for you right now. With the third breath, you ask yourself: ‘What do I need in this moment?’

Another mindfulness practice, journaling without censoring one’s thoughts—even for just a few minutes at a stretch—can yield remarkable insights and soothing perspective. Yet another simple practice would entail inviting yourself to be fully present while enjoying a cup of coffee—and doing absolutely nothing else in that moment. No checking email, no paying bills, nothing. Just being.

Such ‘micro’ practices of mindfulness can serve to manage our responses and mitigate our frustrations. Consider the challenge of caring for someone with cognitive impairment, who repeatedly asks that same question, or exhibits bewildering shifts in temperament. Mindfulness also can reduce the secondary anger we might feel toward ourselves for our impatience or fury. Much like we would develop our physical strength, mindfulness muscles can be flexed and trained with small, regular repetitions.

Numerous research studies point to the physiological benefits of mindfulness to the nervous system and the immune system. As such, mindfulness can provide caregivers a means to mitigate the emotional and physiological impact of our chronic stress.

As caregivers, practicing mindfulness can make us more focused and aware of our reactions, as well as more open and accepting of our challenges. It allows us to be more compassionate toward ourselves and others—including those with whom we might experience conflict regarding aspects of caregiving. Mindfulness decreases our tendencies toward reactivity and judgment, as well as our preoccupation with our own thoughts; it increases our self-awareness and our self-control.

Solitary meditative practices like running or swimming—as a caregiver’s demands allow—may offer opportunities for cultivating a state of mindfulness. I know a caregiver who raises and releases monarch butterflies; while we’ve never discussed it, I think of this pastime as a mindfulness practice that binds her caregiving experience to the broader, inexorable rhythms of the natural life cycle.

Practicing mindfulness as caregivers, in essence, provides us with a means to optimize ourselves and to increase our resiliency. Resiliency is the process of adapting well in the face of challenges that caregiving invariably presents.

Factors that contribute to our ability to be resilient include having meaningful, supportive relationships—and taking care of ourselves physically and spiritually. To caregiving, there is an element of ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first,’ as one wise geriatrician would admonish the caregivers of patients she supported.

Activities that encourage meditation in motion, such as yoga or tai chi, also provide opportunities to practice mindfulness—whether in solitude or community. Consider trying a Torah yoga class where gentle postures are offered alongside guided kavanah, or meditative segments. All of these practices can bolster a caregiver’s sense of well-being and mitigate the isolation of caregiving.

The mindfulness practice of open awareness meditation entails allowing one’s thoughts to flow without judgment or commentary—as if the thoughts were drifting along the current of a river, or passing like clouds in the sky. This practice can support caregivers contending with (stress-induced) insomnia, providing a soothing practice when we find ourselves awake, our busy minds sorting through concerns in the stillness of the night.

Engaging in active listening—listening with complete and absolute presence—can function as an interactive mindfulness practice with mutual benefit to a caregiver and person for whom they are caring. Think of a terminally ill or cognitively impaired individual living in the present moment. For them, time might seem timeless or non-linear. Try offering that individual several uninterrupted minutes of listening without judgment or commentary. Notice the ways in which listening with a curious, open mind might benefit you, in turn, as caregiver-listener.

A caregiver could practice a quiet, walking meditation—whether alone at home, or accompanying a family member in a wheelchair for a stroll outdoors. Consider, as well, the transcendent power of listening to music with others, and the opportunity to color or dance with a non-verbal partner, as mindfulness practices. How might this view shift our perspective on the seemingly interminable demands of caregiving?

As we take on the travails of caregiving—whether this responsibility was expected or thrust suddenly upon us—we are afforded a space, albeit a cramped one, to do some of our deepest listening to ourselves. We might stumble into never-before imagined ways to connect with the family members with whom and for whom we are caregivers. We might discover new forms of radical acceptance of the most challenging dimensions of caregiving. Cultivating mindfulness practices can reduce the depletion and disquiet we might experience as we inhabit our roles. As we remind ourselves, mindfulness, at its core, is about allowing.

About Alyssa Smith 2 Articles
Alyssa Smith, MSW, LSW is a meditation instructor, leadership coach, and IJS-trained Wise Aging facilitator. Her research and clinical interests include the roles of resiliency and spirituality in aging, illness, dementia, caregiving, and end-of-life experience.

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