Search Results for "compassion"

Indicators of Eating Disorder Recovery: Where Are You on the Journey to Recovery?

A few weeks ago, I went to a panel of eating disorder professionals in Boulder, Colorado, which was the final event in the “Journey to Wholeness: From Anorexia to Addiction, Bipolar Disorder and Recovery” series sponsored by the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness and featuring renowned author Marya Hornbacher (author of such groundbreaking books as Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, and  Madness: A Bipolar Life, among many others).

The panel, featuring local eating disorder psychotherapist Isabelle Tierney and Toni Saiber, executive board member of the Eating Disorder Foundation, was truly inspiring to me as a mental health professional working with eating disorders, as well as someone who has recovered from my own eating disorder.  The panel members had all recovered themselves from eating disorders as well, and I appreciated the candidness about what it is like for them to pursue the passion in life of helping others find recovery.

A resounding theme of the event was HOPE.  What place does hope have in eating disorder recovery?  How does it support people in their journeys towards wholeness?  All panel members agreed that their own personal experiences have influenced and informed their practice today in a way that makes them, resoundingly, human.  I was inspired by the authenticity of panel members:  “sometimes, when I’ve had a challenging week, I still have to notice how I try to use food to cope”; “recovery is a lifetime process, always evolving, always present”; “I’ve learned that when I said no to my eating disorder, there were things I then had to say yes to, which was challenging at first”.  These are the voices of recovery, spoken by those who are so inspired by this journey that they now make it their life’s work to help others.

I left with a renewed spirit, a passionate drive, a dedication to commit myself to my own life’s path: to help others find their recovery, too.

I was given a handout at the panel, one so useful that I have shared it with many of my clients.  It’s entitled “Indicators of Recovery” and I have attached it as a pdf at the end of this post.  One of the things I love about this handout is that NONE of the indicators have to do with food, weight, or appearance.  There is no counting or numbers.  These are indicators to a healthy and balanced life, and can be applied to anyone and everyone — not just those with an ED.  I like going through this with clients so that, on the sometimes tough days of recovery, they can see where they are and what they’ve already done in terms of recovery.  The first step is asking for help and that’s a HUGE one — maybe the most important one of all.

I want to point out a few of these indicators that really stand out to me, as a possible jump-off point to further discussion and reflection:

  • Learning “slips” and “relapses” are signs that something else is really going on and forgiving yourself while investigating the cause.  This is one of the more challenging tasks in recovery but one that is essential in embracing the process of the recovery roller coaster.  Just because you might have a slip does not mean that you have gone backwards.  Slips are opportunities to learn and to practice compassion.
  • Possessing a desire to change.  So simple sounding, yet so complex.  A client’s readiness to change indicates where they are on the journey to recovery and what challenges and what tasks he/she may find as they move forward.  I believe that this factor, as well as asking for help, are the two most essential factors to defining recovery.
  • Feeling negative emotions (or “challenging”) and knowing it is possible to live through them without needing to numb them.  This concept is one of the core concepts of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a therapeutic approach that I use in my practice.  Learning to sit with feelings, believe that they will pass, and not allowing them to overpower other emotions or desires is an integral part of recovery.  We all have feelings, some more challenging than others, and we do not have to allow them to control our experiences.
  • Becoming autonomous and not comparing yourself to others.  We are all beautiful and unique in our own ways.  Finding and relishing in that inner beauty is the antidote to eating disorder behavior.  
Many more Indicators to Recovery are found in the pdf: Indicators of Recovery
Whether you are a professional, a person who is trying to recover from an eating disorder, or a loved one of someone with an eating disorder, I hope you find this pdf helpful.
Which of these indicators are you embracing in your life today?  Which are you working on now?  Which are goals you have for your recovery?
For more support or resources about eating disorders and recovery, contact Kate at kate@katedaiglecounseling.com, or view her website at www.katedaiglecounseling.com.  Further resources: www.eatingdisorderfoundation.org.

 


So…I’m in recovery from my eating disorder; what do I do now?: Strategies to fully embrace life after ED

I am often asked: “What is recovery?  How do I know when I am recovered from my eating disorder?”.  With these perplexing concepts, there is no single correct answer.  Recovery from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or any other type of disordered eating is individualized and unique for each person.  This special journey is what makes recovery from eating disorders both challenging and rewarding: during recovery, we each learn tools and embellish our strengths that will guide us to a life of balance and wellness for many years to come.  We also may slip and stumble a few times during this journey. But staying the course is the key to sustained recovery.

Today, I’d like to shed some light on what to do once you have come to realize that you are “recovered” or “in recovery” from an eating disorder.  Again, this is my perception — my feelings about my own recovery.  They may help others, they may not.  Take what helps.  I am safe in assuming that the majority of those in recovery will agree that eliminating destructive and self-harming behaviors is a central key to recovery (behaviors such as bingeing, purging, restricting, over-exercising, cutting, and others).  While it is normal to have occasional slip-ups of behaviors while working to find security in recovery, the true definition of recovery must involve a cessation of behaviors. Behaviors such as those listed above are symptoms of a deeper psychological issue.  When working to find peace and wellness from behaviors, the root of the issue must be defined and nourished.  When this is done, or is “in the process” of being uncovered, harmful behaviors will naturally cease because they will not be needed as a coping mechanism any longer.

One of my favorite quotes I heard recently by Cheri Huber reminded me of the complexity of recovery:

“Having an attachment ripped from deep in our being does not feel kind.  Yet when it is gone, when the wound is healing, we can see that the process was one of pure compassion.”  ~Cheri Huber

Eating disorders are like an attachment.  They are like a relationship.  They will never abandon us, deny us, leave us, or disagree with us.  We can always rely on them.  This is why it is so challenging to let them go — for all of the pain they have caused us, they have also satiated an inherently untended need.  I interpreted this quote to mean that when we have our eating disorder taken away from us — whether it was of our own initiative or not — there is pain.  The beginning stages of recovery are often the most excruciating; it can feel like ripping off a band-aid and exposing an open wound.  Sometimes, it is too painful to bear, and we feel we need to continue using our behaviors until we are stronger in coping.  When we sit with the feelings under the eating disorder, when we begin to heal, we can notice that giving ourselves compassion is one of the biggest keys in maintaining a solid recovery.

Here are a few ideas that might help in continuing to deepen your commitment to recovery:

1.) Define what the underlying struggles are, and always keep those in your awareness.  This may come in the form of anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties or remnants from a traumatic event.  You do not need to focus your awareness on these directly all the time, but tuck them into your consciousness so that you can be notified when you might need to cope with them in a healthier way.

2.) Remember what you have achieved.  Again, this needs to be in balance — don’t re-traumatize yourself by vividly placing yourself back into what it was like to be in the eating disorder, but reflect on the steps you have taken, the victories you have obtained, and the strength you have deepened within yourself.  Sometimes when I am feeling down, I summon up my gratitude for my own recovery and that I got myself there.

3.)  Connect with community.  It is always therapeutic to be part of a community that understands and supports you through your recovery.  Recovery can be a life-long process in stages, and you may have different needs as you take steps down the road.  This can come in the form of joining writing or poetry groups, if it is healing for you to write about your recovery.  You also might participate in volunteer activities with local eating disorder support centers.  In Denver, the Eating Disorder Foundation offers many volunteer opportunities or classes you can take and expand your horizons in their new support center “A Place of Our Own”.

This is only the beginning of a list of ideas to maintain recovery.  What are some of your ideas?  Remember always that the journey is challenging at times, but there is hope for a full, sustained, and healthy recovery from anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.


Eating disorders and holiday anxiety: 8 tips for finding peace with food

The holidays are upon us and while they are meant for celebrations of family, friends, and love, they also can be full of stress and anxiety about food and weight.  What should I eat?  What should I NOT eat?  How do I avoid guilt about eating a big meal on Thanksgiving??  How do I release the anxiety so I can actually enjoy eating delicious holiday food with my loved ones?

These are choruses that may ring familiar to you.  Does this tape run through your head as you think about the upcoming family gatherings, holiday parties, pot-lucks, and holiday bake sales?  It’s hard to resist the temptation to dig into all of the delicious offerings.  It’s also challenging to let go of the fear of food that many of us identify with.  If you have struggled with an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or if you have experienced emotional stress over eating during the holidays, do not fear.  You can still enjoy the holidays AND enjoy the food!

I have struggled with eating disorders and know all too well the anxiety about what types of foods will be at holiday events and not being able to trust myself to healthily enjoy them.  I have been able to find peace with the season, and can enjoy in moderation all of the foods that I love!  For me, one of the biggest keys to this freedom is self-compassion — allowing myself to be present, find joy, and not dwell in self-judgment or guilt.

Here are ten tips for getting what you want out of the holiday season, keeping the food anxiety at bay, and truly enjoying the value of this special time of year.

Eight Tips for Overcoming Food Anxiety During the Holidays:

1.)  Don’t go to any gathering too hungry.  If you have a few stops to make at holiday events in an evening, have a little something to eat before you go so that you are not starving when you arrive amidst all of the delicious food.  When you arrive, check out all of the options and then decide which ones will make you feel good, satisfied, and happy.  Eat those in moderation.

2.)  Have a buddy in the know.  Whether it is a partner, family member, friend, or colleague, find someone who you can feel comfortable sharing your anxious feelings with.  Let them know what you hope to accomplish during the event and let them know what your worries are about.  Have them be a buddy for you as you focus your attention on enjoyment and not on fear.

3.)  Try not to label foods “good” or “bad”.  Labels are not healthy for any of us, as they can confine us into a place where we might not feel free to be who we are.  Foods feel the same way!  Sure, there are some foods that are healthier for you than others, but to truly overcome food anxiety it is important to not separate foods into groups.  You can eat anything in moderation.  If there is a food that you really love that you might label “bad”, try it anyway.  Try to have a small portion and eat it without judging yourself or the food.  See what happens!

4.)  Know where you can go and what you can do to release holiday anxiety in a healthy way.  Keeping active is an easy way to help your mind and your body feel in sync and energized.  Go to the park and take a walk around the lake.  Practice mindfulness or meditation.  Breathe.  Or perhaps you find peace listening to music or talking with a friend.  Before you enter a potentially stressful situation, identify your personal outlets for stress that you have known to be effective before.  Keep those close and plan them into your schedule.

5.) Give yourself a BREAK!  The holidays are meant to be enjoyed and to be a break from your regular routine.  Allow yourself to ease up on rules or expectations and try to truly be in the moment.  Family might be in town that you have not seen for a while.  Be present with them and don’t let food take that precious time away from you.  The same thing goes for work:  leave it at the office!

6.)  Come prepared with what you need in order to feel at peace.  At some family gatherings, family members may pressure you to “just eat!”, or “don’t you want more??”.  Before you enter this atmosphere, know what your personal goals are.  Perhaps they are to eat until you are satisfied and then stop.  Don’t feel pressured to eat more than you want or need to, despite what others say.  Etiquette experts say that it is ok to say no, so follow what your intuition tells you.

7.)  Ask for support.  If you are struggling with an eating disorder or with any form of emotional eating, there are many places you can go to find others who understand what you are feeling.  There are numerous local support groups for eating disorders (local Denver ones are found here), or you can reach out to a therapist or friend who can provide empathy, understanding, and supportive tools for helping you get through the stressful times.

8.) Don’t focus on numbers.  I don’t like numbers.  They can “tell” us what to feel about ourselves.  In terms of weight and food amounts and calories, numbers can be quite damaging.  During the holidays, try to feel what your body needs through its internal signals to you, not through counting calories or fat grams.  Your body has a voice and it wants to tell you exactly what it needs.  It intuitively will guide you to eat until you are satisfied physically and emotionally.  So leave the calculators at home and go out with a mission to eat intuitively, to enjoy the food, and to not control it.  Don’t allow the word ‘diet’ into your vocabulary!  The intuitive eating approach is guaranteed to help you overcome struggles with holiday food anxiety, eating disorders, and emotional stress.

I am hosting a workshop:  “Are you WEIGHTING for freedom from holiday emotional eating?” at my office on Tuesday, December 13th at 5:30pm.  Contact me for more information!

Have a happy, healthy, and stress-free holiday season!


Don’t let yourself go down in ashes! Top eight signs you are approaching burnout

Do you ever have those days where you’re exhausted before you have even gotten up from bed?  Does your list of tasks on your to-do list outnumber the time you have in the day?  We are all busy people, with many opportunities and priorities continually being juggled.  But how do you know when you just can’t keep all of those balls in the air anymore?  What I am referring to is possibly “burnout” and it affects all of us to some degree at varying points in our lives.  And trust me — it is both preventable and curable.  Burnout is commonly defined as “the experience of long-term exhaustion or diminished interest.”  I call it emotional exhaustion.

Burnout is not recognized as an official mental health condition in the DSM, but it has the power to impact every aspect of our daily lives if we do not recognize when it is creeping up.  Burnout is most commonly thought to occur in occupational or educational spheres (such as working too hard or too long), but I believe that it also can occur in our personal, social, and familial lives as well.  Humans need a break from consistent tasks or stimulation — and “too much of a good (or not so good) thing” can lead to burnout.  And allowing burnout to intrude too deeply in your life can significantly impact relationships with others as well as with yourself.  It can also lead to more serious conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Have you ever said to yourself “oh, I am so burned out by this assignment…I can’t even think anymore”, or “I am so exhausted that I can’t imagine going into work and sitting at that computer for one more day”?  We all can relate.  Here are eight signs that you might be approaching burnout and some tips for putting a halt to it before it turns you to ash:

Eight Signs You are Approaching Burnout:

1.)  You dread doing things that you normally love to do.  Now this may sound also like a symptom of depression, which it could be and that is why I noted that severe burnout can lead to other issues.  Burnout can take energy away from your career or favorite past-time, and it may be difficult to cut back on tasks because they are where you typically find joy and fulfillment.

2.)  You are emotionally unbalanced.  What does this mean?  It could mean a variety of things and only you can be the judge for your own emotions.  For some, it could mean that things that typically don’t upset you or impact you very much are somehow having a greater effect on your emotional state.  For example, a minor conflict with a co-worker can create a heated discussion and cause one of you to leave in tears.

3.)  You have trouble saying “no”. Now this is a tough one.  How many of us have trouble saying no?  I certainly do.  This one incorporates #1 and #2 — if you are feeling emotionally unbalanced and lacking motivation to do things you normally love but continue to say yes to events or commitments that intensify the symptoms, this may lead to burnout.  This takes a keen ability to sense your own limits and know when you need a break, which can only occur with practice and compassion for yourself.

4.)  You avoid loved ones. Isolation is an indicator of many types of mental issues — depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and domestic violence to name a few.  Sometimes this can mean physically avoiding loved ones, or it can mean (and more devastatingly so) emotionally withdrawing from them.  Burnout can lead to feeling hopeless and overwhelmed and closing those feelings in yourself so that others do not have to bear them.  In actuality, opening up and sharing the burden of the feelings can help heal burnout.

5.)  You are making mistakes or consistently forgetting things. When we are filled to the brim with tasks and responsibilities, it can be difficult to make room for new learning and memories.  Feeling burned out can appear in ways that might look like “I don’t care anymore” and lead to mistakes in paperwork or being short with co-workers.  In reality, you really do care but are emotionally exhausted and cannot fit any more stimulation into your emotional and cognitive brain until you clear out some of the “junk” – or factors that are keeping you stuck.

6.)  You become sick more often and to greater degrees. As I talk about often on my blog, the mind and the body are strongly connected.  When one hurts, so does the other (and vice versa – when one is joyful, so is the other).  When you are emotionally exhausted and spent, your body will feel it.  Stress affects mind, body, and spirit.  This could affect energy levels as well as physical symptoms.  I have had clients who have developed hives as a way to avoid work (without their conscious knowing) because they are burned out.  Listen to what your body is telling you.

7.)  You are neglecting your own needs. This relates back to #3, but goes deeper than saying no.  This can turn into assertively denying your own needs to meet a higher demand (or so the burnout wants you to do!).  Working late or adding hours to your schedule that take away from personal time are indicators of this type of burnout.  It is almost as if your own needs lose value and the influence of others’ needs (bosses, family, children, etc) make them appear to be more important.  Nothing is further from the truth and this is an important lesson in avoiding burnout: never let your needs go unmet for long periods of time, and give them the same values as other needs in your life.

8.)  You are reading this blog post.  You wouldn’t be so curious about what leads to burnout if you didn’t feel some of the symptoms, now would you? 🙂  Like I said earlier, we all have experienced some form of burnout and I encourage you to listen to your inner voice that may be asking for a break.  Running yourself into the group with work, relationship dynamics, personal obligations, or other stressful situations will only hurt you in the long run and defeat the purpose of trying so hard in the first place.  Notice that burnout is normal and universal and that it can be absolved.

Want to know how?  Read my blog post later in the week to learn techniques for breaking free of burnout – and how to keep yourself in a balanced and healthy state.   Further tips: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/burnout_signs_symptoms.htm


Seven ways to practice mindfulness in less-than-relaxing circumstances

If you live almost anywhere in the United States, you will have some experience with the blizzard and arctic freeze that has been sweeping every direction of the nation.  Some of us have been stuck in airports due to cancelled flights, some of us have slid across icy intersections in a panic, some of us have had to wait in the sub-zero digits as we wait for a bus to take us to school or work, and some of us have to be separated from loved ones as we wait for the country to revive and breathe again.

This is as good a time as any to practice ways to be mindful and present in the face of a situation over which we might have no control.  I know it sounds near impossible to be mindful as your fingers turn to ice (and you might want to punch me with those icy fingers for suggesting it), but please bear with me as we explore a few ways to appreciate the moment in a non-judgmental capacity.   First off, what is mindfulness?  Build from a tradition of Buddhist meditation, mindfulness can be described as adopting a calm awareness of one’s body functions, feelings, consciousness and environment, and its practice is said to be key in the development of wisdom.  Rilke, a teacher of ancient mindfulness, states:

“(Have)….. patience with everything unresolved in your heart—-and try to love the questions themselves. Don’t search for answers which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is to live everything.

Live the questions now!

Perhaps, gradually without noticing it you will live the way to your answer.”

So, in truly living in your present moment, how can we achieve a state of acceptance and awareness?

1.) Close your eyes and try to notice what each of your senses are experiencing at that moment.  What do you hear?  What do you feel? Is the temperature warm or cold?  Smell? If you open your eyes, where do you find yourself?  Notice the brick ledge lining the yard of the neighboring house.  How did that get there?  Truly being aware of our surroundings helps us to find meaning in our existence and let go of anxieties about the past or future.

2.) Notice your breathing.  Take deep breaths in and out and really feel it go through your body.  This is a way to naturally calm down your body.

3.) Check in with your body.  Where are you feeling pain?  Stress? Tension? Sadness?  Are you holding anxiety in your neck and shoulders?  Do you feel the loss of a loved one in your chest?  Try to explore your connection to your body and where it might be disconnected from your emotions.

4.) Quiet your mind.  Once you have checked in with yourself and find yourself present in the moment, try to truly sit with it.  Try not to let intrusive thoughts and worries about the past and future ruin your moment.  There is nothing to do about those right now.  This moment is yours, and you have complete control over it.

4.) Don’t give yourself a hard time if this is difficult.  Especially in challenging circumstances where our plans may fall through or we are presented with unexpected news, we must be compassionate with ourselves.  If it is hard to calm your mind, that is okay.  Take those thoughts, acknowledge them, and let them pass through your mind.  Mindfulness meditation is not about eliminating thoughts, it is about noticing them, not judging them, and letting them go.

5.) Follow the words of Deepok Chopra: “Close your eyes and watch yourself breathe for about five minutes.  Put your attention on your heart and ask: Who am I? What do I want? What is my purpose? You don’t need to know the answers.  Live the questions and life will move you to the answers.”

6.) Try yoga.  Yoga is a natural way to spiritually align your mind and body and to heal the spirit through movement.  This not only is healthy for you physically, but it helps to center the mind and work through the breath.

7.)  Get a massage.  Massages naturally encourage us to turn off our mind and notice sensations in our body.  Working through tension held in muscles can release toxins and soothe your mind to help you tackle any challenges that might come your way.

And one last thought — give yourself a break!  If it’s freezing and snowy outside, there’s no better reason for snuggling up at home with a pet and a good book.

For more mindfulness practice and body-centered psychotherapy, feel free to join Kate Daigle Counseling’s Body-Centered Emotional Recovery Group, held each Wednesday at 5:30pm and facilitated by Kate Daigle and Sarah McKelvey.

Don’t miss this video, featuring one of the most peaceful and therapeutic leaders in mindfulness meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn.  He is one of my personal heroes!:


Sex addiction: scapegoat or diagnosable mental health condition?

What is sex addiction? Is it a real mental health condition? Or is it a term used to make excuses or avoid accountability for indecent and rash behavior?  This issue is one that is often debated in the media as celebrities, sports players, and politicians have publicly ‘struggled’ with this condition (hello, Tiger Woods and David Duchovny), but there appears to be a lack of clinical research into the true symptoms of this potential disorder.  Sex addiction is not included in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), and has been rejected from inclusion in the DSM-V, coming out in 2012.  The closest indicator in current mental disorder classification would be “Sexual Disorders Not Otherwise Specified”, putting it closely with diagnosable conditions such as hypersexuality.

Sexual addition is a term used to describe the behavior of an individual who has an increasingly and unusually intense sex drive and an obsession with anything to do with sex.  Sex, suggestions, or thoughts about sex seem to dominate the thinking of a person who has this condition, and this makes it challenging for him or her to have meaningful and trustful relationships.  A sex addict may have disorted thoughts or take risks that can seem dangerous and out of character.  Clinicians see similarities between behaviors associated with sex addiction and behaviors linked with Obsessive Complusive Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and manic-depression.  People who are linked to sex addiction can find it displays in various avenues: an addiction to pornography, masturbation, frequenting strip clubs and becoming linked to male and female dancers, and even more abstract displays such as exhibitionism.

Sex addiction is also described as “a progressive intimacy disorder characterized by compulsive acts and thoughts”, that over time can have detrimental affects on the person’s relationships and family.  Evidence towards classifying this as an addiction points to factors that sex addiction might have in common with other addictions: feeling out of control, feeling like you need a “fix” so that you can avoid feeling emotions and consequences that might surface if the addiction is not fed.  Some argue that, like alcohol and drugs, sex can become a source of numbing and relief for those that struggle with this disorder and can ease anxiety and stress.  As an eating disorder therapist, this brings up the question of: are we addicted to food in the same way?  Is an eating disorder an addiction?  Where does addiction draw the line, and what exactly defines an addiction?  This can be debated for hours in all avenues.

I think that sex addiction is so controversial and so difficult to discuss because it jumps directly to one of the most sensitive and special parts of a human relationship: intimacy.  Physical intimacy is linked to emotional intimacy, and both can be shattered in the event of a sex addiction.  Another controversial aspect of sex addiction surrounds the question of infidelity.  If a partner in a committed relationship is unfaithful, is sex addiction a forgivable offense?  Does the straying partner have control over his or her impulses, and might find that using sex addiction as a reason for the actions will bring less judgment and more hope for reconiliation?  Or, does a sex addict really feel out of control towards his or her behaviors in terms of addiction, and deserve to be treated as a person affected by a justifiable mental condition? 

The mental anguish experienced by a partner of someone with sexual addiction is intense and can feel almost unbearable.  It can bring up feelings of anger, denial, depression, and confusion about what is really going on.  Parnters may be able to recognize when their partner is in the “mind of his/her addiction”, sensing that their actions towards sexually related things shift them into a different state of mind and they “don’t recognize them”.  This may throw the whole relationship into a tailspin and cut off intimacy completely.  Being able to notice when the addiction is active could also help a couple heal as they work together to uncover the reasons and feelings behind the addiction.

I encourage anyone who might feel that he or she has a sex addiction or anyone who is a partner of someone with a sex addiction to seek help.  Individual therapy is a good place to start for each partner, as they can each explore their emotions and questions around the situation in a non-judgmental space;  couples therapy is imperative for the couple to come together in honesty and, hopefully, understanding.  As research into this condition continues, we hope to have more solid guidelines for sex addiction, leading possibly to more compassion towards this sensitive topic and treatment models that are effective.  Currently, there is Sex Addicts Anonymous, which is a group that sends the message: “a fellowship of recovering addicts, we offer the message of hope to anyone who suffers from a sexual addition”.


Helping aging family members: the best care for them while caring for yourself

Often there is talk of life cycle phases and the emotional, physical and mental challenges that can come when coping with change.  I read articles and blogs about managing parental stress and learning communication skills in a new romantic partnership — but there is significantly less talk about helping an aging parent or loved one accept the physical and emotional changes of growing older while maintaining their integrity.  Often there are shifts in cognitive ability and functioning as the years go by and this can elicit feelings of fear, despair and misunderstanding — experienced by both the caretaker and the aging parent.  I am also interested in looking deeper at ways that children and younger caretakers can tend to their own emotional needs and hopes as they support the folks who have been their caretakers all their lives.

There are many factors that  should be considered as parents age: financial situations, physical capacity to take care of oneself, the responsibilities and expectations of each child in the caretaking roles, and emotional reactions as both parent and child realize that there is no way to stop the effects of aging.

A blog that I came across lays out in simple terms the things to look for when tending to the needs of aging parents: go visit them and see for yourself how effectively they are functioning, ask your parents’ permission to go through their checkbooks and statements to see if there are any finaicial red flags, remember that they can sell their house and move into a more cost-effective one (and one that may require less household maintenance), and help them get all of their important legal documents in order such as their wills and power of attorney.  These steps are very rarely as simple as they might appear — often times the house holds memories and feelings that parents do not want to give up (rightly so).  Sometimes the fact of a son or daughter trying to make decisions for the parent can bring up some insecurities about the parent’s mental functioning and ability to make sound decisions and can create discord in a family.  I can certainly understand the difficulty when considering that a parent might be better off moving out of the large family home that he or she has tended to and nourished for decades…and for many aging parents, this is not necessary.  But when it is, how do you have that conversation with your parent in a way that shows compassion and understanding, but also a bit of no-nonsense decision making?

Members of the “sandwich generation” might be raising children of their own — making decisions about curfew and piercings while also needing to make decisions about the best care for an aging parent or loved one.  This might mean needing to take a more active role in your parents’ lives …and nothing can prepare you for that sudden illness or accident that may put finances, caretaking, and functioning ability in a tailspin.  Going back to what I brought up before about self-care while managing this situation, it is important to note that there is no harm in letting parents go about their business and remove yourself from meddling if there appears to be no just cause to sound the alarm.  Why stress yourself out more when you don’t need to? Just keep a vigilant eye and note if there are more forgetful episodes or disorientation as time goes by.

What if one of your parents was verbally, sexually, or physically abusive? How will that type of past influence you today as you hold more power in the family?  Blogs differ on this topic, but I agree with several writers I have come across who argue that you do not need to get involved in something that you do not feel comfortable doing.  This is not to say that you should neglect your parent in ways that they might have neglected your needs…but you might hire an unbiased nurse or find a good assisted-living home for your parent(s) to move to so that you are not retraumatized by needing to get too emotionally close to the abusive parent again.

I ran across a very interesting concept in the New York Times – a blog talks about the “Caregiver Relief Fund”, which is a charity founded about a year ago that awards family caregivers one-time vouchers for professional at-home care, allowing them to re-energize and tend to their own physical and emotional needs.  This goes back to that self-care thing I keep bringing up.  This fund partners with organizations across the country to offer services to families in need.  It is headquartered in Chicago and over the next few months will spread to five more states – including Colorado!  The fund’s founder aims to give vouchers to over one million caregivers in the next decade.

While there are positive opportunities such as the caregiver fund, there are also millions of families who do not have such fortune to receive monetary assistance when caring for an aging parent.  Tending to the household needs, a potential move to an assisted-living facility, paying for medications and doctors visits, and other expenses pile up enormously and it is all too often that families have not been prepared for such demands.  Caring for an aging parent can also cause strong emotional swings and reactions as family members might feel that the parent they knew is changing and drifting, and the parent might feel that they do not know what to do with their lives anymore.

Trying to make decisions about longterm care for a parent can bring about conflict between children in a family and can trigger anxieties and wounds borne decades earlier.  How should the money and possessions be divided when the parent cannot manage their household by themselves anymore? Who will be the best person to talk to mom or dad about difficult topics? If your family is going through this phase or if it has already, did you notice certain members taking on certain roles? Is one person more of a caretaker? One more of an avoider? One more of a planner and navigator?

All families go through transitions – and there is never a cookie-cutter way of planning out how to navigate these changes.  Shifts in roles and responsibilities can bring up insecurities but can also bring families closer together.  In every new chapter, there is the possibility of hope and healing!