Labor and caregiving are not the same. Sometimes #caregiving requires heavy labor — and highly valued labor must usually be done with care. In both cases, one factor changes everything: Love. We work best when we love what we do and when we view caregiving as a labor of love.
Unfortunately, we can’t always be at our best because the job of a #caregiver is so demanding. We are often exhausted even when things are going well. All people who labor should stop and recognize the value of their work on Labor Day. For caregivers, however, ceasing to labor is often impossible. If we rest when there’s no one to back us up, chaos takes over.
Labor Day for Caregivers
My mother needs 24 hour care. Mom’s daily needs cannot be met without me even when she has an aide. However, I have developed certain rules for holidays. These commandments are designed to reduce my stress while I still meet ordinary responsibilities. On Labor Day I refuse to:
- Touch the stove, except to boil water or reheat leftovers
- Turn on the washing machine
- Pull weeds or get anywhere near the lawn mower
- Pay bills or look at medical paperwork of any kind
These tasks are so common, I rarely notice how much of my time they consume. Nevertheless, even while cutting myself a few small breaks, I will still have to:
- Lift my mother in and out of bed
- Measure out medication
- Offer some kind of food contribution at a family barbecue
- Be a hostess to visiting guests
I can relax a bit while fulfilling these tasks because I am determined to do only what’s necessary. I don’t have to be perfect and I refuse to be stressed. The word holiday goes out the window as soon as you get wound up about your responsibilities,
Instead, I plan to put my feet up and do a little remembering. One hundred years ago it was much more dangerous to be a U.S. worker. I’m from the anthracite region of Pennsylvania. Many people in our region died in the mines while trying to feed their families. I can only imagine what it was like to be a caregiver then: wringer washers, wood burning stoves, outhouses! I want a break from caregiving, but I don’t want to travel back in time. Despite the challenges I’m grateful to be a 21st century #caregiver with a passion for my (unpaid) job.
Is there a connection between the happiness of caregivers and their resilience? Resilience is “the ability to cope with life’s frustrations without falling apart.” If you are content serving as a caregiver despite the stress of the role, maybe you have a brain that’s better wired for the job.
Recent research suggests that a specific part of our brain seems to be responsible for successful stress management. If you are relatively happy serving as a caregiver, perhaps you possess this positive brain attribute. Some people have told me that I’m “earning my wings to heaven.” They say I “must be terribly strong” to look after my mother with dementia. Others appear to believe that I’m a masochist or a nut. But now I see there’s another possibility: I may have a flexible Ventral Medial Prefrontal Cortex. Who knew?
Caregivers and Resilience + Science
Scientists from Yale have been conducting studies that identify how people respond to sustained stress.They have located a region in our brain called the Ventral Medial Prefrontal Cortex which seems to govern our response to stress. In some people, this area shows high flexibility during sustained stress. Others, however, do not display this type of neural flexibility. Low flexibility participants were more prone to binge drinking and angry outbursts.
During the ten years that my mom’s been sick, I’ve met many caregivers from professional and family settings. Clearly there are some people who enjoy the role. They are kind and caring in the most difficult situations. These caregivers go out of their way to make dementia patients feel safe and valued. On the other hand, there are those who seem to despise the job. These people yell at patients, abandon them in their chair, and neglect their needs. I’ve had a hard time watching this type of caregiver, wondering about the harm they might be doing. Now I believe their behavior may show more than a lack of compassion. Perhaps their wiring doesn’t give them the resilience they need for the job.
Resilience does more than help you survive stress. It also helps us experience happiness. I discovered the Yale study through a Tweet from Emma Seppala. She does research on the links between happiness, compassion and success. If caregiving expands your sense of compassion, perhaps you can use this quality to increase your overall success in life. Next week’s post will offer ideas that are especially relevant to this theme.