Tag Archives: caregiver happiness

Caregivers Lose Memories, too

Caregivers lose memories, too. We don’t lose them the same way #dementia patients do. Instead, our duties make it difficult to keep track of our own lives and what makes them meaningful.

Caregivers lose memories too

Our role as #caregivers gives us chances to transform ourselves through service to others. While doing this work, we often create new memories. But the never-ending list of duties makes it hard to enjoy special moments from other periods of our lives. Forgetting the past can erase too much of our true identity.

This loss of identity can also happen during other phases of life. When parents have their first child, most experience a tsunami of change. They know they’ll be responsible for the health and safety of a tiny vulnerable creature. But they also expect their child to be the focus of happy memories they will create together as a family.

Unfortunately, the transition to the role of #caregiver is not accompanied by so much hope and joy. We become guardians of a person in the midst of steep decline. This demanding role absorbs our full attention. It’s easy to forget we had pleasant times in the past. My sister recently accused me of forgetting a nice memory we discussed a few weeks ago. I told her candidly, “My mind seems to reject any information that is not essential. Every day I’m trying to keep track of which bills need to be paid. When I finish thinking about that, my mind fills up with a mental picture of what we need from the supermarket. Then I have to worry about who will be here to provide support each day.” This never-ending list of worries takes up room that could be dedicated to happier thoughts.

Remembering who we used to be

I want my life to be more than a to-do list. Fortunately, we’ve had a few days of fantastic weather in our slice of the Poconos. As I sit on the porch writing on my laptop, the occasional breeze makes me close my eyes for a moment. The green smell of the forest takes me back to my childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. I used to lie on our front porch swing and pretend I was asleep. To make sure no one would bother me, I’d put an open Nancy Drew book across my face. [When I added that Nancy Drew link just now, the sight of those book covers brought back ten years of my childhood.]

Thoughts of Nancy Drew take me further into the past. We had a large maple tree in front of that porch where I passed countless days reading or playing with friends. At certain times of year, the wind sent little seeds flying to the ground. Kids from my block called them pug noses. We opened them in the middle and used the maple sap to stick them to our noses. The Internet did not exist. We invented every interesting thing in our lives.

We built doll houses out of tissue boxes and played Monopoly for days. If someone was on the verge of going broke, one of the other players handed them money so they could stay in the game. Our goal was to keep the game going. No one ever felt entitled to own everything. Now our world is being managed by billionaires and corporations that won’t be satisfied until they own every resource on the planet. It’s a sad commentary on how the world has changed. But it’s also a good reason to take time to treasure your memories. No one can raise the price on the life you’ve already lived — and they can’t repossess your recollection of living it.

Caregivers and Resilience

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.

Caregivers and Resilience

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.