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  • Writer's pictureMeg Pemberton

What Every Caregiver Needs: Humility, Capacity, Resilience, and Humor

I’m pretty sure that caregivers, be they family members or hired, have one of the toughest jobs imaginable. In fact, I know they do. Been there. Done that. However, being a caregiver can be one of the most rewarding jobs of all. Having cared for my parents in the last few years of their lives, I can tell you that I would not have wanted it any other way. It was hard. There were challenges, guilt, and tears. Despite the headaches and heartache, there were good times for which I have fond memories. In the end, I learned what every caregiver needs. As a nurse I thought I already knew. As a daughter providing care for her parents I learned how to cultivate what I needed. What every caregiver needs is humility, capacity, resilience and a sense of humor.

Humility and Caregiving

Madeleine L’Engle once said “Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.” In order to provide care, the caregiver must accept the situation as being about the one in need and not themselves. Seems obvious and a bit harsh to point this out. Perhaps this is better stated as being prepared to give in to the greater need of another. Or more simply, this isn’t about you.

Being a caregiver is not always convenient.

As a caregiver, you will find yourself putting off your own needs in order to meet those of your loved one. You will need to be flexible, patient and be able to overcome any aversion to providing physical care. Often your needs will take a back seat as your humility drives the caregiving experience. Unfortunately, keeping the gas tank full can be very difficult.

Capacity to Care

Capacity is much more than having the time or ability to provide care for others. As mom’s heart began to fail and dad’s dementia advanced, I easily stepped in to assist them and to provide care. I took them to appointments and visited the pharmacy multiple times per week to pick up prescriptions. Fortunately, I had family support and help. Unfortunately, I did not always have the capacity to provide the needed care. Capacity can be defined as the ability or power to do what is necessary, to experience and understand it (Oxford Dictionaries).

During the last two years or so of my mother’s life she required wound care. She was still able to get out of the house and didn’t qualify for home health nursing. As time passed, this nurse could technically complete the task without blinking. This daughter struggled. Where would I find the strength to change the wound dressing one more time knowing it was painful? Would the wound become infected because I did something wrong?

Finding capacity when there is none can be difficult. I’d like to say that reminding myself of my love for mom was all it took.

Caregiving is emotional work. Yes, work. Caregivers tend to forego self-care in the effort to care for others.

This leads to tired, emotionally drained, cranky caregivers with little or no fuel to carry on. The Family Caregiver Alliance has solid recommendations on how to refill the gas tank so to speak. Among them, recognizing that you may need to step away and change the caregiving situation in order to de-stress. Prioritizing self-care is a must.

Resilience and Caregiver Strength

During the last year of my parent’s lives my gas tank was empty. I had reached zero capacity and was about to embark on a much needed family vacation. Plans were in place and my siblings knew what to do in my absence. As we were leaving one of my sisters called in tears. She wanted me to make a call to the nursing home regarding Dad. I couldn’t, I was out of gas. She could make the call because she was resilient. I proceeded to go on vacation with guilt weighing heavily upon my shoulders. However, as we sailed out to sea that day, everything negative, guilt included, evaporated. I was feeding my soul, filling up the gas tank so I too could be resilient. My sister handled the issue like a pro.

Resilience comes from the capacity to recover quickly. Our resilience allows us to dig deep and find the courage needed to be strong. Finding resilience when we need it, particularly when our fuel needed indicator light is on, is difficult. The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that building resilience is possible by recognizing that crisis is not insurmountable, by remaining positive, and making good connections with family and others. In fact, the APA notes 10 tactics for building resilience. Not surprisingly, self-care is among them.

Humor is Medicine

The TV was often on when I visited Dad. One afternoon, an infomercial regarding bras was on. Dad announced, quite seriously, that I needed to buy some of them.  I looked at him and he looked back at me and slowly cracked a smile as he began to chuckle. I wasn’t sure that he had recognized me during our last few visits. He had begun to call me by my daughter’s names. At least he was close. In that moment Dad’s sense of humor was present. We had a good laugh. I don’t know who needed that laugh more. It sure felt good despite where we were.

As Charlie Chaplin once noted, a day without laughter is a day wasted. Finding humor in the day to day challenge of caregiving may not be easy but it is important none the less. There is nothing better for the soul than a deep belly laugh. Even the sound of children giggling is restorative. Humor is a necessary part of our self-care, so too is ensuring those we care for can and do laugh.

Caregiving is indeed hard work. It is personal, exhausting, invasive, and unforgiving. Did I mention that it is rewarding? In my 34 years as a nurse, and as a daughter and mother, I have never felt more rewarded than when I provided care. The lessons learned were many. I’m still learning. In particular, about prioritizing self-care (see my earlier blog re self-care here). It is no accident that self-care drives what every caregiver needs; humility, capacity, resilience, and a sense of humor.


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