Friday, November 30, 2012

Self-Compassion? It's the Key to Coping With Your Aging Parent

Today caps off National Caregiver Month.  All month long,  senior centers nationwide have offered workshops, including one I attended  November 5 at Northshore Senior Center in Bothell, Washington. "Self-Compassion for the Caregiver" explained self-compassion and offered tips to achieve it.  In my view, it's a great subject for us who care for our aging parents.

What is self-compassion?  Workshop leaders Janet Zielasko and Jeannie DeSmet cited the work of Dr. Kristin Neff, author of "Self-Compassion:  Stop Beating Yourself and Leave Insecurity Behind."  According to her, self-compassion involves viewing ourselves kindly, offering the same level of support and understanding we would give a friend.

If you care for your aging parent--either full or part-time--you can't do everything perfectly.  You're human, and you have too many things to do.  But Neff's research suggests that all of us, including caregivers of aging parents--can be healthier, if we accept our weaknesses and give ourselves a break.  Preliminary data seems to indicate that people who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety.  They're happier and more optimistic.

So how do we do it?  Zielasko and DeSmet gave three keys to self-compassion to workshop participants, who were mainly caregivers.

1.  Cultivate self-kindness.  Western culture stresses kindness to others, but not too ourselves.  When you get angry with an aging parent, your first reaction might be, "I should be more patient.  I shouldn't get angry."  But then you get angry with yourself for getting angry.  Self-compassion asks you to remind yourself that you are human and the situation is difficult.  DeSmet suggests actually comforting yourself when you don't measure up to your own standards, and giving yourself tolerance and forgiveness.  "Make a peace offering to yourself of warmth and empathy."

2.  Recognize our common humanity.  When we're in a difficult situation, it helps to be around others who, too, may be struggling in some way.  Support groups, either online or in person, are one way we can find strength to be kinder to ourselves.  So can church groups, going out to coffee with friends, and jogging with a neighbor.  One of the best benefits of being with people, in any setting, is laughing at the situations we find ourselves in.  That's a bonus all in itself.

3.  Be mindful of your situation.  Mindfulness is holding our experience in balance, neither exaggerating it or denying it, says DeSmet.  "When we're mindful there's less need to escape a painful situation.  Our motivation is to 'care,' not to 'cure.'"  Happiness stems from loving ourselves--and our lives--as they are, she adds.  One way to aid in mindfulness is to practice deep breathing, which anchors our minds.  As we do, we can stop, look and listen, observing our emotions and paying attention to them.

How are you doing with self-compassion?  Would you like to talk about it and how it might help your relationship with your aging parent?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Holidays Made Simple: For You and Your Aging Parent, Part Two

This updated post originally ran in 2010.  

With your aging parent, simplicity is the key to the holidays. Even if your parent is homebound, he or she may enjoy decorations, holiday music, movies and family recipes. To capture the "good old times" your parent may remember, try one or more of these simplified traditions.

1. If your parent enjoyed attending the Nutcracker, the Messiah or other live musical performances long ago, listen to CDs or DVD's of these favorites together.
2. If your parent hosted family and friends during the holidays in times past, give him or her a guest book and a tin of cookies or other treats for people who drop by.
3. If she sang in a choir, or just enjoyed holiday music, hold a sing-along, even if there are only a few of you.  Use recorded music to help you, if needed.
4. If he or she faithfully chopped down and/or decorated the family Christmas tree, take a drive through a lighted neighborhood, stopping for cocoa afterwards.
5. If she filled your Christmas stockings to the max in days gone by, provide some wrapped candies she can give to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  My daughter, now a mother of three, has fond memories of her Great Grandpa Bill, who stashed peppermints in his shirt pocket.  When kids sat on his lap, they knew where to look.
6. If she baked traditional breads or holiday cookies, hold a family baking session, using her recipes and encouraging her to help, if possible.  Be sure to tell the little ones that, “These are Great-Grandma’s cookies that she baked for your Grandma when she was a little girl.”
7. If he or she loved watching football during the holidays, you don’t have to simplify this tradition at all.  It’s already simple:  Gather the family and friends, provide food and turn on the TV.  One football tradition in our family involved the “Pancake bet.”  For years the three men in our family (my husband and our two sons) placed bets on the score of the upcoming Husky game.  After the game, they revealed the bets.  The person whose bet was farthest off the actual score had to make pancakes for breakfast the next Saturday.

So the key to holidays with your aging parent isn’t expense in time, money or stress.  It’s connection. And simple is often better.  The words of Henry David Thoreau ring true:  Simplify, Simplify.

Can you think of other ways to simplifiy the holidays for your aging parent?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Holidays Made Simple: For You and Your Aging Parent, Part I

I've updated the following post on Simplifying the Holidays for Your aging Parent.  The original ran in 2010. 

Simplify. Simplify. Those words of Henry David Thoreau echo in my mind during the holidays, especially when I think about our aging parents.  If I have one piece of advice I've gleaned over the years, it's this: Don't let your parents' medical conditions steal your family's holiday joy.  The little girl or boy inside your parent is still very much alive, and that inner child can appreciate the goodwill these special days offer.  The key, though, is more with less.  More joy for all of you, including your aging parent, with less work.  More wonder with less stress.  More love with less money. But how does that all happen, given your limits on time, energy and funds?

First, you may want to start a conversation with your parent.  Ask him or her, "What is MOST important to you during the holidays?" Just having the discussion honors your parent and will enlighten you.  Don’t be surprised he or she starts traveling down memory lane, sharing childhood memories of a Christmas stocking filled with an orange, a bright red ball, a candy cane, and a new pair of socks.  Oh yes, and a new pair of roller skates?  That’s half the fun of this conversation.

Together, when you’ve finished  the “What HAS to be part of the holiday season?” discussion, narrow the list of favorites to a few activities that can be done with help from you and your family.

My dad, a retired pastor, loved writing family Christmas letters. When he moved to a nursing home with my mom, he wanted to continue his favorite tradition. Parkinson's had robbed him of his ability to write. Fortunately, my younger brother Jim came to the rescue.  Together they discussed the contents.  Jim wrote and edited the letter, with Daddy’s approval.  Later Jim's wife and kids were enlisted to type, photocopy, address envelopes and take them to the post office.   For Daddy, those letters were the key to the holidays, allowing him to relax and enjoy the season.

Your parent's list of favorite things will be unique.  In the retirement community where I worked until recently, several residents of German descent make traditional filled cookies every year.  I remember well George’s painstaking efforts to measure the ingredients, bake the cookies, and fill them, standing for hours, despite back pain.   I also remember the smile on his face when others commented on his creation.  It was a community effort:  his adult children provided ingredients.  His neighbors in the community complimented him on his good work.  Others in the community had their own favorite traditions, including attending “The Nutcracker” as a group.  Still others enjoyed Christmas caroling for the nearby nursing homes, senior apartments and an architectural firm!

Even if your parent is homebound, he or she may enjoy decorations, holiday music, movies and family recipes.  Keep it simple.

The next post focuses on specific ways to simplify holiday traditions with your aging parent.

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