Many people who give care do so for a relative, often a parent. Writing for Morningstar, Christine Benz notes that 78% of American seniors are receiving voluntary long-term care from loved ones, mostly family members.
The value of volunteer caregivers cannot be accurately measured, although it may be estimated. Researchers Cahill, O'Shea, and Pierce estimate that non-paid caregivers save developed countries roughly one billion dollars per year in care for dementia patients alone.
It is well-known, though, that these valuable services can take a personal toll. Caregiving can be physically as well as mentally and emotionally taxing. A loved elder may need help with financial planning, keeping up with bills and mail, and dealing with business-related tasks. Keeping an ailing and aging person's medications straight can be like navigating a maze. There is also the labyrinth of Medicare issues, paperwork, remembering doctor's appointments, and keeping a calendar of visiting nurses and therapists, all of which can be overwhelming. As the elder loses the ability to do dishes, cook, launder clothes, drive, and even walk, the caregiver's burden increases.
Deeper than the difficulties of keeping up with all this externally, there are deep psychological issues going on. It is in this area, most importantly, that the caregiver must find peace and rest. Taking an internal approach to caregiver burn-out may be more effective than making sure one gets enough rest, eats well, arranges for respite care, et cetera. Important as all those things may be, refreshment of the mind and heart may be the most central aspect of being able to continue to give good care, as researchers Berdes and Eckert note in a report in The Gerontologist. Good caregiving starts with caring.
...we do not expect that person to gratify our emotional needs...
Irene Petryszak, writing for Yoga International, suggests that some of the precepts of yoga can help caregivers build empathy and avoid compassion burnout. She mentions the "non-attachment" concept of Buddhism. Non-attachment does not mean we do not care about the person we are serving. It means we do not expect that person to gratify our emotional needs. If the person does not seem to appreciate our efforts, we realize that our own understanding of our worth and goodness is what ultimately counts, not others' opinions of us. We detach from our need for our elderly loved one to reinforce our self-concept, even if that elderly loved one is a parent from whom we gained much of our self-concept.
Adulthood means establishing our own identity so that while we would like the good opinion of others, we don't need to have it for our well-being. In relation to parents, the switch-over from being the child to being the adult in the room--the one who is most responsible, the one whose needs are sacrificed for the sake of the other, the one who carries the heavier burden on their shoulders--may be quite challenging. It may be difficult for the parent to surrender "control" and to let his or her adult child do things the elder has always done independently, but it may be even harder for the adult child to assume the mature role of being emotionally self-sufficient.
This kind of mature non-attachment is not easy to attain. Petryszak humorously quotes Ram Dass, the spiritual leader and author of Be Here Now, saying, "If you think you're enlightened, go spend a weekend with your parents."
Being a caregiver for a parent or other elderly loved one can certainly try one's soul, yet may be seen as an opportunity to attain real maturity. Giving their mature child the opportunity to be the adult in the room may be an elderly parent's last and greatest gift to their child.
Benz, Christine. (August 9, 2012). Must-Know Statistics about Long Term Care. Available online at http://news.morningstar.com/articlenet/article.aspx?id=56413940. Retrieved 11/19/2105.
Berdes, C., and Eckert, J. M. (2007). The language of caring. Nurses' aides use of family metaphors conveys affective care. The Gerontologist, 47(3):340-349. Available online at http://gerontologist.oxfordjournals.org/content/47/3/340.long. Retrieved 11/19/2105.
Cahill, S., O'Shea, E. and Pierce, M. (2012). Creating Excellence in Dementia Care; A Research Review for Ireland's National Dementia Strategy, TCD/NUIG. Available online at http://www.lenus.ie/hse/bitstream/10147/306721/1/CreatingExcellenceinDementiaCare2012.pdf. Retrieved 11/19/2105.
Petryszak, Irene. (May 27, 2013). A Caregiver's Guide to Compassion. Yoga International. Available online at https://yogainternational.com/article/view/a-caregivers-guide-to-compassion. Retrieved 11/19/2105.