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Trusting Your Instincts: Why It's Essential for Caregivers

Go with your gut—a common piece of advice that encourages us to tap into some of our most primitive and powerful instincts.

But being responsible for the health and well-being of an aging loved one means caregivers are constantly being forced to question their hunches. The number and sheer complexity of the decisions faced by those taking care of elderly relative can be overwhelming.

Where should my mother live? What's the best kind of treatment for my husband with Alzheimer's disease? How do I know when my parent can no longer care for themselves?

When bombarded by this onslaught, you may start second-guessing yourself and it becomes ever more challenging for you to tap into—and trust—your internal insight.

What does it mean to "trust your gut?" When taking care of a beloved senior, is it ever appropriate to rely on instinct alone? Is there value in second-guessing decisions made based on instinctual feelings?

The "6th-sense" defined

Renee Trudeau, life coach and author of, "Nurturing the Soul of Your Family," likens intuition to an internal GPS system. She says that most of us use our "internal knowingness" to make decisions every day—it just comes so naturally that we often don't recognize when we use it.

Psychologists describe intuition as a synchronized mental assessment of past experiences, learned knowledge and current situational cues that results in the commonly-cited, "gut feeling," or "sixth-sense."

"Intuition is not as magical or mysterious as it sounds. It's a mental tool that uses our perception of things that may not be otherwise obvious, such as someone's facial expressions, pheromones, past behavior and ‘vibes,' to give us an impression we could not get on a rational level," says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of, "Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage."

Intuition can come in handy if you're trying to determine whether your mother or father needs extra help taking care of themselves. Pay attention to the things they're not saying—body language, facial expressions, habits, etc. You know what's normal for your parent. If things seem out of sorts, it might be time to have a serious conversation about moving to assisted living, or getting extra care.

Caregivers must balance instinct with information

As a caregiver, should you trust your gut when making decisions that affect your loved one?

Yes and no.

Research has shown that when people base decisions on their instincts, they often come up with the correct answers to problems, and that too much rumination can lead to what is known as "analysis paralysis"—the inability for a person to make even a simple decision, because they're thinking too much about it.

However, relying solely on intuition can impair your ability to make good, unbiased choices.

Tessina warns that desire for wish fulfillment can prejudice a decision, especially when you're dealing with an important issue, such as determining what kind of living situation is best for your elderly parent. To caregivers, she says, "Honor your hunches, but check them out against medical and best practice information."

Emotionally-charged decisions, such as whether or not to place a dying loved one on hospice, present another potential pitfall. In this circumstance, you may become plagued by guilt and doubt, or feel as though you're "giving up," and just letting your family member die.

If you find yourself in a situation where it's difficult to detach from your feelings and clear your mind, Trudeau suggests talking to other people you trust, preferably those who have been in the same situation, or a professional who can help you sort out and think through the options.

Learning how to talk to your gut

Some people find it easy to access their intuition, communicating with their inner instincts like the life-long companions that they are. Others feel disconnected and incapable of engaging in an internal dialogue with their subconscious selves.

What can you do if your gut isn't very gregarious?

  1. Learn as much as you can: Particularly if you're unused to trusting your instincts, Trudeau suggests bouncing any and all ideas off of someone whose opinion you value. "Often just talking a decision through out-loud with someone we trust, helps us arrive at the answer," she says. To be able to engage in an informed discussion with a confidant, you must first fully understand the issues surrounding whatever decision you need to make. The well-worn advice of making the best decision you can with the information you have speaks to the benefit of gathering as much information about a topic as you possibly can.
  2. Listen to your body: An essential step in harnessing your inner instincts is to be able to, as Trudeau says, "Move out of your head and into your heart." Different strategies work for different people. Some people might find that going for a jog helps clear their mind and allow their intuition to surface. Others may need to sit quietly with themselves, turning their awareness inside using meditation and breathing exercises.
  3. Stop second-guessing yourself: "Second-guessing won't do anything but paralyze you," Tessina declares. If you become preoccupied by the "bad" decisions you've made in the past, it will just make it that much harder to move on and trust in your ability to know what to do.

No matter where you are in the process of learning to trust your instincts, be patient and forgiving. Teaching yourself to rely on informed intuition is tricky, but it can help you make better choices for your loved one.

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