When was the last time you felt truly strong—powerful even?
If you're taking care of an elderly family member, chances are that your answer to this question would go something like; "Strong? Never heard of it. Could you use it in a sentence?"
This is a completely understandable reaction. Caregiving has a particularly nasty habit of plucking a person out of their normal life, and tossing them into a realm of unfamiliar, frenzied chaos.
In this situation, it can be pretty impossible for a caregiver to remember what—if anything—used to make them feel empowered and in control.
But, according to Paul Scheele, human performance expert, and co-founder of Learning Strategies, a self-improvement consulting and training company, this is also the time when it's most important for caregivers to be able to identify and take advantage of their individual talents and strengths.
"So many caregivers live lives of ‘quiet desperation.' Being aware of our strengths enables us to play to them and live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. Anyone who knows their strengths and lives from and through them will be a happier person," Scheele says.
But, how do you even know where to start identifying your strengths, when—as Scheele puts it—you're, "drawn into a seemingly never ending vortex of need, pain disease," a place where your own needs are always subordinate to you loved one's?
The proper application of caregiver strength
A strength can be practically anything you excel in—the activities and situations that make you feel competent and in control.
You might be a great conversationalist—someone who feels comfortable navigating the ins and outs of interpersonal communication. You might be able to make a mean risotto—worthy of a five-star restaurant—without a recipe. You might find that, as long as you're singing, you feel that everything is right in the world.
It might take a little creativity, but pretty much any talent you can think of can be applied to life as a caregiver.
The good communicator can use their talents to diffuse an argument between your two siblings who are arguing over where your ailing mother should live. The skillful foodie can come up with unique ways to please their loved one's picky palate at mealtimes. And the soulful singer can belt out a few verses to help calm a loved one with dementia.
Pinpointing your gifts
There are a variety of techniques a caregiver can use to pinpoint your unique personal gifts, but one of the most productive, albeit difficult, ways to do so is through personal reflection.
Thinking about where you think your talents lie can be a very useful exercise, and it doesn't require you to have a large chunk of time to devote to sitting down and delving into your inner self.
The most important step, according to Scheele, is to set an internal intention to seek clarity about your personal strengths.
As a caregiver, it's all too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind and forget yourself. When this happens, it can become difficult to remember who you are, and what makes you happy.
Making the conscious decision to identify and utilize your personal fortes will help you break out of this pattern of thinking.
Scheele says that giving yourself permission to think about what motivates and excites you can free up your subconscious, and allow it to do some of the mental legwork of figuring out where your talents can best be used.
On its own, the simple intention to discover your personal power sources may not be enough.
You might find it helpful to guide your thoughts by asking yourself some of the following questions:
- What is it that I feel I was born to do? This one may seem a bit ambiguous, so try coming up with situations where what you were doing made you feel joyful and passionate, without feeling frenzied or stressed.
- What gives me energy? Activities that allow you to utilize your strengths will likely give you more energy, while activities that force you to go way outside of your comfort zone will likely seem draining.
- How would I handle situation X? Think about situations that seem to provoke a consistent, automatic response from you. For example, if you're more likely to enter a party and immediately make conversation with the people around you, your talents may lie in the area of interpersonal communication.
- What am I good at? This is a simple, but effective, way to get yourself thinking about what you do best.
Keep a piece of paper handy to write down your revelations. Try and come up with multiple answers to each of these questions as you go about your daily life. Don't judge, or try to filter out any responses—just record them as they come to you.
Remember, strengths come in all shapes and sizes, and the only unacceptable answer to any of the above questions is "Nothing."
When you get a quiet moment at the end of the day, go back through your list and take a look at what you've written. Do you see any patterns? Are there ways that you might be able to apply the strengths you've identified to your life as a caregiver?
You may also find that the challenges of caregiving have equipped you with new talents that you hadn't even realized you'd developed.
Recognizing and applying your individual strengths to your caregiving responsibilities can re-inject your life with the sense of power and control that the stress of taking care of your loved one has taken away.
Not every strength will be useful to your life as a caregiver, and the technique of recognizing and applying your talents won't magically make your anxiety and pain vanish. But, employing your unique skills in useful ways may help you feel a little bit more fulfilled after a day of bathing, dressing, and listening to your loved one repeat themselves over and over again.
And it will help them too. When you feel stronger and more in control, you'll be happier, and better able to take care of your elderly loved one.