Tuesday, November 11

"Today mom threw her bowl of oatmeal at me.

I ducked under the spinning projectile. But, despite my maneuvering, I still came up covered with stray grey flecks.

For a second I just stood there, watching the gloppy remnants ooze down the wall and plop onto the floor among still-teetering pieces of smashed ceramic.

When did she get so strong? How can she hurl a full bowl of oatmeal like she's channeling Walter Johnson, but, she can't open her pill bottle or get out of a chair on her own!?"

A caregiver's journey is full of "dear diary" moments—those times when you just wish you had some way to discharge the knotted mass of emotions swirling around in your head.

The concept of keeping a diary may conjure up images of teenage girls confessing crushes. But, even adult caregivers can benefit from this practice.

Sometimes I just feel so alone.

"I used to be able to talk to mom about anything. I never would have been able to survive the crazy rollercoaster of my marriage to Henry if it wasn't for her support. She was the first person I told about his proposal, the first person I told about his infidelity. She held my hand as I signed the final divorce papers, and was there for me as I faced a new life without him and our friends he got in the divorce.

Now mom's gone. My friends don't understand why I can't come to visit, and my sister is too busy with her family and her job to care…"

For many, feelings of loneliness and isolation are part of the caregiving package. One of the key benefits of journaling is that it can give a caregiver someone (or something) to talk to.

B. Lynn Goodwin, former caregiver and author of the book, "You Want Me to Do What?—Journaling for Caregivers," (www.writeradvice.com) found the blank pages of her notebook to be an invaluable resource during the six years she acted as her mother's "personal assistant."

For her, having a journal was "like having a best friend that didn't talk back. I didn't get interrupted mid-sentence."

While it is important for a caregiver to cultivate social relationships with flesh and blood people, sometimes your best buddy may be non-judgmental piece of paper.

Why do I feel this way?

"One minute I'm angry with mom, the next I'm sad—I want the "real" her back. I can't handle this anymore!!"

A caregiver's journey is littered with conflicting emotions. Brief moments of happiness and gratitude are sparsely sprinkled over prolonged periods of anger and sadness.

Psychologist Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., (www.melanieagreenbergphd.com) feels that getting these feelings down on paper can help caregivers in a variety of ways. She says that a journal can provide a caregiver with a safe place to feel their feelings, helping them avoid the negative consequences of burying their emotions.

Putting pen to paper may also help you make better sense of your emotional reactions. One of Greenberg's female clients was dealing with intense feelings of anger while caring for her husband with cancer. Journaling helped the woman discover that she was really angry at her husband's cancer, not at him

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I wonder what my mother would write about me.

"Would she say that I was a good daughter, or would it be a rant? Is she even capable of writing in her current state?

I'm not sure I would have the courage to read what she wrote, but it might help her to get some of her thoughts and feelings on paper?"

Depending on their level of cognitive impairment, a care recipient may also benefit from journaling.

Journaling shouldn't be strictly defined as putting pen to paper. Goodwin says that there are a number of different ways to journal, and the process can be adapted to accommodate an elderly loved one's physical abilities.

For example, a person who cannot type because they are battling with Parkinson's disease may find that recording their thoughts on a tape recorder or video camera is easiest. For people who have difficulty speaking due to a stroke can use a computer or even a type writer to document their feelings. For those who wish to keep their thoughts private, but still want to get them out, a neutral third-party transcriber could be hired.

And, it doesn't really matter if the recordings are legible or not.

Your elderly loved one has complicated thoughts and feelings that they want to communicate, just as you do. According to Goodwin, journaling provides both the caregiver and care recipient the opportunity to "reach beyond themselves."

I don't want to relive the bad times—just the good.

"Some things my mom says and does are just too hard to think about. I am embarrassed by how I react to her sometimes. I'm afraid that writing all of this down will make me feel worse."

Talking about difficult interactions with an elderly loved one and honestly confronting emotions can be a frightening prospect for a stressed-out caregiver, but Greenberg likens the process to talking with a therapist. In both instances, the person is forced to acknowledge and grapple with difficult feelings and situations.

Greenberg says that discomfort is an important step in the emotional healing process, and that consulting with a mental health professional can help caregivers deal with difficult realities they may encounter while journaling.

I don't even know where to begin.

"I'm no writer and my mind is such a jumbled mess, I don't know how to start to untangle it. And, I don't have the time to figure it all out because caring for my mother is a full-time job!"

Being faced with a blank page can be a scary prospect for anyone, including caregivers with no writing background. But, as Goodwin points out, everyone is a writer and everyone has a story to tell (even if the only things you regularly write are grocery lists).

Writing prompts can help you get your creative juices flowing. Goodwin's book has hundreds of prompts to assist stuck caregivers, but she says that you can start with any source of inspiration.

Her suggestions include, starting with a sensory image, a list, or the phrase, "I remember…"

For the caregiver who doesn't feel like they have the time to journal consistently, setting aside time each day to write can help you remain consistent. Sometimes the unpredictability of caregiving may disrupt this schedule. But, as Goodwin, who is partial to writing in the morning points out, "It's always morning somewhere."

And, her final piece of advice for the caregiver embarking on their first journaling journey?

Start today.