How Communication Can Influence Your Caregiving Experience


When I was a kid, one of my role models was Horton the elephant, from Dr. Seuss. His phrase, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant—an elephant’s faithful 100 percent!” became my childhood mantra. Only later in life did I fully grasp the more subtle message, that I need to choose my meanings carefully.

When we communicate, both in speaking and listening, we share meaning. In fact, in caregiving I came to realize that the words I spoke to myself and others and the meanings I was listening for influenced my daily experience. Let’s take a minute to look at the relationship between communication and well-being in caregiving.

Communication and Well-Being

“Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.”
—Charles Swindoll

Imagine visiting your loved one in the hospital. You are walking down the hallway when you overhear two people talking. One of them points to a nurse at the other end of the hall and whispers to her friend, “That one has a lousy attitude.”

Later, you meet that same nurse in your loved one’s room. Do you feel good about this person caring for your loved one? When we speak, we create realities for ourselves and for those around us. Like fish swimming in a communal fish bowl, we each create our own experiences while also having the ability to influence the experiences of others.

We are constantly being affected by others’ opinions and points of view. Does someone you know speak in a way that deflates you or drains your energy? How do you feel after watching the news? Or perhaps you have a friend who is prone to saying things like, “I’m having the most horrible day!” or “You won’t believe what she said to me!” You are being invited to join in “awfulizing,” which is counterproductive for everyone involved.

When someone is being negative or hyper-critical, I’ve been known to say, “Hey! Stop pooping in the fish bowl.” Instead of feeding into their negativity and letting it affect your day, allow them to vent and then offer to help brainstorm solutions. Work together to find a way to turn their day around or prevent an irritating situation from happening again. Sometimes there isn’t a clear solution, and “venting” is the sole purpose of the conversation. Make it known that you hear their frustration and encourage them to focus on the support found in communicating.

The reality is that negative things do happen—especially in caregiving. For the most part, we cannot change this fact. What we can do is take the challenges in our life and approach them constructively, head-on.

Your Own Words Carry the Most Weight

It is easy to think of ways in which the words of others affect us, but what about the way our own thoughts and words influence how we feel? Often we are our own worst critics when we should be our biggest cheerleaders. How you view yourself, your performance or a specific situation is evident in the things you say and they way you say them.

For example, if you say, “caregiving is hard,” do you mean you are committed to it being hard? Are you expressing doubts regarding your ability to perform this task? How does your feeling about it shift when you say, “caregiving is a challenge”? Does it make the task seem like a trial that can be overcome with extra effort? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment because you rose to the occasion and continue to power through? You should.

We use words to describe feelings, but words also generate feelings, so choose them carefully. It can take some extra effort, but those words that you speak, hear and think combine to define your caregiving experience.

While many forms of communication in ordinary life can seem recreational, (commonly called “sharing”) caregiving is not ordinary life. Your energy and attitude are to be safeguarded at all costs, and sometimes that calls for venting.

Use your vent sessions carefully, though, to avoid negatively impacting yourself and others. Set yourself a time limit, recognize the value in the emotional release of venting, then move on to more constructive forms of communication that are inspired by your commitment to providing care for someone you love.

Holly Whiteside, caregiver coach and advocate, is author of “The Caregiver’s Compass: How to Navigate with Balance and Effectiveness Using Mindful Caregiving.”

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What causes caregivers to break down is usually not the attitude per se but the experience - the hard work, the sacrifice of so many other important things and people in your life, the lack of sleep, etc.,etc. which is often rewarded by getting figuratively kicked in the teeth by the person you are doing it for and constantly criticized by the others who could be helping. Sometimes the kick in the teeth becomes more literal and then it really may be time to call it quits. I can then turn around and tell myself a thousand times that I am not doing this for the rewards to me personally but for the love of the person I am caring for, and it may help a little; but attitude may not be enough to make a genuinely unbearable experience into a positive one. (On the other hand, some people's caregiving experiences are a lot more positive than all that, and a lot of those folks don't need to post on here as much.) I'll give you the nice version of a not-too-old saying: You can't make chicken salad out of chicken poop no matter how much mayo you add.
Where else can goldfish poop other than a fish bowl? Somehow that analogy doesn't work for me. :) (I'm imagining fish litter boxes suspended just outside the bowl, with fish jumping in and out to use them.)

When I say caregiving is hard, I mean that it is difficult, also known as not easy.

When I say caregiving is a challenge, I mean that there are problems I have not resolved yet, that the tasks are pushing the limits of my resources.

Some things are hard (cleaning up after a flushed Depends) but not particularly challenging -- I know how to do that. Sometimes they are challenging (figuring out how to keep him from losing weight) but the answer might not be hard, when discovered.

I've said them both. I've meant them both. And neither statement detracts at all from my committment to give my husband the best possible care I can provide. Somehow it is difficult to believe that changing one word for the other is going to cause or prevent a breakdown.
I have learned that you must vent to someone safe and safe means someone that has been there. Some days I don't need to vent at all. Some days I need to vent a lot. And usually a venting day is one of those days where I might also comment, "This really happened - you can't make this stuff up".