The Right Relationships Can Help You Thrive

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Caregiving for an aging loved one is often couched in unhappy terms like "burden" and "challenge." Survival seems to be the highest goal to shoot for—just get through those days, months, years with your sanity and finances intact, and you'll be ahead of the game.

But is it possible to go beyond this uninspiring aim? Can you "thrive" while caregiving?

Those who either have or currently are looking after an aging loved one are sure to differ in how they answer this question, but two leading psychology experts say the key to thriving, especially for those who are middle aged and older, lies in the strength of one's relationships.

"Relationships enable us to not only cope with stress or adversity, but also to learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents and find purpose and meaning in life," says Brooke Feeney, associate professor and director of the Relationships Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, in a press release.

Feeney, along with University of California, Santa Barbara professor Nancy Collins, outlined how relationships help people thrive in a recent paper in the journal "Personality and Social Psychology Review."

Close friends and family offer invaluable support that enables us navigate the voyage of life—helping us to weather the raging storms and encouraging us to catch the wind when the sun comes out. Understanding how our interactions with others have the power to enhance our lives can help us make the most these all-important connections.

Thriving: 5 key factors

When psychologists speak about "thriving," they're really talking about five distinct factors: physical health, happiness and life satisfaction, leading a purposeful life, believing in order and humanity, and social wellbeing.

Cultivating the right relationships will create the support structure that enables you to actualize each of these elements in you own life.

How close supporters help us grow

Collins and Feeney identify two main types of aid that can be found in close connections with loved ones: source of strength support (SOS) and relational catalyst support (RC).

When your longtime friend hears that your dad's been diagnosed with cancer, she immediately offers to help. Over the next few months, her ongoing aid is one of the few things that keeps you going. She bought "Betty Crocker's Living With Cancer Cookbook" and brings a new dish over for you and your dad at least once a week. She held your hand in the doctor's office while you were waiting for dad's latest test results, and offered an understanding ear when you needed to get something off your chest. In essence, she is an ideal example of an SOS supporter—someone who helps you not only cope with, but flourish in spite of, the challenges you face.

SOS support can be especially helpful for family caregivers. On the other hand, RC supporters come to the rescue during life's less tumultuous periods; encouraging you not to get too complacent and challenging you to pursue new opportunities.

Giving and receiving

One essential (yet often overlooked) element of support is the manner in which it is given and received.

For givers of support, making a loved one feel dependent or ineffective—even if you don't intend to—is a surefire way to transform help into harm.

"It's not just whether someone provides support, but it is how he or she does it," says Feeney. Supporters need to be both responsive (providing the right amount of aid, given the needs of their partner and the circumstances) and sensitive (making their partner feel cared for, understood and validated). This can be a tricky balance to strike, especially if you're looking after a parent who's in denial or a strong-willed spouse.

Receivers of support have an important role to play, too.

Graciously acknowledging and accepting help—in whatever form it's given—is crucial. Even though you may want your sister to help shoulder more of the day-to-day responsibilities for mom's care, if she lives so far away that her main contribution must be financial, then appreciating the assistance she can give is the best way to avoid conflict and ensure her ongoing aid.

Ask for help when you need it, just be sure to make your requests clear and specific, and try not to put everything on one person.

To be sure, these guidelines are much easier to dispense than they are to follow, especially when the health of aging loved ones is involved. Relationships, particularly our closest ones, will always involve work and must be seen as a constant process of learning and growth. But the vital importance of these connections cannot be overstated; as Feeney and Collins note, "Close and caring relationships are undeniably liked to health and wellbeing at all stages in the life span."

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3 Comments

It seems he needs to be evaluated for all the meds he is on. A psychiatrist (geriatric) or internist might suggest his meds be changed. Perhaps u can get him back somewhat, or a lot. Don't give up without sesrching for the right doctor. Remember, psychologists don't have the medical expertise as psychiatrists and internists. U need to get the proper care for him if u want a chance of getting him back. Good luck !
I have always considered myself as a loving and caring helpmate to my husband of 34 years. His health begin failing in 2000 when the was injured on the job (he was a fire rescue captain for 27 years) and had to retire because of job injuries ( dropped from a flight of stairs during a training session, causing shoulder, back injuries) and as time went on he begin having trouble breathing and tests revealed that he had pulmonary fibrosis (he was on the (HIT) Hazardus Incidence Team at the beginning of his career which required that he go into areas which contained burning chemicals. His condition has progressively gotten worse over the past five years, diabetes, vascular disease (3 heart attacks, 3 vascular leg bypass surgeries, several artery stints in legs).
For many years he was on pain meds that made him like a zombie but got off them for many years. Since this last vascular bypass surgery he started pain meds, muscle relaxants, Xanax, and other mood stabilizers his psychiatrist subscribes and I feel like I have lost my husband. I don't want him too hurt, but I feel like I have lost my husband and I live in fear that he is going to fall and harm himself because he falls asleep at a blink of an eye, loses his balance, talks out of his head,etc. When I try to discuss my concerns with him, he accuses me of treating him like a baby, taking drugs out of his medicine box and wanting him to be in pain.
Sometimes I feel like giving up and letting him do things the way he wants and just pray to God that He look over him.
I have talked with his psychologist about possible bio-feedback to help with his pain and he said he will begin sessions his next appointment. I have dealt with depression just about all my life as well, but have been able to deal with his issues for all these years, however, i am so scared that I am heading for a break down (I have been talking with my Phychiatrist and Pschologist) and it helps a bit for a few days, but then I am faced with my husbands issues 24-7 during the interim. I try so hard to Let Go and Let God.
Bobby, so sorry you are losing your husband! It sounds like between his bad general medical condition and bad medication management, he has no chance at all of regaining his former health or well being. If there is anything you can do to be with him and be heard at a psychiatrist visit, maybe even with videos of him talking out of his head or nodding off when it could be hazardous, go for it, but otherwise, yes, go the Al-anon/Narc-anon route. The psychiatrist should not want him to be totally dysfunctional OR in pain, but may be getting a history from him that he is functional and not having side effects at all. Bless your heart, and give it your best, even sneakiest, effort to improve what is going on, but if when all is said and done you can only save yourself, don't feel guilty. Above all else, rather than worry or stress about it, prepare for the sad but realistic possibility that you really may lose him.

You can absolutely be the most loving, caring helpmate in the world, and be with him in every way possible til the end, but it may not be enough to win this battle against this small herd of bad diseases - diabetes, heart disease, PAD, pulmonary fibrosis, chronic pain and drug misuse - from taking their toll.