By Sarah Jane
I’ve been writing about Mum’s journey with Alzheimer’s for almost three years now. I’m sure many family caregivers would consider writing about their experiences to be a chore, but there is something especially cathartic about putting things down on paper and punching words out on a keyboard.
Even if writing isn’t your strong point, some techniques can be directly applied to caregiving. I’ve come to a few realizations throughout this journey, and I’d like to share them with you. The following list of tips on channeling creativity in writing was stolen from author Austin Kleon and adapted to pertain to caregiving.
- Writing and Caring Are Like Collage
Once I’m in the zone—thinking about being a caregiver, what I do and how Mum responds—ideas pop up everywhere. I stick whole ideas and fragments together to make something new that works for Mum and me the same way that writers piece together sentences and paragraphs.
For example: Spending a summer weekend at the beach + noticing a complete absence of elderly people + knowing Mum misses many of the physical sensations most of us take for granted = making a plan for us to immerse ourselves in the sensory delights of the seaside.
You can read about our beachy adventure here.
- Read, Read, Read
Books are a vital source of inspiration for writers and caregivers alike. There are great books out there about caregiving, various health conditions, mindfulness, and staying organized. Seeking material and information from others provides you with a valuable springboard to help you fulfill your responsibilities. Some are about living with dementia, like “Alzheimer’s from the Inside Out,” and others are about caring for people with the condition, like “Contented Dementia.” Then there are books, like “Being Mortal,” that never mention the “D word,” as Mum calls it. They talk about stuff that’s so interesting, useful and relevant, that you'd swear they were written with caring in mind.
- Keep a Swipe File
Writing and caregiving both require a healthy dose of creativity, but they also require borrowing concepts and finding ways to make them your own. I constantly stumble upon things that spark ideas for Mum and me. Anything useful gets chucked in my swipe folder.
For instance, an ad for the local swimming pool led to a hydrotherapy session with Mum, which you can read about here. A discarded train timetable got me thinking about taking Mum on the train to retrace the trip she made to school as a young girl. There’s inspiration everywhere, but you have to keep your eyes, ears and mind open to it, and store it all for easy reference later on.
- Carry a Notebook and Pen
Journalists are known for always having a pad of paper and a pen on hand for those moments when inspiration strikes. Similarly, I’m a dedicated list maker, so I’m always writing stuff down, both when I’m with Mum and when I’m not. This includes quotes from Mum, things she suggests, reminders for myself, you name it. The more I do this, the more likely I am to come up with activities Mum likes, devise caregiving solutions, record accurate notes from the staff at the rest home, and stay organized when tackling my responsibilities.
- Step Away from the Screen (and Other Distractions)
Regardless of whether it’s writing a letter, planning a meal, or organizing a loved one’s medications, if you want to do something correctly the first time around, you must lend your full focus to the task. Caring for others is about engaging with them and giving them your full attention.
When my phone rings, of course it’s tempting to check it. People are so attached to their electronics these days that it’s easy to zone out and neglect the person you’re with. When Mum and I are together, I try to focus on her as much as I can. Just as children notice when you're multitasking and not really listening, older people feel it, too. As I explained in another blog, Mum can tell when I’m feeling spread too thin and it really affects her mood.
- Don’t Wait Until You Know What You Think to Get Started
When I started caring for Mum, I had no idea how it would go. No one takes on this responsibility with all the answers, but if you wait until you feel comfortable stepping up, you’ll probably never be ready. Writing and caregiving are similar in that priorities and methods of delivery can be altered and perfected as we gather more information and experience over time. Some things in life just require us to have faith and take the plunge.
I felt uncertain when I first started my blog, too, but putting things in writing really opened my eyes. If I hadn’t been blogging about my experiences, I doubt I would have tried nearly as many things with Mum as I have. It wasn't until I started putting things down in words and sharing my entries with others that I began to really notice patterns and think intentionally about caring for someone who is living with dementia. Even if you aren’t comfortable with making your experiences public, keeping a personal journal can help you be more self-aware and work through the challenges and feelings that come with being a caregiver.
- Keep a Routine
If you wish to stick with something, it’s important to find a way to fit it into your normal routine and make it a habit. Strategies like making a dedicated time to put pen to paper, touching base with your support group every few days, or devising a care plan to organize your tasks and responsibilities will ensure these goals do not fall by the wayside or feel forced.
Since Mum lives in a rest home, I’m considered a part-time caregiver. Our routine is weekly, hence the title of my blog, “Saturdays with Mum.” I only write about these visits when I feel like it, though. At the very least, I truly reflect on our time together once every two or three weeks.
The fact that I’m blogging about it regularly keeps the caregiving part of my brain engaged during the time between our visits. Writing notes helps many people reflect on their experiences with their loved ones. I ask myself some of the following questions to ensure I have a grasp on the big picture as well as the finer details:
• What have Mum and I been up to lately?
• What worked and what didn’t?
• What will our next adventure be?
• How has her condition changed?
- Write Something You Would Want to Read
This last piece of wisdom is primarily for those who are looking to share their experiences with others, whether through a blog of their own or on a platform like AgingCare’s online Caregiver Forum. Part of the reason I started my blog is I couldn’t find anything about other people in similar situations. However, I was pretty sure that every Saturday, Sunday, or any other day of the week, there are people like me out there—daughters and sons who visit their mothers and fathers in rest homes. I was right, and it has been great hearing from my peers and exchanging ideas.
Your reflections and musings don’t have to be spelled or punctuated perfectly to be useful to others and beneficial to you. Someone may even respond with a solution or point of view that hadn’t previously occurred to you. Just keep in mind that clarity and brevity often make it easier for people to read and relate to your experiences. Remember: we’re all in this together. When we connect and collaborate, everyone wins.