Close your eyes.
Root yourself into the ground. Feel strong and firm as you stand with your head up, shoulders back, and feet hip-width apart.
Repeat after me: "I matter. My life matters. My feelings matter. I am doing powerful, important work for my loved one—but I still matter."
Cindy Laverty, caregiver coach, radio talk show host, and author of "Caregiving: Eldercare Made Clear and Simple," says that the above exercise is the first step a caregiver should take if they want to re-infuse their lives with purpose and meaning.
"The very essence of being a human being is feeling like we have a purpose. We were put here to live our lives in abundance. When you get into caregiving you tend to live in lack." She says
Laverty likens caregiving to a four-legged stool comprised of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual elements. To feel that their lives have meaning and purpose, a caregiver needs to have all four legs in balance.
The problem, according to Laverty, is that most caregivers spend their time teetering on only two: the physical and the intellectual. Another way to look at it is that most caregivers concern themselves with two main questions: ‘What do I need to do to care for my loved one?' and ‘How do I do it?'
The caregiver's emotional and the spiritual stool legs generally fall into disrepair right after they get that first phone call saying that their loved one has a serious diagnosis, or is in the hospital.
Repairing these broken legs is likely to take some significant effort but, as Laverty says, "When your needs become your musts—that's when you make a change."
Re-balance and re-purpose your life
Having a purpose in life doesn't mean you have to aspire to become the next Gandhi, or Mother Teresa.
It simply means making the time to do what you love to do—what makes you feel powerful and connected with the rest of the world. "If you create a vegetable garden that allows you to feed your family with love, then what greater purpose is there than that," Laverty asks.
Here are some steps you can take to find purpose and meaning in your life:
- Acknowledge and separate your purposes: Whether or not you are a so-called ‘accidental caregiver,' Laverty says it's vital to admit that you have made a choice to care for your loved one. "There's no law that says you have to be a caregiver, to give up your life. When you know that you have a choice, then your attitude changes. You get to say no, to make decisions." One of these decisions needs to be to separate your purpose as a caregiver and your purpose as a human being. You may not yet know what your purpose in life is—and, as Laverty points out, it will probably always be in a state of change—but it is separate from your purpose as a caregiver. When it comes to caregiving, you role is not to give up your life to fix everything that is wrong in your loved one's life: it's to help them live in as much dignity and grace as possible, given the situation.
- Make a plan: Being the man (or woman) with a plan means asking some difficult questions about you and your loved one's future and making some tough choices regarding finances and advanced directives. This also means knowing when you need to take a break from caregiving, and learning how and when to ask for help. Try to make sure you have access to a personal support system of doctors, family members, friends, counselors, support groups, etc.
- Set some boundaries: "Most of us were never taught how to set boundaries," Laverty says. She suggests taking a sheet of paper and writing down all of your pet peeves. Then, go back and check off the things that would have been different if you had taken the time to set a boundary on that particular behavior. Take the time to erect those boundaries now. According to Laverty, the limits we set with the other people in our lives play a huge role in determining how those people treat us. It might also help to compile a list of things that you can do, can't do, will do, and won't do when it comes to taking care of your loved one.
- Set some goals: As with boundaries, Laverty says that most caregivers don't really know how to properly set goals. "They don't talk about it in caregiving books," she quips. The important thing to remember with goal-setting is to take it in steps. Laverty suggests setting small, medium, and life goals, and working towards them in an incremental manner. For example, you may say that for the entire month of July, you will take 30 minutes a day to work on the (soon-to-be-bestselling) novel about crime-solving caregivers that you're writing. Remember to reward yourself along the way when you achieve one of your targets.
- Scare yourself: There are a whole host of reasons that a caregiver can throw out as to why they don't have the luxury of living a life with purpose. But, according to Laverty, these excuses are just the mind's way of remaining in its comfort zone. "We are conditioned to stay stuck in our spot," she says, "because going out of it is just too scary." If you feel like your life is being consumed by caring for your loved one, it might be scary to admit that you matter too. Go ahead—scare yourself.
- Discover your higher endeavor: Laverty says caregivers can begin to re-ignite their personal passions by asking the questions: "How do I find adventure in the day-to-day drudgery? How can I go to a place of higher endeavor?" It's easy for a caregiver to get caught up in the minutia of caring for their loved one that they forget how to answer what their higher calling is.
Laverty acknowledges that caregivers may have trouble finding meaning in their lives, admitting that, for a long time, she felt she had to give up everything to try and "fix" her elderly in-laws. "I had to crash before I could rise up," she discloses.
The key is learning to give yourself permission to live your own life—no excuses. Laverty says, "If you had the opportunity to go back, and sit with the person you're caring for and ask, ‘Would you want your child to lose their life to care for you,' the answer will almost always be, ‘NO.'"