At some point during your caregiving journey, you may find yourself in a rut. The awareness may come with a birthday, a change in season, an event or the beginning of a new year. Whatever the reason, the sameness of each day can, at times, seem overwhelming and permanent.
Yes, you experience adrenaline rushes when your loved one has an emergency. Yes, you have frequent medical updates and handle other changes in their care. But what about you? What about your need as a person to look forward to something fresh and exciting in your own life every once in a while?
Sadly, new beginnings for caregivers are far easier to suggest than to accomplish, especially since they tend to come after significant endings. Yet, with some effort, you can still find small ways to refresh your life if you are willing to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.
One route of exploring new possibilities and rediscovering yourself is journaling. Writing in a journal can be a useful exercise for examining where you were before you took on the caregiving role, where you are now and how you envision your life in the future.
Benefits of Keeping a Caregiver Diary
For many, feelings of loneliness and isolation are an inescapable part of caregiving. One of the key benefits of journaling is that it can give a family caregiver someone (or something) to talk to. While it is important to continue nurturing social relationships, sometimes your best buddy may be a non-judgmental piece of paper.
Lynn Goodwin, former dementia caregiver and author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers, found the blank pages of her notebook to be an invaluable resource during the six years she cared for her mother.
Goodwin says that keeping a journal was “like having a best friend that didn’t talk back—I didn’t get interrupted mid-sentence.”
A caregiver’s journey is littered with conflicting emotions, and psychologist Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., 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 clients was dealing with intense feelings of anger while caring for her husband with cancer. Journaling helped the woman discover that she was actually angry at her husband’s cancer, not at him.
According to Goodwin, journaling provides caregivers with the opportunity to “reach beyond themselves.”
What to Do if You Hate to Write
Many readers are probably thinking about how they either hate to write or have very little time on their hands to add another task to their list of responsibilities. To address the first thought, remember that it’s likely you are already writing each day, but you simply haven’t thought about it as such. Anyone who makes a to-do list, sends emails or contributes to online forums is writing.
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. 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, beginning 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.”
As for how much work is involved, that will depend on how you approach journaling. There’s something therapeutic about writing out how you feel and then reading the words that have come from your own heart and head. That’s one reason that online forums flourish. Writing for your own self-enlightenment isn’t all that different. Yes, it requires time and effort, but aren’t you worthy of such an investment?
Try it and see if the idea grows on you. If you don’t feel it’s time well spent, then call it quits and give yourself credit for trying something new to better yourself.
How to Journal for Self-Improvement
To begin, you’ll need to buy three notebooks in different colors. Label each one, and then divide them into sections. If you’re more comfortable writing on the computer, then create three separate folders with subdivisions where you can sort your journal files.
Book One: Venting and Reinventing
Section one of book one is for venting. Write about your life as it is now and explore your feelings about this situation and your day-to-day experiences. Acknowledge any resentment you may have. Wallow in what you and your loved one have lost. Let it flow freely. No thoughts or emotions are off limits.
Section two of this notebook is a place where you can make notes about your caregiving routines and what you’d do differently if you could. Even if these ideas are not feasible right now, putting them on paper can help you think through ways to see them to fruition. Does your loved one think that only you can provide every bit of care for them? Is bathing or managing medications a task that you struggle with? Contemplate what you’d do if you could just change one or two things about your care plan and caregiving methods.
Section three is for digging into your past. What activities and pastimes did you enjoy before every minute was claimed by someone (or something) else? Did you swim or go to a gym? Did you volunteer your time? Did you walk or play cards with friends? Rediscovering things that once brought you joy can help you get back in touch with the “old” you, even if you can’t participate in them right now.
Section four is about the future. As you’ve spent your time caregiving, it’s likely that you’ve seen new trends or considered a new hobby that interests you, but you’re short on the time and/or money it requires. What have you noticed on social media or seen on TV? Did you read about an exciting travel destination recently? If something even vaguely interests you, write it down.
Section five is for dreaming. Let your mind roam freely. Think about what you’d do if you had no responsibilities. It’s healthy to embrace dreams and goals, even if they are a little farfetched. It helps us exercise our imaginations and gives us things to hope for and work towards.
Book Two: Brainstorm How to Take Back Your Life
Now, it’s time for some order. Book Two is where you’ll reconcile some of your wishful thinking with reality.
In the first section of this book, record all your options for respite care. Begin to research resources such as social services, in-home care companies and adult day care to help you reach some of the goals and fix some of the issues you identified in Book One. This notebook will be your go-to when you’re feeling overwhelmed or need some backup, enabling you to act on your ideas for self-improvement.
Each resource doesn’t have to have a clear use yet, but making a master list will help you keep track of everything that is at your disposal. From there, you can see how these respite sources might fit with your care plan, your budget and your goals from Book One.
Start small. See if there is some way that you can find a few hours for yourself, even if your current objective is merely to sleep without interruption one night. Waking up refreshed could be the only new beginning you can imagine right now, and that is a reasonable starting point.
Create a second section of book two to brainstorm ideas for reintroducing old hobbies into your life and bringing some of your loftier aspirations closer within reach. For example, you used to love going to the gym and getting a good workout. Now, both time and money are scarce. One option could be purchasing a couple of fitness tapes to do at home while your loved one naps or watches you work out. It may not be the same as using the fancy gym equipment and getting out of the house, but this middle ground is cheap and convenient and will greatly benefit your physical and mental health.
Think of any tweaks or shortcuts you can use to meet your goals and make a list. Again, you don’t have to act on them immediately. Having most of the logistics taken care of will allow you to open your notebook on a difficult day and find a fully developed plan of action that only needs to be put in motion.
Book Three: Embrace Gratitude and Forgiveness
This final notebook is meant to lift your spirits and help you heal. Using the first section of Book Three, sit down each day and write about something you are grateful for in your life. It may seem difficult for some caregivers to find things to write about, since many have fallen into a mundane routine, but there are always little things worthy of recognition.
If this way of thinking is new to you, start slow. Gratitude and positivity often take time to develop and become a consistent part of your personality rather than an “exercise.” Begin with the fact that you are alive. Go on to acknowledge that you have a roof over your head, running water and food on the table. If your loved one had a reasonably good day, write it down. If you had a decent night’s sleep, then write it down.
With practice, your attitude will shift and you’ll hopefully gain a better understanding of what is important in your life. You may end up writing that you’re grateful for having grown as a person and learned to better understand the needs and feelings of others, even if you drag your feet and feel a lot of resentment.
The second section of this book focuses on self-forgiveness for being imperfect. Like the rest of us, you probably would like to do some things over or take back some words you’ve said. That’s okay, but we can’t undo what’s done.
Instead of dwelling on these shortcomings and wallowing in guilt, write down what you feel calls for forgiveness and follow it up with an acknowledgement that you are human and you forgive yourself. Even if you don’t believe it, write down, “I forgive myself for being imperfect.” This process can be very cathartic and will help you escape some of the caregiver guilt that you may be carrying around. If you write it often enough, you may eventually find that you really have forgiven yourself for being human. Then, you can be grateful for that.
Self-Awareness Is a Springboard for Change
Keep working through these notebooks and recording your thoughts, feelings, goals and mistakes. Most importantly, remember to be honest with yourself. Insincere and incomplete entries won’t amount to much, and you’ll end up squandering valuable time and effort. Some days you may forget to journal or feel like you don’t have anything to write about, and that’s okay. If you truly commit to this endeavor, these journals will give you insight into what makes you who you are and help you examine your life through a wider lens that doesn’t focus solely on caregiving.
Dramatic new beginnings are uncommon while family members are still caring for their loved ones, but self-examination and self-forgiveness can lead us toward a renewed outlook. This, in turn, may lead us to explore ways that we can lead richer, more rewarding lives within the boundaries of our caregiving obligations. And yes, that does count as a new beginning.