Friday, August 10, 2012

Mindfulness for Caregivers

Taking a brief break from my posts on Alzheimer's to discuss something that's been on my mind lately: Mindfulness.

When caregivers recognize it’s time to change their life, they can turn to an ancient practice that’s close at hand—mindfulness. This approach works because it raises our level of inner awareness. We become more conscious of our attitudes and outlooks, and how we avoid, deny or shirk looking at harsh realities and uncomfortable truths. Using the tools of consciousness and intention, it is possible to change how we think, how we respond and how we care.

Once reserved for Buddhist monks, mindfulness has entered the mainstream as a means to master and restore ourselves. In spiritual circles, mindfulness is a path to inner awakening, and facilitates a shift to a higher level of compassion and understanding. Ram Dass, a leading practitioner, points out that we can be of most service to others when we face our own doubts, needs and resistances. As these obstructions lessen a hold on us, our generosity will flow more spontaneously and effortlessly.

The seeds for the current popularity of the practice were largely planted by the book The Miracle of Mindfulness. Decades of research have shown that mindfulness decreases stress and reduces the symptoms of depression, anxiety and hostility. Mindfulness facilitates learning and developing such skills as:

  • Heightened attention and concentration
  • Emotional and cognitive awareness and understanding
  • Bodily awareness and coordination
  • Interpersonal awareness, social responsibility and empathy
  • Deep relaxation and stress reduction
  • Improved ability to regulate physical and emotional pain 
  • Greater sense of the big picture
In the medical community, mindfulness is seen as a path to good physical health, as well as a supplement to traditional medicine. The University of Massachusetts Medical School, with its Center for Mindfulness, is among the proponents. Practitioners teach one exercise, which involves taking 20 minutes to eat two raisins. Participants notice how the raisins look and smell. They feel the texture. And, finally, they taste and chew the fruit.  The Center’s director, Saki Santorelli, emphasizes: “People who come to our clinic don’t care about Buddhism or any ‘-ism.’ They’re suffering and want relief. Mindfulness helps them tap inner resources.”

At its most basic level, mindfulness involves an awareness of thoughts, bodily sensations and feelings as energy. Energy, by its nature, is in a constant state of motion, which changes from instant to instant. Thoughts are “things,” which seek to manifest in material form. When we are in a state of mindfulness, we become the witness—the compassionate, nonjudgmental observer—who lives in the moment. As a compassionate witness, there is no past and no future—in other words, no expectations. There is only now. We begin with a new slate each moment. Thus, once we are aware of our thoughts, attitudes, feelings and actions, we can change them.

For caregivers, this translates into a script free of regrets and resentments. Forget about what your loved one “used to do” or “used to be”—brilliant professor, recognized authority in medicine, beautiful or talented woman, leading-edge artist. Now, we contend with a new “character,” our care receiver, who is hardly a paragon of virtue in his or her forgetfulness. We can come to know that new person without judging or lamenting this changeling. Your loved one may be far more gentle and loving than during his or her pre-illness state. Or, if the change is for the worse—physical and mental deterioration—then, it may be a matter of adjusting our mind and spirit to absorb the reality of new needs and different modes of care. By attending to the immediate symptoms and behavior, we can make more informed decisions about what that altered care might entail.

From my book, The ABCs of Caregiving: Words to Inspire You, House of Harmony Press, 2013. Get your copy now.

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