emotional support for caregivers

Emotional Support For Caregivers is Vital, So Why Aren’t We Talking About It?

Caregiving has got a bad rap

A lot of what we read about caregiving paints a very negative picture. Caregivers stressed by their caregiving responsibilities are at higher risk of experiencing fatigue, depression, and social isolation than non-caregivers, and some studies found that caregivers had decreased life expectancy compared to their non-caregiving equivalents.[1]

An interesting review of the research in the field from a professor at John Hopkins University points out that it isn’t caregiving per se that leads to these negative impacts, it is the stress response that caregiving can produce. In the case of research into life expectancy, those caregivers who were not over-strained had the same life expectancy as non-caregivers and, what’s more, in a few studies, caregivers had a longer life expectancy.[2] This leads to the conclusion that if we can find ways of helping caregivers reduce the stress they experience, we can protect them from the negative impacts of caregiving. Maybe we can even help them benefit from the positive effects of caregiving, such as a sense of purpose, increased confidence, and a deep connection.[3]

How can we reduce the stress of caregiving?

Stress occurs when a situation exceeds the resources that the caregiver feels they have to deal with it – we can all relate to that feeling of overwhelm and anxiety when we feel we are not able to manage the situation in front of us. 

We can, therefore, reduce stress in two ways. The first is by changing the situation the caregiver is in so that it doesn’t exceed their resources to cope with it. Family caregivers can face a lot of situations that could contribute to a feeling of overwhelm, e.g., carrying out medical tasks with little training, the physical and emotional fatigue of many hours caregiving, adjusting to the loss of a relationship, loss of time for yourself and increased financial strain to name a few.[4] In response to this, there is a large number of caregiving programs that try in various ways to improve these external circumstances and support the reduce their external stressors by providing practical, logistical, and financial support to caregivers.

The second way to reduce stress is by building up the emotional resources of the caregivers. This helps them to feel more able to meet skillfully and cope with situations as and when they arise (life has a habit of presenting us with “interesting” events and situations when we least expect it!). This emotional resilience approach is the approach that Zen Caregiving Project takes in its Mindful Caregiving Education. In our courses, caregivers are taught mindfulness-based tools and strategies to help acknowledge, understand, and skillfully respond to challenges that arise in their caregiving. By teaching these skills, we are increasing the caregiver’s emotional resource or capacity, meaning they feel able to cope better with more situations whenever they happen and reduces the likelihood of them becoming overwhelmed and stressed. 

It’s not an either/or

Here at Zen Caregiving Project, we champion all efforts to support the vital and powerful work that caregivers do, and we realize that a combination of both approaches described above is optimal. We are, however, sometimes surprised that emotional resilience-building is seen as “nice to have” rather than the essential skill we feel it is. Caregiving courses often focus on practical skills related to ADLs, or activities of daily living, like how to bathe or lift someone, or how to navigate the complex health systems. Yet, skills to support emotional resilience are conspicuously absent. Typically, suggestions for self-care when presented focus more on discrete activities such as doing regular exercise and having long baths. Both are great, but it’s best to address the problem of stress once it’s arrived rather than building a set of skills that strengthen emotional resilience and minimize the stress in the first place.

Skills that build emotional resilience aren’t magic cures. Still, we would argue they are equally as important as the more practical skills, both for the caregivers’ wellbeing and the quality of the care they provide to their loved ones.[5]

Work with us to build emotional resilience in those who need it

Here at Zen Caregiving Project, we offer our courses directly to caregivers and also work with partners in a range of sectors to build in emotional resilience into any caregiving support they provide. We hope to continue to raise awareness around and meet this vital need and welcome conversation and collaboration with the network of amazing organizations that work tirelessly to support caregivers. 

[1]National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Families. Caring for an Aging America.

[2] The authors hypothesized that the positives of caregiving such as having a feeling of purpose in your life, and a connection with the person you are caring for, could explain the longer life.

[3] See Families. Caring for an Aging America for a good overview of the positive and negative impacts associated with caregiving

[4] It is no surprise that in the research caregivers with greater external challenges (such as caring for a loved one with greater needs, greater time spent caring and caring for people while on a low income) all experience higher stress than those with less external challenges.

[5] A study by Ankuda et al (2017) found that those individuals whose caregivers had poor wellbeing were more likely to be admitted to the Emergency Department and have higher Medicare Expenditures.