Caregiver Burnout: What It Means and How to Cope

Know the signs that you need a break — for your health and your loved one’s

  • By Gina Roberts-Grey

(This article appeared previously on Caring.com.)

Caregiving can bring many positives into your life — but it can also take a toll, both physically and emotionally. Without finding a balance between caring for your loved one and maintaining your own mental, physical and emotional health, you’re at risk of developing what’s known as caregiver burnout.

“Feeling exhausted, unmotivated, constantly frustrated and forgetful, as well as having problems at work or with relationships, are all signs of caregiver burnout,” says Kimberly Hershenson, a New York-based therapist specializing in anxiety and depression.

Caregiver burnout can not only interfere with your ability to care for your loved one, it’s a leading contributor to placement of that person in a nursing home. It’s also risky to your own health, raising the risk of chronic depression, hypertension, diabetes, stroke and premature death.

“It is important to have life balance between caring for loved ones and caring for yourself,” says Hershenson. It helps to know the signs that you need a break, and what to do if you’re close to depleting your emotional, mental and physical reserves.

Spotting the Signs of Caregiver Burnout

Caregiver burnout is mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that may develop through the responsibilities of supporting and caring for another individual. “Caregivers often focus so intently on the needs of the individual receiving care that they may neglect their own health and wellness,” says Darren Sush, a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst in Los Angeles.

As this lack of self-care persists, along with the ongoing obligations of providing care for a loved one, caregivers’ exhaustion often intensifies, impacting different aspects of their lives as well as their effectiveness and compassion as a caregiver.

Sush says that burnout may be easily misunderstood as simply feeling overly tired or even occasionally exhausted. “Unfortunately, while being tired can often be resolved by taking a break, getting a little more sleep or actively trying to relax, burnout is more often less easily relieved. Individuals who experience caregiver burnout, tend to face an all encompassing fatigue that impacts multiple areas of their lives,” he says.

Caregiver burnout can happen to anyone who is providing care for another person, whether it’s hands-on care, is only occasional, from a distance, or even at the “managerial” level, says Zina Paris, associate director of clinical services at Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles, a local nonprofit that helps families affected by Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

“It happens when you feel that the experience of caregiving is overwhelming and that you do not have the support — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially — that you need in order to successfully care for the person and to take care of yourself adequately at the same time,” says Paris.

Very often, caregivers can find themselves accustomed to the routine stress, worry and discomfort that come with providing care for a loved one. And as a result, Sush says you may not acknowledge warning signs of your own needs for gaining support.

Signs of Caregiver Burnout

Those signs include:

  • You no longer find pleasure in things you once found enjoyable, or you have no motivation to participate in previously enjoyed activities
  • Friends and family have expressed concerns about your well-being
  • You’re getting negative feedback at work
  • You’re having problems with your spouse
  • You experience intense and recurrent feelings of anger, sadness, worry or fear
  • You have difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, notice drastic weight changes (significant gain or loss), or unexplained health problems
  • You find yourself using a substance to cope with, manage or suppress uncomfortable or painful feelings.

Sush notes that there are also signals caregivers should know that indicate they’re at risk for developing caregiver burnout in the near future. These include:

  • Regular thoughts of anger or resentment toward the person you’re caring for
  • Irritation toward others who aren’t helping with your loved one’s care
  • Isolating yourself from people who aren’t involved in providing care to the person
  • Consistently arriving late to appointments or to visiting the person receiving care, or often leaving early

Combating Burnout

If you notice these signs in your own life, it’s time to take action.

Enlisting the help of a therapist is one option. “That provides a safe, sympathetic and constructive environment where caregivers can express their wants and needs,” says Sush.

Having a supportive community also helps. “Making a connection, such as with friends, family, or support groups, where you can freely share your thoughts and feelings, can be exceptionally important,” he adds. “While there is not necessarily a right or wrong way to get the help you need, it is important to acknowledge when you do need help.”

Here are some other expert strategies to help you cope with caregiver burnout:

Embrace gratitude. Make a daily gratitude list by writing down 10 things you’re grateful for. This could include anything from your family, legs to walk on or even a TV show you find entertaining. Focusing on what is good in your life as opposed to what is going wrong with your loved one’s health helps relieve stress.

Read affirmations every morning. “Starting your day with positivity kickstarts your day on the right foot,” says Hershenson.

Start the day with you. Hershenson says having a morning routine with time to yourself (going to the gym, having your daily coffee while reading the newspaper or stretching for 10 minutes) is crucial to fending off mental stress and fatigue.

Practice acceptance. Make a list of what you can control in the situation (getting enough sleep, eating well) and what you can’t control (your loved one’s health). Focus on what you can control to make changes where needed and try to accept the things that are out of your control.

Paris notes that while the advice to “take a break” may sound cliché, it is repeated for a reason.

“Self-care needs to be a top priority when caring for another person, otherwise neither the caregiver or the one receiving care will thrive,” she says. “This means finding a way to take short respite from caregiving on a consistent basis.”

Caregiver Burnout: What It Means and How to Cope. (2017, June 28). Retrieved August 30, 2017, from http://www.nextavenue.org/caregiver-burnout/?utm_source=Next%2BAvenue%2BEmail%2BNewsletter&utm_campaign=d8aba6fdc2-08_10_2017_Thursday_Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_056a405b5a-d8aba6fdc2-164939389&mc_cid=d8aba6fdc2&mc_eid=8e7e577d68

5 Myths About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

When people learn that I am a psychiatrist who has spent the last 20 years studying obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at Columbia University Medical Center, I get various reactions.

They include jokes (“Hey, we could really use you in my family”) and minimization (“We all have some OCD, right?”) that unwittingly trivialize the suffering of my patients.

These patients include: the mother tortured by intrusive thoughts about hurting her children; the grown son who calls his elderly mother weekly but has not visited her in years because he has intrusive sexual and violent images about her; the lawyer whose “just right” obsessions made her unable to meet deadlines and the teacher with such severe contamination fears that he washes with bleach each night.

People with OCD often avoid situations that trigger their obsessions or compulsions.

In the last few decades, we’ve learned a lot about OCD. It’s time to dispense with some common myths. (Some of the details of examples below have been changed to protect patients’ privacy.) Here are five big ones:

Myth No. 1: OCD is rare.

Two of every 100 Americans will suffer from OCD in their lifetime. This means that OCD is twice as common as schizophrenia. Unfortunately, OCD usually starts early (half of all cases start by age 18; a quarter begin before 14), and its course is often chronic. Thus, OCD is not rare.

Moreover, once OCD develops, one can wrestle with it for a lifetime, as many of my patients have.

Myth No. 2: We all have OCD.

Yes, we all have occasional intrusive thoughts (e.g., did I just say the wrong thing?). Many endorse some type of ritual or repetitive behavior (such as double-checking to make sure the door is locked). Most of us also have habits (like taking the same route to work). Some of us are very rigid in our views and perfectionistic. This is not OCD.

OCD is a specific illness characterized by obsessions (repetitive thoughts, images or urges) that generates significant distress and by compulsions (repetitive thoughts or acts) that the person feels driven to perform. To be OCD, these symptoms must cause impairment and be highly distressing and time-consuming (taking up more than an hour a day). Many OCD patients obsess and ritualize on and off all day.

Although most people with OCD have both obsessions and compulsions, the specific content can vary between individuals. The result is that different patients can have very different symptoms.

Some common themes include: intrusive thoughts about harm with checking rituals (like the mother); taboo (usually sexual, religious or violent) thoughts (like the son); concerns about symmetry and exactness with ordering and arranging behaviors (like the lawyer) and obsessions about contamination with washing rituals (like the teacher). Note: Hoarding behaviors can also occur as part of the compulsions of OCD, but if the primary problem is difficulty discarding, this is now diagnosed as Hoarding Disorder.

Yet the OCD devil is in the details.

For example, I once worked with a man whose contamination concerns were focused not on an illness but on the state of California; as a result, he forbade anything with the word California in his house and he once forced his entire family to move after receiving mail from a California address.

Importantly, not all repetitive thoughts or behaviors are OCD. For example, people with depression can ruminate, those with generalized anxiety disorder can incessantly worry and people with trichotillomania can repeatedly pull their hair. The point is that we do not all have OCD. Some people do, and they suffer.

Myth No. 3: OCD is helpful.

The data show that OCD impairs functioning across many different domains, including worklife, social relationships and family. OCD is impairing because of its relatively early onset, its typically chronic course and the likelihood that most people with OCD will have moderate to severe symptoms.

When beset by hours of obsessions and compulsions each day, it is hard to perform at your best at work, socializing is difficult and family life is turned upside-down.

People with OCD also often avoid situations that trigger their obsessions or compulsions. For example, the mother I mentioned forbade her children to join her in the kitchen (fearful she would harm them with the cutting knives), the teacher never invited anyone to his home and the lawyer eventually lost her job.

Imagine having to move your entire family if you got mail from California.

The bottom line is that OCD interferes with life and can cause people to miss important milestones, such as graduating from high school or college, leaving home, marrying and having children and advancing in your worklife. The disability can accrue over time and be devastating.

Myth No. 4: OCD is “made up.”

The brain underlies our behavior, including abnormal behaviors like obsessions and compulsions. Dysfunction in specific brain circuits has been linked to obsessions and compulsions. The data come from: imaging studies comparing the brains of people with OCD to those without OCD; case studies of new-onset OCD in people following acute brain lesions and studies that disrupted specific brain circuits in animals and produced repetitive behaviors that could be “treated” using the same medications that work in people with OCD.

Of course, how the brain develops this dysfunction is a different question. Like most medical illnesses, OCD is likely to have multiple causes that play out across development and range from genes that increase risk for the illness to environmental triggers.

Myth No. 5: OCD is untreatable.

There are two effective treatments for OCD: medications called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (like Prozac, Zoloft and their siblings) and a specific form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that includes exposure and ritual prevention. Either alone or in combination, these treatments help up to half of patients keep their symptoms to a minimum within eight to 12 weeks, even in adults who have been ill for decades.

Very intensive CBT protocols — daily sessions or residential programs — can achieve results even more quickly. This offers incredible hope.

“It’s Time to Stop These 5 Myths About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” Next Avenue. N.p., 19 July 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2017.

Old and Young Want to Get to Know Each Other Better

Old and Young Want to Get to Know Each Other Better
A new report cites huge benefits from intergenerational programs

In a national report released recently, two out of three adults surveyed said they want to spend time with people who aren’t their age, while three in four wish there were more opportunities to get to know different age groups. Why, then, aren’t there more intergenerational programs and initiatives?

I Need You, You Need MeThe Young, The Old, And What We Can Achieve Together, published by the nonprofits Generations United and The Eisner Foundation, lays out the case for more mixing of the generations, and suggests ways to achieve it.

The online Harris Poll survey of 2,171 U.S. adults ages 18+ conducted in February 2017 for this report, points to few opportunities for interaction. According to the report, in the U.S., “intergenerational friendships are the exception rather than the rule: for the most part, age segregation prevails.”

Separation Between the Generations Begins Early

Consider this: Students go to school with peers, older adults often live in retirement communities or assisted living, college students hang out together in dorms and classes, youngsters attend day care. Neighborhoods are often segregated, with six in 10 leaning either young or old.

When generations work together, this can break down stereotypes, change attitudes, foster mutual empathy and improve communities.

In the survey, 53 percent of people said they rarely spent time with other age groups except family members. The demographic with the least contact with other generations: 18- to 34-year-olds.

Not having exposure to different ages often leads to ageism, an us-vs.-them mentality, and missed opportunities, maintains the report. In fact, 76 percent of adults surveyed believe ageism is a serious societal problem.

But, the report says, there are some encouraging signs.

“A scattering of pioneers in both the public and private sectors have already begun the work of reuniting the generations, and they’re reaping extraordinary results,” the report says. “Through carefully designed ‘intergenerational programs’ in towns and cities around the country, kids are getting the attention they need, elders are finding purpose and connection, and the two groups are working together to make their communities better places to live.”

Intergenerational Partnerships Benefit All

When generations work together, this can break down stereotypes, change attitudes and lives, foster mutual empathy and improve communities. Intergenerational partnerships allow each group to see the other as individuals, just people — rather than “old” or “young.”

Adults can share their knowledge (through mentoring and tutoring) as well as provide love, attention and emotional support. Many older adults have time and want to spend it doing something that really matters.

The report notes that intergenerational programs can also improve kids’ and teens’ social skills;,self-esteem, school performance and decision-making, while expanding their world. By contrast, children offer affection, purpose and fun, reducing the loneliness that consumes many older adults. That loneliness can lead to depression, isolation and poor physical health.

And, there are advantages to communities that mix the generations, the report says. Shared spaces and various programs under one roof make intergenerational contact informal and ongoing. These might include pairings of a day care center and a long-term care facility, a Headstart program with a congregate meal site or an alternative high school with a clothing and food pantry. Equally important, sharing facilities and resources is cost-effective, saving taxpayers money.

The Power of Sharing Stories

One example highlighted in the report is a project started by residents at the Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, Md., a continuing care retirement community.

Recently, the group has been working with a nonprofit that helps Muslim kids cope with discrimination. A panel of older adults from Asbury shared their experiences of discrimination as part of a Courageous Conversation series: one Asbury resident fled the Holocaust as a little girl; another was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

Zahra Riaz, 18, immigrated to the United States from Kuwait eight years ago. Because she wears a hijab, she was called “towel head” and “terrorist” by kids at her junior high in Texas. Since moving to Maryland, things have been better, but she still feels gets unwelcome stares. Sometimes, she feels unsafe, the report said.

It helped to be part of a Courageous Conversation, Riaz said.

“When I heard those people’s stories, I thought to myself, ‘It’s not just Muslims; it’s other cultures, too, that have been discriminated against. And it’s not just me, one Muslim; it’s many Muslims who have been impacted,’” the report quoted her as saying.

Riaz is especially grateful for some advice the now-90-year-old Japanese internment survivor gave her.

“She said, ‘Don’t be bitter in life. You’ll go through a lot of things; people will try to break you. But you have to try to be positive, and you have to move on with a smile on your face,’” the report said.

An Interest in Connecting

There is deep interest in intergenerational interaction. According to the report:

  • 77 percent of adults wish there were more opportunities for intergenerational interaction in their community
  • 92 percent of adults believe that older adults benefit from having relationships with children and 93 percent think kids gain greatly from interacting, and getting to know, adults
  • 93 percent say children and young people are vulnerable and should be protected; 92 percent feel similarly about older adults
  • 88 percent of adults want the federal government to invest in the well being of both old and young

Successful Intergenerational Initiatives

Take a look at four of the programs highlighted in the report:

  1. DOROT — A New York City program that has 7,000 children, teens and young adults visit 3,000 isolated older adults and has an intergenerational book club, baking program, arts and crafts, singing and mentoring
  2. San Diego County — Its local government has a team of five intergenerational coordinators tasked with finding volunteer older adults for needy kids
  3. Asbury Retirement Community — As mentioned above, this retirement community in Gaithersburg, Md., partnered with a nonprofit for immigrant and Muslim youth to discuss the older adults’ past discrimination and the children’s current discrimination through a program called Courageous Conversations.
  4. St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care — Preschoolers and older adults both attend the day care program, with formal intergenerational activities twice daily and ongoing informal interaction.

Abrahms, S. (2017, May 30). Old and Young Want to Get to Know Each Other Better. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from http://www.nextavenue.org/old-young-better/

Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff

Advice for boomers desperate to unload family heirlooms

By Richard Eisenberg Money & Work Editor February 9, 2017

After my father died at 94 in September, leaving my sister and me to empty his one-bedroom, independent living New Jersey apartment, we learned the hard truth that others in their 50s and 60s need to know: Nobody wants the prized possessions of your parents — not even you or your kids.

Admittedly, that’s an exaggeration. But it’s not far off, due to changing tastes and homes. I’ll explain why, and what you can do as a result, shortly.

The Stuff of Nightmares

So please forgive the morbidity, but if you’re lucky enough to still have one or more parents or stepparents alive, it would be wise to start figuring out what you’ll do with their furniture, china, crystal, flatware, jewelry, artwork and tchotchkes when the mournful time comes. (I wish I had. My sister and I, forced to act quickly to avoid owing an extra months’ rent on dad’s apartment, hired a hauler to cart away nearly everything we didn’t want or wouldn’t be donating, some of which he said he’d give to charity.)

Many boomers and Gen X’ers charged with disposing the family heirlooms, it seems, are unprepared for the reality and unwilling to face it.

They’re not picking out formal china patterns anymore. I have three sons. They don’t want anything of mine. I totally get it.

— Susan Devaney, The Mavins Group

“It’s the biggest challenge our members have and it’s getting worse,” says Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM).

“At least a half dozen times a year, families come to me and say: ‘What do we do with all this stuff?’” says financial adviser Holly Kylen of Kylen Financials in Lititz, Pa. The answer: lots of luck.

Heirloom Today, Foregone Tomorrow

Dining room tables and chairs, end tables and armoires (“brown” pieces) have become furniture non grata. Antiques are antiquated. “Old mahogany stuff from my great aunt’s house is basically worthless,” says Chris Fultz, co-owner of Nova Liquidation, in Luray, Va.

On PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, prices for certain types of period furniture have dropped so much that some episode reruns note current, lower estimated appraisals.

And if you’re thinking your grown children will gladly accept your parents’ items, if only for sentimental reasons, you’re likely in for an unpleasant surprise.

“Young couples starting out don’t want the same things people used to have,” says Susan Devaney, president of NASMM and owner of The Mavins Group, a senior move manager in Westfield, N.J. “They’re not picking out formal china patterns anymore. I have three sons. They don’t want anything of mine. I totally get it.”

The Ikea Generation

Buysse agrees. “This is an Ikea and Target generation. They live minimally, much more so than the boomers. They don’t have the emotional connection to things that earlier generations did,” she notes. “And they’re more mobile. So they don’t want a lot of heavy stuff dragging down a move across country for a new opportunity.”

And you can pretty much forget about interesting your grown kids in the books that lined their grandparents’ shelves for decades. If you’re lucky, you might find buyers for some books by throwing a garage sale or you could offer to donate them to your public library — if the books are in good condition.

Most antiques dealers (if you can even find one!) and auction houses have little appetite for your parents’ stuff, either. That’s because their customers generally aren’t interested. Carol Eppel, an antique dealer and director of the Minnesota Antiques Dealers Association in Stillwater, Minn., says her customers are far more intrigued by Fisher Price toy people and Arby’s glasses with cartoon figures than sideboards and credenzas.

Even charities like Salvation Army and Goodwill frequently reject donations of home furnishings, I can sadly say from personal experience.

Midcentury, Yes; Depression-Era, No

A few kinds of home furnishings and possessions can still attract interest from buyers and collectors, though. For instance, Midcentury Modern furniture — think Eames chairs and Knoll tables — is pretty trendy. And “very high-end pieces of furniture, good jewelry, good artwork and good Oriental rugs — I can generally help find a buyer for those,” says Eppel.

“The problem most of us have,” Eppel adds, “is our parents bought things that were mass-produced. They don’t hold value and are so out of style. I don’t think you’ll ever find a good place to liquidate them.”

Getting Liquid With a Liquidator

Unless, that is, you find a business like Nova Liquidation, which calls itself “the fastest way to cash in and clean out your estate” in the metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C. and Charlottesville and Richmond, Va. Rather than holding an estate sale, Nova performs a “buyout” — someone from the firm shows up, makes an assessment, writes a check and takes everything away (including the trash), generally within two days.

If a client has a spectacular piece of art, Fultz says, his company brokers it through an auction house. Otherwise, Nova takes to its retail shop anything the company thinks it can sell and discounts the price continuously (perhaps down to 75 percent off), as needed. Nova also donates some items.

Another possibility: Hiring a senior move manager (even if the job isn’t exactly a “move”). In a Next Avenue article about these pros, Leah Ingram said most NASMM members charge an hourly rate ($40 to $100 an hour isn’t unusual) and a typical move costs between $2,500 and $3,000. Other senior move managers specializing in selling items at estate sales get paid through sales commissions of 35 percent or so.

“Most of the people in our business do a free consultation so we can see what services are needed,” says Devaney.

8 Tips for Home Unfurnishing

What else can you do to avoid finding yourself forlorn in your late parents’ home, broken up about the breakfront that’s going begging? Some suggestions:

1. Start mobilizing while your parents are around. “Every single person, if their parents are still alive, needs to go back and collect the stories of their stuff,” says Kylen. “That will help sell the stuff.” Or it might help you decide to hold onto it. One of Kylen’s clients inherited a set of beautiful gold-trimmed teacups, saucers and plates. Her mother had told her she’d received them as a gift from the DuPonts because she had nursed for the legendary wealthy family. Turns out, the plates were made for the DuPonts. The client decided to keep them due to the fantastic story.

2. Give yourself plenty of time to find takers, if you can. “We tell people: The longer you have to sell something, the more money you’re going to make,” says Fultz. Of course, this could mean cluttering up your basement, attic or living room with tables, lamps and the like until you finally locate interested parties.

3. Do an online search to see whether there’s a market for your parents’ art, furniture, china or crystal. If there is, see if an auction house might be interested in trying to sell things for you on consignment. “It’s a little bit of a wing and a prayer,” says Buysse.

That’s true. But you might get lucky. I did. My sister and I were pleasantly surprised — no, flabbergasted — when the auctioneer we hired sold our parents’ enormous, turn-of-the-20th-century portrait of an unknown woman by an obscure painter to a Florida art dealer for a tidy sum. (We expected to get a dim sum, if anything.) Apparently, the Newcomb-Macklin frame was part of the attraction. Go figure. Our parents’ tabletop marble bust went bust at the auction, however, and now sits in my den, owing to the kindness of my wife.

4. Get the jewelry appraised. It’s possible that a necklace, ring or brooch has value and could be sold.

5. Look for a nearby consignment shop that might take some items. Or, perhaps, a liquidation firm.

6. See if someone locally could use what you inherited. “My dad had some tools that looked interesting. I live in Amish country and a farmer gave me $25 for them,” says Kylen. She also picked out five shelters and gave them a list of all the kitchen items she wound up with. “By the fifth one, everything was gone. That kind of thing makes your heart feel good,” Kylen says.

7. Download the free Rightsizing and Relocation Guide from the National Association of Senior Move Managers. This helpful booklet is on the group’s site.

8. But perhaps the best advice is: Prepare for disappointment. “For the first time in history of the world, two generations are downsizing simultaneously,” says Buysse, talking about the boomers’ parents (sometimes, the final downsizing) and the boomers themselves. “I have a 90-year-old parent who wants to give me stuff or, if she passes away, my siblings and I will have to clean up the house. And my siblings and I are 60 to 70 and we’re downsizing.”

This, it seems, is 21st-century life — and death. “I don’t think there is a future” for the possessions of our parents’ generation, says Eppel. “It’s a different world.”

Why Not to Leave Too Much to Your Grown Kids

(This provocative article is adapted from the new book, Entitlemania, by Richard Watts.)

Somewhere in our DNA as parents, we believe it is an act of love, generosity, or for some, contrition, to leave our children an inheritance after we die. And the more money we leave, we think, the better! But despite the wisdom and warnings of historical philosophy, religious texts and psychology, we refuse to heed the whispers and acquiesce to our irrefutable belief that our children will both benefit from, and appreciate our gift.

Beware . . . For everything you give your child, you take something away.

Perhaps we need to change the question we ask ourselves from ‘How much is too much?’ to ‘How little is too little?’

Yet parents often adjust their retirement budget for food, shelter, travel and recreation so they can “leave a little something” to their children. And many, modestly surviving on Social Security, even feel a twinge of guilt if they exit the planet saddling their children with funeral and burial expenses.

How Inheritances Can Cause Permanent Damage to Families

How would you react if I told you that your children would never speak to each other again because you left your three kids your house? What if the son you designated as your executor or trustee seized control of your assets and was sued by his brothers and sisters? What if the family business you built during your life dismantles the family after you depart?

But you say, “No! Not my family!” To the contrary. In my 35years of managing wealthy families every day, the incident of permanent damage occurring to a family is most of the time.

And just in case you believe your kids are going to be appreciative of the money you leave, it takes about three days of grieving for your children to consider your inheritance all theirs. Remembering that dear old Dad and Mom provided them a unique opportunity of financial security lasts about as much time as it takes the bank to clear the inheritance check.

Carnegie, Buffett, Gates and You

One of America’s richest men, Andrew Carnegie, wrote an essay in 1889 entitled The Gospel of Wealth and lamented: “I would as soon leave my son a curse as the almighty dollar.” Modern-day financial icons, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, similarly plan to leave relatively small portions of their massive estates to their children, choosing to promote their kids’ long-term emotional well-being instead of feeding their materialistic cravings.

Money is supposed to provide a security blanket, not a blank check. Your lifelong achievement in building a nest egg is like a dam being built across a stream. For you, a lake of financial security forms behind the dam. Downstream, your kids often nest, staying close enough to the stream to take advantage of the flow you permit from the lake. Too often, inheritance of any size is like a break in the dam. The kids downstream have no sense of controlling the flood, and all can be swept away.

So how do we fix this? And how should we think about what we leave our kids?

Changing the Question We Ask Ourselves

Perhaps we need to change the question we ask ourselves from “How much is too much?” to “How little is too little?”

Do your kids expect you to hand over the loot? If they do, try this: Sit down with your children in a family meeting. Tell them Mom and Dad have decided to leave all of their money, excepting the personal belongings, to charity. Or an alternative would be to leave all of your money to a family foundation where the kids are the directors who would designate the money only to charities.

How would they react? If they say, “Great, Mom and Dad, it’s your money to do what you want!” you have probably raised kids that can control the cash. If, however, after the meeting, they secretly convene to discuss what they’ve concluded must be your newly-discovered early-onset dementia, perhaps you ought to rethink your intentions.

Cold Money and Warm Money

One afternoon at my office in Southern California, a family of three adult children in their 40s called for a meeting with their financially-successful parents and me. The oldest spoke on behalf of his siblings and began: “Mom and Dad, there is something called warm money and cold money. Warm money is money you give us with love, while you are alive, and you’re able to witness our appreciation of the gift. Cold money is the money we get, whether you like it or not, after you’re both dead.” There was a brief pause. He continued: “Your children would prefer to have more of the warm money.” The following week, Mom and Dad came to me and asked to revise their estate plan, giving their kids substantially less.

There are two parts to this debate: the process of your disbursing an inheritance and the amount you give for inheritance.

The first is simple. Do not let your kids be the executors and trustees of your will and trust. You will find this is contrary to most estate planning experts’ direction, but they only draft wills and trusts, they rarely deal with the aftermath.

And sell it all! Even the family business! Hard to say that out loud, isn’t it? But you must separate your kids from being involved with your estate upon your death. The best solution is to have an independent party liquidate everything except the personal property, then divide the proceeds by the number of kids you have and give them each a check. Your family will soon realize your actions kept them together.

How Much to Leave

The second question of how much to give your adult children is a little trickier. How affected would your kids be if you left them nothing? Put another way, how dependent are your kids on your financial support? The irony is that the ones who do not need your money will probably be okay and the ones who do will most likely be negatively affected.

A suggestion might be to leave half your estate to your kids and the other half to charities, allowing your kids to designate which ones they would like to choose to give the money. Doing this will leave a valuable life lesson to your kids that will be remembered.

The Colored Stickers Story

As to the question of how to divide your personal property and memorabilia, my friend Mel (a host on 1430 KASI Radio in Ames, Iowa) had the best answer. His father had passed away and when his mother was dying, she asked Mel and his siblings to each choose a different color of sticky paper dots. They were then asked in succession to put their colored sticker on something in the house they’d like to have after their mother passed — furniture, antiques, jewelry, silver and family heirlooms.

Each time it was Mel’s turn, he waived his brothers and sisters on, skipped his turn and continued the conversation with his mother. When all the items in the house were tagged with dots, the kids circled around their mother. Mel’s mom asked: “Mel, don’t you want anything?” He carefully peeled off one yellow sticker from his unused sheet of dots and gently placed it on his mother’s forehead.

Perhaps this is your last act of “tough love.” Don’t turn a blind eye to the reality that even modest amounts of money carelessly given to your children can have unexpected and corrupting results.

Money is like a narcotic; a little more is always welcome and the last amount never quite fills your present need. Give your children enough that they do something, but not so much that they do nothing.

 

“Why Not to Leave Too Much to Your Grown Kids.” Next Avenue. N.p., 07 June 2017. Web. 05 July 2017.

Alzheimer’s Caregivers: Isolated and Needing Help

A new study reveals most caregivers don’t get enough support from siblings

That’s one finding of a survey released today by the Alzheimer’s Association, which also revealed that 84 percent of the caregivers would like more support in their efforts.

“It’s a problem that’s only going to get worse,” said Ruth Drew, director of family and information services for the Alzheimer’s Association, in a statement. “As life expectancies get longer and the number of older Americans grows rapidly, so too will the number of individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and family members affected.”

The survey was conducted to highlight Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month in June. The Alzheimer’s Association commissioned the online survey of about 1,500 adults, which was conducted in April. Those responding fell into one of three groups: 250 were currently caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, 252 had previously done so and 1,000 had never given care.

Bringing Families Closer — Or Tearing Them Apart
More than a third of respondents said caregiving for a loved one made their sibling relationships stronger. Bonding was even more true for spouses; 39 percent of the primary caregivers said their relationship with a spouse or partner with Alzheimer’s was strengthened.

“Having the support of family is everything when you’re dealt a devastating diagnosis such as Alzheimer’s,” said Jeff Borghoff, 53, of Forked River, N.J., according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Borghoff was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s two years ago. “My wife, Kim, has been my rock as we navigate the challenges of Alzheimer’s.”

Half of all Alzheimer’s caregivers said they didn’t feel they could talk at work or socially about what they were going through.
But other Alzheimer’s caregivers expressed strain in their relationships — most frequently among siblings.

Sixty-one percent of siblings said they didn’t have enough support from sisters and brothers in their caregiving and that it strained their relationship. Among the caregivers who cited strain with siblings, 43 percent said their care was undervalued or underappreciated by the others.

Other Survey Findings
90 percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers said their No. 1 challenge was emotional stress. Eighty-one percent cited physical stress; 89 percent said “managing my time” was their biggest challenge.
43 percent of caregivers said they frequently feel guilty.
Two-thirds of caregivers who said the experience strengthened their relationship with their loved one said the caregiving “gave me a better perspective on life.”
Half of all caregivers said they didn’t feel they could talk at work or socially about what they were going through.
Asked how being a caregiver has strengthened their relationship with their spouse, 63 percent of respondents said it “reminded me why we love each other.”
70 percent of non-caregivers feared becoming a burden on others as they aged, yet only 20 percent said they had talked with their spouse or partner about future care needs.
Non-caregivers were 52 percent more likely to worry about burdening their spouse or partner than they were about dying.
Financial Costs Are Growing
In an earlier report released in March, the Alzheimer’s Association estimated the cost to families and taxpayers for the care of those with dementia, including Alzheimer’s, totaled $259 billion. That’s the highest expenditure to date. Payments by Medicare and Medicaid make up $175 billion of that total.

That figure does not include the cost of unpaid caregiving.

Out-of-pocket costs for Americans with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia are nearly five times higher, on average, than for those without those conditions, according to the earlier report.

The earlier report also found that 59 percent of those caring for family members with Alzheimer’s or other dementias rated their emotional stress from caregiving as high or very high.

Finding Resources and Help
But there are ways for caregivers to get information and assistance.

The Alzheimer’s Association offers Information on financial and legal planning on its website, along with tips for long-distance caregiving and a community resource finder.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. An estimated 5.5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s or other type of dementia. There is no cure for the disease.

If you or a family member are dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, you can tell your story on social media using the hashtags #MyAlzStory and #ENDALZ.

What it Means to Be a Childfree Older Adult

Part of the TRANSFORMING LIFE AS WE AGE SPECIAL REPORT

(This article was originally published on Caring.com.)

As age-related health issues make it tougher to get around and stay independent, most older adults at some point will rely on a family member for help. Usually, one or more adult children will step in to provide or arrange for care when that day comes.

But what about those who never had children? These people  are referred to as “childless” or more recently, “childfree.” Who will care for them when they’re no longer able to care for themselves? Author and retirement planning expert, Sara Zeff Geber calls these older adults “solo agers,” and is working to raise awareness about the need for this cohort to plan for their future.

When it comes to ensuring that your end-of-life wishes are respected, good planning can make up for most of the gap left by the absence of adult children.

— Sara Zeff Geber, retirement planning expert

Geber says she often sees solo agers who seem to be in denial about the need to plan for their long-term living and care arrangements. “That led me to the realization that people needed some guidance for what to do for themselves when they don’t have that safety net,” says Geber.

But Geber has also noticed a growing awareness of the importance of long-term care planning among childfree older adults, especially as more of them provide care for their own aging parents. “People are spending time and resources and sometimes opening up their homes to their own aging parents, and they’re seeing the result of people living so much longer today,” Geber says.

Yet, with higher-than-ever life expectancies and a graying boomer population, an AARP study points to a growing gap between the number of older Americans who will need care and the available supply of family caregivers. According to the study, there were seven potential caregivers for every person 80 years and older in 2010, but that ratio is expected to drop to four to one by 2030, and to three to one by 2050.

Among boomers, the rate of solo agers is almost 20 percent. With more people now choosing to forgo parenthood altogether, the number of solo agers is only projected to rise, underscoring the need for a greater emphasis on planning for a future without adult children to call on.

Advantages of Being a ‘Solo Ager’

Despite the prevailing wisdom, there are plenty of advantages to being childfree as an older adult. Since childfree older adults never had to shoulder the considerable costs associated with childrearing — the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest estimates put the average cost at about $245,000 per child from birth to age 18, not including higher education costs — they’ve had decades to save more of their income for their later years.

“That money may have been growing since their 20s or 30s rather than being spent on raising children,” Geber says.

She points out that in many cases, these older adults have had more time and space to form strong bonds with friends and to build up a network of close, non-familial relationships. At the same time, many childfree Americans have also been able to develop close relationships with nieces and nephews or other younger relatives.

Once they hit retirement age, childfree older adults typically have more freedom of choice when it comes to where they’ll live. While many parents choose to live close to adult children and grandchildren in their later years, solo agers don’t have progeny to bind them to any one place. Nonetheless, plenty of older childfree adults opt to remain in the communities near long-established networks of friends and acquaintances, Geber notes.

Drawbacks for Childfree Americans

A clear disadvantage of being a childfree older adult is the absence of a built-in safety net to care for you when you need assistance. While not everyone will care for their parents later in life, most do step in to provide some form of help in the event of a serious health issue, Geber notes.

The absence of adult children is perhaps most acutely felt when it comes to end-of-life planning and during the end of life itself. While childfree older adults aren’t necessarily alone in their last days, weeks and months, they won’t have adult children to fall back on during that time.

“In the end, when people are dying, it’s usually those grown kids at their side,” Geber says. “That’s a disadvantage for solo agers that never goes away.”

Yet, when it comes to ensuring that your end-of-life wishes are respected, good planning can make up for most, if not all, of the gap left by the absence of adult children, says Geber.

Housing Options for Childfree Older Adults

Without the prospect of adult children to take them in or help them make decisions about housing in their later years, it’s especially crucial that childfree older adults make decisions early about where they want to live later in life.

The same older adult housing options available to older adults with children are often great choices for childfree older adults, too — from Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs), which allow residents to remain in the same community even after they require assistance with daily living routines, to assisted living communities, board and care facilities or nursing homes when higher levels of care are needed.

Another housing option that’s gaining popularity is co-housing, an arrangement in which a group of older adults or multi-generational residents live in a community of homes specifically designed for aging adults’ changing needs. Community members typically organize regularly scheduled shared activities, meals and events.

Meanwhile, others are opting to age in place with the help of in-home care. Growing numbers of those who choose to remain in their home are now joining what’s known as the village movement, a membership-based network that connects neighbors and provides services such as transportation, yard work and home maintenance. The aim of these villages is to help older adults stay in their homes for as long as possible.

Planning is Crucial

Advanced planning is key to ensure that long-term care and end-of-life preferences are honored, whether someone is a parent or not. But for those without adult children, this planning is even more crucial.

Part of that planning includes going to visit different types of older adult housing (CCRCs, board and care homes, assisted living facilities, etc.) to get an idea of what might someday be the best fit for you, Geber says. For those who plan to age in place, she advises turning to services like Caring.com (where I am a content producer) to learn about in-home care options.

With a clearer idea of the older adult care arrangement you want, the next key piece of the puzzle is having conversations with loved ones (this might include nieces, nephews or other younger relatives you’re close to, or it may mean close friends). Making sure your power of attorney and advance health directive documents are in order is also critical.

“The real key,” says Geber, “is to let people know what you want.”

Geber also advises childfree older adults to consider the services of a fiduciary, a financial professional you authorize to act on your behalf. “You can put in the hands of a professional fiduciary the kinds of things you would expect your adult children to do,” she notes.

“Helping Childfree Older Adults Plan for Their Future.” Next Avenue. N.p., 04 Apr. 2017. Web. 02 June 2017.

How to Avoid Crippling Falls After Age 50

Balance declines with age, but you can take steps now to avoid an injury

By Edmund O. Lawler

When he asks people over 50 if they can stand on one foot while maintaining their balance, most will confidently reply “yes,” says Michael E. Rogers, head of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University. “But many will begin to sway and say, ‘Oh man, I used to be able to do that,’” says Rogers, an exercise physiologist. “Once you get to 45 or 50 and beyond, your balance begins to decline. Most people don’t even notice it.” A decline in balance, however, demands immediate attention because it can lead to a fall — the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths among older adults. More than a third of people 65 and over fall each year, according to the National Institutes of Health. Poor vision or hearing loss can also lead to a fall, as can trip hazards in the home like electrical cords, throw rugs, poor lighting, even pets.

Although falls increase with age, they are not an inevitable part of aging. A variety of steps can be taken to avoid falls, beginning with balance exercises, says Rogers. Unfortunately, most exercise programs — for both younger and older adults — emphasize strength and cardio training, but pay too little attention to balance, he says. ‘Standing Strong’ Through Strength and Balance Exercises. Balance training, however, is the basis of the center’s Standing Strong program to reduce the risk of falls among older adults. Offered in senior centers around the country, the program uses elastic resistance bands to improve strength in the lower extremities and foam pads that provide an unsteady surface and challenge the body to maintain balance. Participants have improved balance by 82 percent and decreased their fall rate from 58 percent to 16 percent, according to the center’s research.

Kathleen Cameron, senior director of the National Falls Prevention Resource Center, says the organization aims to get more balance improvement programs up and running around the country. The center is a unit of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Aging (NCOA).

Classes in Tai Chi and Yoga

“We want to do everything we can to educate people about the availability of these falls-prevention programs and get more community-based organizations to implement them,” Cameron says. Programs have become increasingly popular at Area Agencies on Aging, parks and recreation facilities, YMCAs and private health clubs. They include classes in tai chi and yoga that can help improve balance, gait and flexibility. Cameron wishes more older adults took the classes. “They may feel they are not functionally well enough to do the exercises. Yet many can be done from a seated position. People on walkers can do them,” Cameron says. “We have seen people progress from using a walker, to using a cane to not using anything at all because they have functionally improved. We have even seen people who began a falls- prevention program using a walker who end up teaching a program.”

Medication Side Effects and Other Risks

Medications are a leading cause of falls, says Cameron, a pharmacist. Medications or a combination of medications for such common conditions as allergies, anxiety, insomnia or depression can lower blood pressure to the point of dizziness or light-headedness or cause daytime sleepiness or confusion, leading to a fall. Reviewing medications on a regular basis with a doctor or pharmacist is critical. Poor vision or hearing loss can also lead to a fall, as can trip hazards in the home like electrical cords, throw rugs, poor lighting, even pets. The National Falls Prevention Resource Center along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourage older adults to talk to their physicians about balance and falls prevention. “Most physicians don’t talk to their patients about falls,” Cameron says. “They are not trained on falls and don’t see it as a serious problem.”

Some older adults have a fear of falling caused by poor balance or by a previous fall, Cameron says. The NCOA promotes “A Matter of Balance,” an evidence-based falls-prevention program shown to improve balance and reduce fear of falling. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging to see if it’s available.

Falling on the Dance Floor

Barbara Nicholson was 65 when she fell and injured a knee while dancing at a social event with her husband Mort. Nicholson, a retired social worker in Cincinnati, recalls that a nurse happened to be nearby and came to her aid, sparing her a trip to the emergency room. But the episode made her realize she was not as sure-footed as she once was. Now 73, Nicholson says she is more comfortable on her feet thanks to exercises that have improved her gait and flexibility. “I feel more balanced, confident and strong,” says Nicholson, who takes classes at Future Life Now, a health and learning center in Cincinnati that focuses on holistic health practices. She enrolled in a class titled “Balance, Posture and Power for 65+” taught by the center’s co-director, Cynthia Allen.

Allen said that besides nutrition, walking is the single most important thing we can do for our health. “Anything we can do to enliven ourselves around variety and movement will create better balance.”

Lawler, Edmund O. “How to Avoid Crippling Falls After Age 50.” Next Avenue. N.p., 19 May 2017. Web. 24 May 2017.

How Do We Balance Autonomy and Risk for Older Adults?

Part of the TRANSFORMING LIFE AS WE AGE SPECIAL REPORT

Georgia Dyson of St. Paul, Minn., died in March after suffering the gradual shrinkage of her world. Through it all, “she always relished her independence,” her daughter Christine Dyson Dahn said.

Over Dyson’s 84 years, her spine twisted in two directions from degenerative scoliosis. She had cataracts, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. She endured a double bypass heart operation, a mitral valve repair, a pacemaker, two hip replacements, a catheter, a hearing aid, dentures and, as you can imagine, periodic depression.

Despite all of that — and despite some misgivings about Dyson’s safety — family members did whatever they could to support her, insisting at each crossroads that she be allowed to get back to her routines.

“We wanted to respect that fire in her, but we worried about her,” Dahn said. “What if she went out in her wheelchair and got hit by a car?”

The question is not, ‘What do I let her do?,’ but rather, ‘How do I support her?’

— Linda Crandall, Pioneer Network.

Balancing risk and autonomy is one of the toughest things that caregivers do, whether they are professionals or family members. It’s especially difficult when the people they care for cannot advocate for themselves.

Quality of Care or Quality of Life?

Each time Dyson’s health faltered over the years, it whittled away at her autonomy. When she reluctantly moved into assisted living for the first time in 2004, she insisted on cooking her own meals. Eventually facility management put an end to that because she was spilling so much food on the carpet and they worried she would hurt herself.

Yet Dyson never gave up trying. When her family packed her belongings in 2010 for a move to a nursing home, they discovered a corncob in a coffee pot. She had tried to cook the corn that way after losing her kitchen privileges.

Saskia Sivananthan, a consultant with the World Health Organization’s Global Dementia Team, knows what it’s like to suffer the indignities of nursing home living. As a young researcher in 2014, she checked herself into two different nursing homes in Ontario, Canada, for her work on a doctoral thesis. Staff members had instructions to treat her as they would any other resident, following all the standard policies and procedures. What Sivananthan found is that there’s a big difference between quality of care — the focus of many nursing homes — and quality of life.

The realization struck her at breakfast one day. She missed the scheduled mealtime and had to eat in the lounge as a staff member stood by monitoring her every bite lest she choke. The standard protocol made no sense in her case and she was uncomfortable being observed so closely.

“Most nursing homes [in North America] have lunch, dinner and breakfast at a certain time,” said Sivananthan. “You would never do that in your own home.”

Moving Toward Person-Centered Care

Nursing homes in the U.S. and in Canada, where Sivananthan lives, evolved from a medical model, she explained. They document their residents’ well-being with standard health measures. By contrast, she noted, quality of life measures are “notoriously difficult” to assess.

In the United Kingdom and some European nations like Denmark and the Netherlands, the focus is more on personal autonomy, Sivananthan said. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have been moving in that direction as well, stressing what the health care industry calls person-centered care. It boils down to assessing an individual’s needs and desires and incorporating them into a care plan. The receivers of care must be included whenever possible in decision making about their care, even into the stages of moderate dementia.

Difficult behaviors often are a form of communication, Sivananthan said, so caregivers need to assess what triggers the behaviors and then consider whether the environment can be managed, rather than restricting people from what they want to do. She recalled the case of a man who wandered, a common problem for people with dementia. The nursing home staff discovered he’d been a painter. So they set up a room where he could paint whenever he liked, and it satisfied his need for a place to go.

‘There’s Nothing Wrong with Wanting to Be on the Floor’

Linda Irgens of Maplewood, Minn., ran into a similar situation with her dad, Richard Irgens, recently. He’s an 87-year-old former Marine, a retired commercial airline pilot and was an avid hunter and fisherman. But health problems including vascular dementia forced “Papa Dick’s” move to a nearby nursing home.The staff there called Linda to say her father was refusing to leave the main floor of the nursing home and return to the locked memory-care unit. “He had his hat and coat and his keys, and he was determined to get out of there,” she said. He told her, “They won’t let me out of this place!’” She asked the staff to respect his needs and let him go out on the patio.

“He’s an outdoorsman and he’s always needed some access to fresh air and nature,” Linda said. “I told them I wanted him to have every risk possible, because that’s an indicator of quality of life.”

She added: “He’s been thrown out of planes. It’s OK, you don’t baby a lieutenant colonel, for God’s sake.”

Another time, the staff found her dad on the floor of his apartment. Assuming that he had fallen getting in or out of bed, they debated whether to remove the bed frame to lower the mattress. Linda balked. Her dad had told her that he just wanted to lie on the floor. “And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be on the floor,” she said.

Can We Accept Risks?

Chris Perna, president and CEO of the Eden Alternative, an international nonprofit that provides training and advocacy to improve quality of life for people who need help with daily living skills, said professional caregivers have to assess each person individually in making care plans and “can’t just make unilateral decisions” for, or about, people. Perna’s New York–based organization teaches the principles of person-centered care.

He says good things can happen when older people are allowed to live more autonomous lives, “but it takes guts.” Often, it presents risks not only for care recipients, but for caregivers, who may be blamed when things go awry.

That fear can’t be allowed to take over, said Linda Crandall, executive director of the Pioneer Network, a nationwide coalition that also offers training and support to help elder-care communities shift from an institutional care model to a person-centered one. The New York–based Pioneer Network emphasizes autonomy for those receiving care. “Taking risks is a normal part of life,” Crandall said. “Care partners,” as she calls caregivers, must get to know the individual and understand how that person wants to live, realizing that it might change over time. The goal is to help someone be both happy and safe.

“The question is not, ‘What do I let her do?,’ but rather, ‘How do I support her?’” Crandall added.

Caregivers must use the least restrictive means possible when limiting someone’s activities. A review of the literature on caregiver liability indicates that a carefully constructed care plan can reduce liability if things do go awry. The plan should address the risk tolerance expressed by the person getting care, and by any of that person’s designated surrogates. The care plan won’t protect caregivers who are negligent, however, or professionals who provide substandard care. Wanton disregard for a vulnerable adult’s safety also could lead to prosecution under state elder abuse laws.

‘It’s Their Life’

The right balance is not easy to find, said Rev. Katherine Engel of St. Paul, Minn. She cared for her mother, Frances Wachter, who died this year at age 81 after living with moderate cognitive impairment and other health issues. At her mother’s insistence, Engel moved Wachter out of assisted living and into an apartment of her own, despite the fact that she fell sometimes and broke things, including her pelvis once.

“There’s no dignity in falling and laying down on the sidewalk,” Engel said. And yet, “it’s their karma. It’s their life.”

Stacy Waskosky, of Maplewood, Minn., said her family tried for decades to care for her paternal grandmother, Annette Savage of Indianapolis, who had early-onset dementia. An increasing regimen of medications seemed to be making things worse. Savage grew angrier and kept running away from her assisted living facility, resulting in even more medications. She died in 2008 at age 92.

Reflecting back, Waskosky said that “everything was done in such small steps that you don’t realize until the very last minute that you’re limiting their freedoms.” The routines the facility set up for Savage were meant to be comforting and slow her decline.

“But when it’s not you that defines those rituals and routines, it’s devastating,” Waskosky said.

Browning, D. (2017, May 01). How to Balance Autonomy and Risk for Older Adults? Retrieved May 19, 2017, from http://www.nextavenue.org/older-adults-balance-autonomy-risk/

The Value of Sitting With Your Pain

If pain is inevitable, how can suffering be optional?

She thought this chapter of her past was closed. So, when an ancient, painful relationship recently roared back into my friend’s life, stirring up old and ugly feelings, she began to worry she was coming unglued.

“I swore I’d never be here again,” she told me. “I know I should be able to handle this better.” In search of solace, she reached out to several friends. Their loving advice was stern: Don’t let this guy get into your head. Put him behind. Move on.

My own counsel was different. “Stop fighting your pain and acknowledge it,” I said. “You’ve earned this pain. Give it its due.”

The suggestion comes not only from my respective straining as a life coach and a crisis counselor, both of which emphasize the importance of “validating” people’s feelings. More deeply, it draws on my own experience with grief after losing four loved ones in rapid succession. While grappling with that pile-on of losses, I discovered that something a therapist had told me years earlier was true: my pain would be more tolerable if I could “just sit with it.”

A Four-Word Prescription for Depression

When I first heard that four-word prescription, I was in my late thirties and battling a crushing depression. At the time, a 24/7 loop of misery was running through my head that disrupted my sleep, appetite and ability to focus on anything but my pain. As I twisted myself into ever-deepening knots of despair, an inner voice chided, “You should be able to handle this better.”

During the two years that Joe had bounced in and out of hospitals, we had learned something useful: Stay in the present. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

That self-judgment only made things worse. Now, I was not just hurting — I was ramping up my distress by heaping on self-blame for not dealing with my anguish more maturely, more calmly, more effectively.

Each time my therapist would instruct, “Just sit with it,” I would plead, “How?” Her Rx made no sense to me. Why would anyone want to soak in pain rather than try to escape it?

Fast-forward 15 years to June 2009. After a battle with leukemia, my husband of 24 years, the love of my life for 28, had just died. The word “devastated” doesn’t begin to cover what I was feeling. But during the two years that Joe had bounced in and out of hospitals, he and I had learned something useful: Stay in the present. Don’t get ahead of yourself. One minute at a time. One hour. One day.

To preserve my sanity, I worked hard applying that lesson to my newly widowed existence. I told myself that our 15-year-old daughter had just lost her father; she didn’t need to lose her mother, too. I suspect the realization that my child’s well-being would be further eroded if I plunged into depression buttressed my resolve.

When Pain Is Necessary

What I know for certain is this: For the first time in my life, I didn’t try to do an end-run around my pain. Instead, I steered right into it. All of it. My loss of Joe. My loss of Joe and me. My daughter’s loss of her father. Our loss of the three of us. My loss of the life that I treasured, loved and had assumed would inform my days for several decades to come.

Unlike most of the anguish that had blown through my life, bringing with it a tailwind of complicating questions (Had I brought this on myself? Shouldn’t I be handling it better? Was I overreacting?), this sorrow required no self-justification, explanation or apology. To me, the pain seemed not only appropriate and understandable; it seemed necessary.

Soon, through no conscious effort, my most intense moments of grief settled into a pattern. Once a day, usually around dusk — the time of day when Joe and I used to reconnect after our respective workdays — I would feel a huge wave of sorrow rising up in me.

If other people were around, I pushed it aside, telling myself, “Not now.” I had no desire to share these overpowering waves of grief. This was for and about Joe; for and about me; for and about us. Where the pain came from and what the feelings of loss involved were too personal, too special, too impossible to explain.

But if I was alone, I went into my bedroom, settled on the rug — and surrendered. Without resistance, I let my grief take full hold, tossing me where it might. I sobbed, I keened, I pounded the floor with my fists. I choked on the mucus clogging my nose and throat, I emptied boxes of Kleenex, I whispered over and over, “Where are you, Joe? Where are you?”

Suffering Is Optional

Though I never sought to disrupt or shorten these daily crying jags, they rarely lasted long. After about 20 minutes, I would simply stop, resurface and resume my day. By month four, I trusted that I could tolerate these soul-wrenching moments. “I disappear through a hole at the center of the earth,” I wrote in my journal. “As much as those moments hurt, I know I will push back up and be okay.”

During those months, and again the following year after my sister and mother died within three weeks of each other, I heard a lot of, “I don’t know how you’re able to handle all of this.” At the time, I didn’t know either.

I think I do now.

An adage, popular in Buddhist circles, states, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” When I first encountered those words four years after Joe’s death, I sensed there was wisdom to be mined, but couldn’t get a handle on it. Then, I happened on Byron Katie’s book Loving What Is. We suffer, she wrote, when we “have a thought that argues with reality.”

With that, the meaning clarified for me, not only cerebrally, but at a gut level. I’d been able to tolerate the hollowing grief of new loss because I didn’t argue with the reality that I was confronting. I didn’t tell myself that Joe, whose parents lived well into their 90s, shouldn’t have gotten sick. (Reality: he did.) I didn’t tell myself that a 66-year-old man who’d been religious about exercise and a healthy diet shouldn’t have died. (Reality: he did.) I didn’t tell myself that our teenage daughter shouldn’t have lost her loving father. (Reality: she did.) I didn’t tell myself that a 53-year-old woman shouldn’t be widowed. (Reality: I was.)

Instead, I just sat with it. All of it.

And that, I believe, helped me tolerate my agony. To live with it one minute, one hour, one day at a time — until, gradually, it shifted from the defining essence of my days to the quieter sorrow that I carry to this day and imagine I will carry to my grave.

To my friend who is in so much pain … to any of you who currently feel like you may never see sunlight again … I offer the gift I gave myself: Allow yourself the kindness of giving your pain its due. Don’t try to argue it away. Acknowledge it. Accept it. Just sit with it.

 

“The Value of Sitting With Your Pain.” Next Avenue. N.p., 18 Apr. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.