Caregiving requires grit:

Here’s how to change your story

By Karen Warner Schueler

Unlike a marathon, however, its distance is unknowable, its course filled with obstacles and we carry the full weight of another’s life while running. Along the way we pass through crises followed by periods of uneasy calm. But we are never not running.

Without a doubt, caregiving requires grit. Research abounds supporting all the negatives that befall the typical caregiver, from physical and emotional difficulties, to worries about lack of money and time, to chronic illness and even death. But unlike many, I’ve spent the past seven years looking at caregiving also through the lens of personal well-being.

One of my favorite models for helping caregivers is PERMA: Positivity; Engagement; Relationships; Meaning, and Accomplishment. When any of these elements are introduced into our caregiving, we at least have a shot at lowering our stress and raising our well-being.

Unearthing the good
As humans, we’re prone to negativity bias, which means we’re more likely to focus on negative emotions that might bring us down than on the good things that are also present in our day to day. Odds are your caregiving situation already has elements of well-being, but they might be buried under more challenging worries and demands that require your attention.

There is a worksheet below that can help you “catch yourself at well-being.” For each element of well-being in the table below, rate your current experience of it on a scale of 1 to 5—where 1 is “needs a lot of work” and 5 is “it’s surprisingly good.” Your rating should reflect your caregiver situation today and the wellbeing elements that surround you.

Which element above did you rate highest?
Perhaps your role as caregiver has brought you closer to the person in your care. For me, Joel’s diagnosis made us appreciate each other more than at any other time in our marriage, and I was surrounded by friends who regularly showed up to give me a break, so I would have given Relationships a “five.”

Write down the reason for your score or share it with someone you trust. Consider:
• Why did you give that particular well-being element a high score?
• Does it surprise you?
• What insight comes with it?
• How can you ensure you build upon this aspect of your well-being?

Next, which element did you score lowest? One caregiver I recently spoke with described herself as “angry at the world” because of the relentless demands of her loved one’s medical situation, which has gone from bad to worse. For her, Positivity scored a definite “one.”

Create a practice of well-being
As you consider each element of well-being and how it shows up in your caregiving world, you’ll soon discover overlap in well-being elements. For example, when you quietly achieve a small win, you may also experience the pride that goes with it. In that case, two well being elements, both Accomplishment and Positivity, are triggered.

To positively change your caregiver story, create an intentional practice of well-being. Start with your lowest-scoring elements and ask how you might incorporate some of the higher-scoring ones. Here are some ideas:

Positive Emotions. If you scored low on positive emotions, start a gratitude journal. Since studies show that gratitude is one of the most positively impactful emotions, get in the daily habit of writing down three things you’re grateful for, or people you’re grateful to. Also, ask yourself questions like, “What was I proud of today?” And “How did I help someone else?” By seeking positive events and emotions, you’ll find them.

Engagement. If you scored low on engagement, make a list of things you love doing and that you’re good at. These can be related to your caregiving—sharing a simple quiet meal—or related to yourself—doing the crossword, working out.

Positive Relationships. Pause to recognize the positive relationships that are present in your life. Make a list of the relationships that are stronger due to caregiving. Think about people you absolutely trust, who will show up for you no matter what. You instinctively know who they are.

Meaning and Purpose. If we can assign meaning to an overwhelming situation—to see it as a part of something bigger than ourselves—we are more likely to thrive, not just survive. It may take time and resources to change your circumstances, but you can immediately change the meaning you apply to them. What meaning can you assign to your caregiving, right here and now, today? How might it help you live more on purpose?

Recognize Your Accomplishments. Caregivers often look back over their caregiving journeys, surprised at all they accomplished. One caregiver said to me, “When I look at all I had to learn when I didn’t have a clue, I can’t believe that was me.” In addition to looking back over long periods of time, build achievable goals into your day, week, or month. Quietly reward yourself of your small wins.

Well-being for both of you
Studies show that when we intentionally incorporate one, some, or all of these elements into our days we can reverse a negative and draining situation and replenish our spirits. By creating an intentional practice, we raise not only our own well-being, but that of the person in our care.

And, after all, isn’t that why we committed to run this marathon in the first place?

Karen Warner Schueler is the author of The Sudden Caregiver: A Roadmap for Resilient Caregiving.

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