By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

Sometimes when we hear a speaker or read a book, the words really ring true to us. We’ll nod our heads in agreement or feel like this is how we wish everything could be. Because I have the privilege of interviewing authors and speakers who are caregiving experts for the Caregiver SOS on Air podcasts (free at www.caregiversos.org), I often have these moments of recognition. Here are some I found the most meaningful and helpful.

» Happiness is a choice we make: John Leland, journalist for The New York Times and author of the book of the same name, really hit this home for me. It was like John had joined forces with my late mother who was an original member of the “power of positive thinking” club. Choosing happiness doesn’t mean that our circumstances have changed or that everything is rosy. It means that we can let go of the negative emotions that swamp us and drag us down. We can do this through gratitude, curiosity, faith, or even sheer willpower. John indicates that it gets easier the more we practice. After all, we can’t really change anybody except ourselves.

» Share the care — organize a group to provide care: Sheila Warnock made me wonder how I had missed creating, not a support group, but a group of people to provide care. So many caregivers go it alone or with a family member or two. Through her book, she describes how two caring people can set up teams to break down caregiving tasks into doable bites that prevent any one caregiver from burning out. A “funny family” is a larger group of family, friends, willing colleagues, etc., who provide different aspects of care over time. The teams can be mobilized for a variety of situations – from a serious illness to a difficult pregnancy.

» Let the professional be the bad guy: Our friend and psychologist, Dr. Jamie Huysman, is a strong voice for letting licensed professionals, such as professional geriatric care managers, physicians, first responders, and psychologists, deliver any difficult news – like when it’s time to give up the car keys. We know what happens to the messenger, right? This allows us as the family member or friend to be there to acknowledge the difficulty of the situation and provide the love and comfort. There are times when professional assistance is worth the investment.

» We are not right or up because we are well, and those who are sick are not down or wrong: I have never had the pleasure of interviewing author Deborah Duda, but her words changed my thinking about illness and death. We allow way too much judgement to get wrapped around caregiving, sickness, and dying. We sometimes forget that illness and death are simply a part of life. It’s refreshing that we have started talking about living with Alzheimer’s, living with cancer, living with disability. This allows us and the person for whom we care caring to be actively engaged in life, and prevents the isolation that traps caregivers and their loved ones.

It is easy these days to feel like we have information overload. It can be hard to tune out the voices in our heads or on the news, and hear words of hope, healing, acceptance and life. We have to be willing to hear them, and willing to change our thinking. Change can be a challenge, so we can’t be discouraged if we fall off the horse or have to try again. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel better, to let go of the anger and resentment, to make positive choices, and to feel alive, too? It sounds like good advice.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

By Jamie Huysman, PsyD, LCSW

The year’s end is an excellent time to reflect and celebrate even the smallest of victories. We’ve made it through another year; we’ve done our best to meet its challenges. Life is the greatest of teachers when we allow ourselves to be open to its lessons.

Many of us will be glad to see this year go away and only in hindsight appreciate its value. That’s OK. Sometimes time and space are necessary to process and make sense of things. Take all the time you need.

For others, there is always great expectation around a new year. There is the anticipation of opening a new chapter. Out with the old; in with the new! And so, we embark on a new adventure with a clean canvas of days to come.

I like to set achievable goals instead of resolutions for a new year. Resolutions are many times a self-imposed limitation or setup—or both—for failure. I prefer to think re-solution! What if we all set a goal of taking better care of ourselves this year? There’s a lot of it going around! The self-care bandwagon has arrived!

Let’s make 2019 a year to really embrace self-care. To that end, here are some goals to work toward. Just do your best. That’s all anyone can ask of you!

Keys to Self-Care for Caregivers (and other human beings)

» If it feels wrong, don’t do it. Trust your instincts.

» Weigh your words before you speak; they have enormous power, so say what you need
to say without doing so at the expense of others.

» Never compromise yourself for the sake of others. There are people who will never be
pleased no matter what you do.

» Don’t believe your negative self-talk. You are so much more than you think.

» Make time for you! Pursue something that makes you happy.

» Learn to say NO without feeling guilty. Beware of succumbing to bullying and emotional
blackmail.

» Treat yourself the way you’d like to be treated.

» Let go of what you can’t control. You can’t change others, only yourself.

» Disengage as much as possible from drama and negativity. Every situation is not a crisis
that you need to fix.

» Do not be a slave to fear. In the words of the indomitable Eleanor Roosevelt, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do." She also famously declared, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience by which you really stop to look fear in the face.”

» Remain teachable. It is your greatest asset in the long run.

Wishing you a Happy, Healthy, and Self-Caring 2019!

Peace & Love,
Dr. Jamie

Dr. Jamie is a popular keynote speaker, media expert, and author. He co-authored the acclaimed “Take Your Oxygen First: Protecting Your Health & Happiness While Caring for a Loved One with Memory Loss.” Dr. Huysman writes for Caregiver SOS, Connections, JoanLunden.com, Huddol.com, and blogs on PsychologyToday.com.

2019 caregiver summit

More than 300 caregivers gathered Nov. 1 for support and education during the WellMed Charitable Foundation’s 2018 San Antonio Caregiver Summit, Navigating the Journey.

The summit, held at the Whitley Theological Center in San Antonio, Texas, featured John Leland, New York Times reporter and author of Happiness is a choice you make: Lessons from a year among the oldest old and Dr. Sharon Lewis, recognized caregiver expert and creator of the Stress-Busting Program.

With more than 43,000 informal caregivers in the United States, the annual Caregiver Summit plays a vital role in helping caregivers, providing support and information to help them cope with their important work.

This year’s summit is the third for Mayra Mendoza. The youngest of eight children, Mendoza started caring for her parents after her mother developed dementia.

At first, Mendoza cared for her parents part time while working full time, but has now quit her job and moved in with them to provide more intensive care.

“I thought I might regret moving in with them, but now I’d do it all over again,” Mendoza said. “It’s the hardest job of my life, and the best one, too.”

Feeling more confident about her role in her parents’ lives, Mendoza feels she can help younger caregivers like herself.

“At 32, I’m not like a lot of the caregivers here,” she said, indicating the mostly older people in attendance. “Many of these caregivers are retired and have a pension; I don’t have that and I know what it’s like. I’d like to reach out to the younger caregivers.”

The summit also featured lunch and complementary flu shots provided by WellMed. Attendees also had the opportunity to experience a Virtual Dementia Tour, a tool used by UT Health San Antonio to educate nursing students. Other resources included a panel discussion with local caregivers, and information from agencies such as the Alamo Area Council Of Governments, VITAS Healthcare, Area Agency on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association.

Congratulations to the WellMed Charitable Foundation for another successful caregiver summit!

By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

We all want to be happy. We pop our heads up now and then to measure how happy we are. We buy things that will “make” us happy. We devote quite a bit of time and emotional energy searching for this seemingly allusive state. Don’t we have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? So when we don’t feel happy, something must be wrong with us or our lives, right?

As a reporter for The New York Times, John Leland decided to write about the experiences of the oldest old, which must certainly be a sad tale about the downward spiral of old age, illness and death. This can often be our perspective as well. But the stories became his book, Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old. In them, John talks about how he went looking for depression and loss, and found people focused on happiness instead. Could this be us, too?

John recently spoke to a large group of caregivers at our annual Caregiver Summit. He wears a shirt with the names of the people he interviewed who are all age 85 and over. Each person made an impression on him with their resilience and positive outlook despite old age, illness, and yes, even death.

Ping Wong had worked physically demanding jobs her entire life – standing on her feet for years. As an older woman who was now physically worn out without much income, she qualified for some home care services – an aide to cook some meals and clean. She was astounded at her good fortune that she was now the care recipient!

The stories John collected each feature someone who can’t help but be happy despite their circumstances. When he realizes that they are happy, not because they are lucky or everything is going their way, but because they choose to be happy, he decides he would like to be more like them. I think this was my biggest take away – how he had internalized the notion that happiness is something we all really can choose. And why not? This type of reframing is exactly what we teach in our Stress-Busting program for caregivers. We can’t change other people or our circumstances, but we can change how we react.

We all want to be happy. What if we counted our blessings every day: The love we feel toward people in our lives, the change of the seasons, soft sheets on the bed, the companionship of a cat or dog. Rather than spending time wondering how to be happy, what if we choose to let go of the worry for things that we can’t really control anyway? What if we made it a goal to find a memory that makes us smile at least once a day? We might even write it down, so it’s easy to find again.

Choosing to be happy isn’t really a new idea. But if it’s us doing the choosing, and it’s our lives that are changing – because we want to feel better and let go of the anxiety and anger, then it’s new to us. I could see the John was serious about reacting differently and living his life differently. What if we choose happiness too?

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

By Jamie Huysman, PsyD, LCSW

The holidays are upon us once again. Every year we make plans, have expectations of ourselves and others, and many times struggle with “what to get” for everyone. We juggle and try to make sense of lack of time, money, and overwhelming feelings of obligation. Caregivers give of themselves every day in service of giving someone a better quality of life. At all times it is a gift of presence for a reason, a season, a lifetime, even during a busy holiday season.

Caregiving is celebrated as a national month of recognition in November to raise awareness. However the greatest awareness needs to come from caregivers by way of committing to acts of kindness toward themselves.

Caregiving will never be a one-size-fits-all experience. It never takes a holiday. Intensely personal, at its best it is a tapestry of trust, understanding, and connection. Hence, each caregiver-care receiver relationship is a unique dance of interweaving your life for the benefit of another. That’s the “doing” of it. Beyond that, great value can be found in it’s being and becoming; caregiving can be the greatest of teachers.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance have been identified as the “5 Stages of Grief.” Recently, a 6th stage has been added: anxiety. It doesn’t seem farfetched to me that these same stages can be experienced in caregiving, especially around the holidays. Occurring in no particular order, all of these are simply a part of our human “beingness” and come as they may, like it or not. Learn to let your feelings ebb and flow and be OK with whatever you are “being” at the time. Let your feelings be what they are; it is an act of self-love which you deserve.

The “becoming” of caregiving begs the following questions and I urge you to consider:

» What have you learned about yourself by being a caregiver?

» How has caregiving changed you?

Your answers to these may surprise you. Never take for granted what caregiving has given to you. There is a yin to every yang! “The greatest gift that you can give to others and to yourself is time. Embrace the gift of time whether you give it or receive it,” says psychologist Philip Zimbardo. In the words of Nike, “Just do it.”

As we embark on this holiday season, I would ask that you not forget or take yourself for granted. Spend some time with yourself and for yourself throughout the holidays. It’s been a crazy year in the world. Take whatever precious moments you can to love and celebrate you. After all, you are the gift. Tis the season; enjoy!

Peace and Love,

Dr. Jamie

Dr. Jamie is a popular keynote speaker, media expert, and author. He co-authored the acclaimed “Take Your Oxygen First: Protecting Your Health & Happiness While Caring for a Loved One with Memory Loss.” Dr. Huysman writes for Caregiver SOS, Connections, JoanLunden.com, Huddol.com, and blogs on PsychologyToday.com.