When my Mom had dementia and she was no longer able to converse with me, I was heartbroken. From 1,000 miles away, I could no longer enjoy our usual Saturday morning chats. During my monthly visits I searched for some way to connect with her. All I could do was just sit on the sofa with my arm around her shoulder. It was then that I felt deeply grateful that Mom and I could wordlessly enjoy the beautiful view outside the parlor’s picture window.
The morning my Dad had his stroke, I discovered him on the floor of his room. The EMT’s came quickly to transport him to the hospital. Fortunately, the advanced directives that outlined how he’d want to be treated were in a folder right on his desk. I remembered to grab them before going to the ER and silently thanked my Father for being so well organized.
After visiting my parents in the final years of their lives, I always went home in tears. I was so sad that the “new normal” on each visit was at least one notch lower than during my previous trip. Each time, I hated to leave them and also felt a guilty relief returning to the peace of my own home.
How about you? Are you caring for a loved one whose strength and health are waning? Is it difficult to witness their decline? If you need energy to persevere and continue in family caregiving, look to your environment for some help.
How Your Environment Can Build Resilience
Connecting with the natural world and finding sanctuary in our home environment are proven sources of resilient energy.
Hundreds of studies confirm that direct contact with nature reduces stress. It also promotes mental health and spiritual development; strengthens self-confidence and self-discipline; and improves connection to others in the community. Even indirect contact — viewing nature through a window or having indoor plants — has been shown to speed recovery and improve memory, concentration, satisfaction and work performance.
In Bouncing Back (2013), author Linda Graham describes the value of creating a place of refuge, which she defines as a “safe, supportive place to be when we are fragile or confused, a safe place to cry or rant as long as we need to, or somewhere to wait patiently until a course of action begins to emerge from the chaos…In this refuge, we replenish ourselves. We help our nervous systems return to, or remain in, the state of physiological calm and equanimity called the ‘window of tolerance’.”
This place of refuge can be real, in our homes, or it can be envisioned in our minds. Evoking a safe haven in the imagination can feel as real to the brain as a real, physical place.
Connecting with a Nurturing Environment
Use these three strategies when your family caregiving journey is difficult. They will help you tap into refreshing energy that is all around you.
- Get close to nature.
Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you. Frank Lloyd Wright
There are countless ways to connect with the healing, stress-reducing power of nature. The simplest way to recharge is to step outside your door and inhale deeply. Feel the sun’s warmth, the cool raindrops, or frigid blast of falling snow the on your skin. Look up into the dark night sky; wonder at the moon and stars, or the dense covering of clouds. Listen for birds singing or the wind rustling the leaves. Drink it in and be grateful for whatever nature has in store for you at the moment.
With more time, go beyond your doorstep, alone or with others. Go to the nearest lake, river or seashore; take a picnic lunch or go fishing. Hike in the hills or just stroll around your neighborhood. Play at the park with a little child. Walk barefoot in the grass or sand; wade in a puddle. Dig in the dirt. Nibble a freshly-picked herb from the garden. Stop and smell the roses. Let all five senses drink in the beauty, and be calmed by the grandeur and order all around. Spend time outside; it isn’t expensive but it’s a priceless way to give your body and mind a rest.
For more ideas:
Finally, find the grace to flow with peaks and valleys of your life by reflecting on the cycles of nature. The cold of winter gives way to small buds of spring. The full-flower of summer can’t last forever; autumn’s decline has a peace and beauty all its own. As family caregivers, it’s good to be reminded that, no matter how difficult the winter, spring always comes.
- Make your house a haven.
Home is where one starts from. T. S. Eliot
Our energy for meeting life’s challenges can be restored by returning to a home that nurtures us. To make your house such a restorative place, first assure that it is a safe environment. Take steps to prevent accidents or injuries.
- The home safety checklist from AARP is a helpful guide.
- The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons suggest ways to prevent falls, a major cause of serious injury to people of all ages, especially for the elderly.
- Prepare for emergencies by following this Red Cross Plan.
- Find ways to reduce the toxins in your home.
- Organize important papers so they’re easily accessible when you need them.
After addressing safety, focus on creating comfort. Home won’t feel like a refuge if the environment is unsettled. What are irritants that bother you, things like noise, air quality, heat, cold, drafts or clutter? Identify what could reduce these stressors and help make your home a haven that feels good to you. Then take steps to bring these qualities into your home: clean up a messy room; organize your desk, a drawer or your files; de-clutter the kitchen counter; bring in flowers or a house plant; turn down bright lights; play soothing music. Do whatever will help settle your jangled nerves or shift your energy levels. Anything that promotes beauty, calm, cleanliness or order can feed you with resilient energy, a great help when family caregiving is challenging.
- Go to a safe place in your mind.
Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work. Thich Nhat Hanh
Guided imagery is a therapeutic technique. You can use it to create calm in your internal environment. Safe Place Guided Imagery is a popular meditation you can use to relax your nervous system and emotions, shift from negative to more positive thinking and regain a sense of balance and control. Use this link to try visiting your safe place.
When family caregiving is painful or overwhelming, use this practice to create inner calm. Download this Safe Place Guided Imagery to help you adopt this as one of your resilience-building strategies.
Environmental Strategies for Resilient Family Caregivers
Going to a safe haven in your home, your heart or in the natural world isn’t difficult, but getting there can be. Don’t let commitments, concerns or clutter block your way to a place of peace. Whatever you do to connect with a safe, calm environment will be good for both you and those in your care. As you do so much for others, remember to take good care of yourself, too…Jane