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Caregiver Resilience: What It Is and Why It Matters for Family Caregivers

A young couple’s baby has Tay–Sachs disease that has no treatment or cure, and a life-expectancy of four years. A veteran’s wife struggles to cope with her wounded warrior’s traumatic brain injury and PTSD. A middle-aged woman tries to balance the needs of her aging parents with those of her growing family and her workplace. An elderly couple does what they can for each other; his Parkinson’s and her pancreatic cancer are both advancing.

People of all ages care for loved ones and wonder how they will manage. Fear, uncertainty, grief and exhaustion can be overwhelming. How about you? Are you sad, stressed or stretched by the demands of caregiving? If so, building resilience can help.

What is resilience and why is it important for family caregivers?

Resilience is your ability to withstand, recover, and sometimes grow when faced with adversity; it is an active process of enduring and successfully coping. Resilience is bouncing back after a crisis. It’s also bouncing forward to adjust to a “new normal.” This capacity to adapt and cope with adversity is present to varying degrees in every person, no matter how tumultuous external events or inner feelings may be. Fortunately, with attention and practice resilience can be strengthened.

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Resilience helps transform the daunting into do-able. It creates stamina and strength. Building resilience helps sustain caregiver health, well-being and capacity to care; it expands capability and reduces vulnerability to stress.

How do resilient people handle adversity?

In Resilience, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney (2012) outline ten ways that resilient people tend to cope with stress. The good news is that these can be learned and developed.

  1. Realistic Optimism: Viewing life in a hopeful, confident way. Anticipating a bright future. Believing that good things are coming and hard work will yield success. Realistic optimism is the foundation of resilience, and fuels each of the following resilience factors.
  2. Social Support: Connecting with other people by seeking out and accepting help that is offered, and also by giving help to those in need.
  3. Facing Fear: Using thoughts and behaviors to triumph over fear. Acting in spite of fear to accomplish goals and become stronger.
  4. Religion and Spirituality: Turning to God, or a Higher Power. Engaging in formal religious services or private spiritual practices. Finding inspiration in nature or the arts.
  5. Meaning, Purpose and Growth: Finding strength and courage by pursuing an inspiring goal. Using adversity as a catalyst for growth. Actively serving a purpose that is greater than self-interest. Transcending traumatic experiences by helping others who have been traumatized. Choosing to be a victor, rather than a victim.
  6. Moral compass/Altruism: Engaging in right actions and avoiding doing wrong. Thinking of and serving others.
  7. Role models: Imitating people who demonstrate positive ways of handling adversity. Identifying real people, living or dead; fictional characters, famous individuals or historic figures. Replicating small aspects of their behavior that have led to positive, desired outcomes.
  8. Training: Improve physical health and preventing or diminishing the effects of chronic illnesses by keeping the body fit. Mastering physical challenges to also improve mental health and emotional regulation.
  9. Brain fitness: Focusing thoughts, and challenging the mind so the intellect is sharp and continues to grow. Regulating emotions to eliminate feelings that undermine effective coping.
  10. Flexibility: Employing a variety of mental and emotional strategies to handle adversity; accept what can’t be changed; learn from failure; transform negative energy into positive energy; and find opportunity and meaning in adversity.

How can I be more resilient?

Begin by building realistic optimism. Listen to your thoughts; they create your reality. As soon as a negative thought comes, replace it with a positive one. When something positive happens, stop to acknowledge and appreciate the good. The more you challenge negative thinking and reinforce positive aspects of life, the more optimistic and resilient you will become.

Also, review the other resilience factors listed above; recall past difficulties and how you overcame them. What did you do then when you bounced back, or coped well? These thoughts, choices or behaviors are examples of caregiver resilience. It would be helpful to do something similar whenever you are faced with caregiving challenges.