by Al Siebert, Ph.D., author of The Survivor Personality
Some caregivers are more resilient, hardy, and stress-resistant than others. They hold up well under pressure and even gain strength from the difficulties and strains.
The inner nature of people made stronger by adversity has fascinated me for many years. A common factor I find in survivors transformed by extreme difficulties is that they fully embrace the challenge. Instead of complaining, they emerse themselves in the circumstance to be dealt with and let it change their lives.
Here, for example, is how Nancy Linday converted being a caregiver for her mother into a valuable, satisfying, transforming experience.
Nancy Linday was a champion distance runner who, after a sports injury, took a full time job an urban planner. Nancy's mother, Sarah Linday, was a wonderful role model for professional women. Sarah had passed the New York bar exam in 1930, rare for a woman, and even more rare for someone with only a high school diploma.
Sarah worked as an executive legal secretary and practiced law on the side for many years. In 1989 she developed memory problems. She was unable to complete her last legal case on her own and soon had to stop working for the law firm. In 1991 her condition was diagnosed as Alzheimer's Disease.
Nancy and her mother were devastated. "My mother's brain was her life!" Nancy says. "Analyzing, critiquing, challenging, writing, advocating--this was what she lived for!"
Not willing to put her mother in a nursing home, Nancy decided to quit her job and care for her mother at home. Nancy decided she would find a way to slow down Sarah's mental deterioration by engaging her mother's mind and motivation.
During her running career, Nancy had never found a headgear that met her needs as an athlete. She needed something that would shade her eyes from the sun, keep her head cool, absorb sweat, and keep her head dry in the rain. Nothing existed on the market that met her criteria.
Nancy decided that a hat with interchangeable parts was the answer. She invented a unique design that she knew could be patented, trademarked, and licensed to a manufacturer. Nancy and Sarah focused their combined energy on what they called The Vicap®*.
"The Vicap became our occupational therapy," Nancy says. "I sewed pre-production samples sitting in hospital rooms waiting for doctors or while my mother was asleep." Sarah led Nancy through the legal maze of affidavits, non-disclosure agreements, and working with patent and trademark attorneys. This involvement delighted Sarah and kept her mind sharp for a long time.
Nancy says "For all the anguish, we were very, very lucky. My mother and I always stayed connected. Except for some of her hospital stays when the stress of the situation and the unfamiliar surroundings completely disoriented her, my mother always knew who I was.
"The Vicap became a central part of all our conversations. When formulating sentences became next to impossible for Sarah, I finished them for her and she nodded in agreement or disagreement. When I did not want to tell her the truth about just how difficult the licensing, marketing, and selling of the Vicap really was, (you can't go home and cry on your dying mother's shoulder!) I made her laugh with my own brand of stand-up comedy. I mimicked myself and told her about outrageous things I was doing trying to get the Vicap out in the market."
Sarah died in 1993. Nancy has returned to work and is an active volunteer for athletic and outdoor fund-raising events for disabling diseases. "I've had excellent responses from the New York City Alzheimer's Association about using the Vicap in conjunction with their Memory Walks. I think my mother would be absolutely satisfied!"
Resilient survivors find meaning, purpose, and value in difficult circumstances. I encourage caregivers to think beyond self-care activities for coping with stresses and strains. Here are some useful questions to reflect on: "Is there anything good about this experience for me? How is this changing me? What can I learn from this?"
We humans are born with the ability to be made better by life's difficulties. Wisdom and new strengths do not come from the adversity itself, however, but from the struggle to heal and make sense of what one has gone through. Research into the inner nature of life's best survivors has led to an understanding of emotional resiliency and how it develops. How much is the following list descriptive of you?
Accept and embrace what life has handed you. People most likely to cope well with rough challenges are the ones who fully accept what has happened. People who don't want to do what they are doing are more likely to become psychologically drained and exhausted.
The mother of a friend of mine developed Alzheimer's disease. He moved her into the basement of his home because she refused to be placed in a care facility. He accepted a contract to work for a year in a foreign country leaving his wife to care for his mother. His wife felt forced into an unwanted caretaker's role, but accepted it. His mother died shortly after his return home. His wife feels drained and is emotionally distant from him. Not a good situation for either of them.
In contrast, Nancy Linday fully embraced her mother's Alzheimer's illness, and made it an enriching, loving experience for them both.
Maintain a playful, curious, spirit. Play with new developments. Enjoy things as children do. Have a good time almost anywhere. Be curious. Experiment, make mistakes, get hurt, laugh. Ask: "What is different now? What if I did this? What is funny about this?"
Constantly learn from experience. Ask "What is the lesson here? What can I learn from this?"
Adapt easily. Be non-judgmental and emotionally flexible. Be both strong and gentle, sensitive and tough, logical and intuitive, calm and emotional, serious and playful, and so forth. The more counter-balanced inner qualities you develop, the better.
Enjoy solid self-esteem and self-confidence. Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself. It allows you to enjoy praise and compliments. It acts as a buffer against hurtful statements. Critical care nurses, for example, must handle extreme verbal abuse from some patients and families of patients. Self-confidence is your reputation with yourself. You expect to handle difficult situations well because on your past successes. "These are my reliable strengths..."
Have good friendships, loving relationships. People are more stress resistant and are less likely to get sick when they have a loving family and good friendships. Lonely people are more vulnerable to distressing conditions.
Express feelings honestly. Resilient people express anger, love, dislike, appreciation, grief--the entire range of human emotions honestly and openly, while also being able to choose to suppress feelings when they believe it would be best to do so. These are signs of emotional intelligence. Expect things to work out well. Research by psychologists shows that optimistic people have better health, are more stress resistant, persist longer, and have more personal success.
Develop open-minded empathy. See things through the perspectives of others, even antagonists. Ask "What do others think and feel? What is it like to be them? How do they experience me? What is legitimate about what they feel, say, and do?"
Trust intuition. Accept intuition and hunches as valid, useful sources of information. Ask "What is my body telling me? Did that daydream mean anything?"
Question authority. Dr. Bernie Siegel says "cancer survivors are not good patients." Ask questions about medications. Resist manipulations that others attempt. Avoid "games" people play. Defend yourself against attacks and fight back when you must.
Have a talent for serendipity. Learning lessons in the school of life lets you convert a situation that is emotionally toxic for others into something emotionally nutritious for you. A good indicator of deep resiliency is when a caregiver talking about a difficult situation says "I would never willingly go through anything like that again, but it was the one of best things that ever happened to me." Ask "Why is it good that this happened? What is the gift?"
Deeply resilient people let themselves be transformed by their experiences. When life handles you a challenge that you didn't want or ask for, you will never be the same again. You will emerge exhausted and perhaps bitter, or you will emerge strengthened and better. You have it in you to determine which it will be.