Finding Joy in Caregiving

Exhausting, stressful, difficult. Any caregiver will know these words well, as they are accurate descriptors of the role they perform. Studies have found that caregiving for the elderly is associated with higher risks for depression and other health issues. This is because caring for the needs of seniors is a complex task that requires hard work. Fortunately, there is a great consequence of hard work: it is often rewarded. To support this, additional research has found that many caregivers consider their role a positive experience. This positivity comes from feeling more useful, feeling needed, learning new skills, and adding meaning to one’s sense of self. The bond developed between the caregiver and loved one is another important aspect of the experience. 

It can be helpful to illustrate through an example why a sense of happiness is often attained when caring for others. Your alarm goes off at 6:00 am. You don’t start work for another three hours, and your commute is short, but someone needs you. Your mother moved in to your home two months ago because her health is getting worse, and she finds it more difficult to perform daily functions. She will need to go to the washroom, and you’re worried about the consequences of her having a fall, so you make sure to wake up when she wakes up, which is early. You walk into her room and she is already trying to get out of bed quietly because she doesn’t want to be a burden. She says she is fine and that she can make the trip to the washroom herself. While you are escorting her there you sense the loss of coordination in her movement, and the loss of strength in her legs. Exhausted, you bring her back to her room, where your mother says, “you know I would have been fine, and you really didn’t need to wake up”. You’re too tired to get into an argument, and start walking towards the kitchen to make some much-needed coffee.  But before you leave the doorway, your mother says, “thank you.” You look back and see her smiling that same smile she’s had for as long as you can remember. In that moment, you feel this intense surge of joy. She needs you, and you are going to be there for her because you love her, and despite the difficulty, it makes you happy.

Strengthen Your Bond

We often guard our emotional state from others around us, even those we consider close friends and family. This is why you typically answer, “fine”, or some other close variation when asked, “how are you doing?” even if you are not doing well. It becomes much harder to place this guard up when you are being taken care of by someone. There is a vulnerability that exists in this connection, and such a feeling can lead to more open communication. As a result, your relationship with your loved one may reach a deeper level than you have previously been able to experience. This can tighten the bond and develop a special closeness between the two of you, providing you with a new sense of joy.  

Learning From Others’ Experiences

The experience of others in similar situations is a valuable resource that should not be ignored. Understanding how one person was able to find joy in caregiving can better help you to find your own joy. Remembering that her mother had always enjoyed music, Dene Liott would whistle, hum, and sing while assisting with the daily activities of living. She also found touch to be very therapeutic through the use of hugs and kisses while transferring her mother from one place to another. If she was feeling particularly low, she would rest her head on her mother’s lap, and enjoy her mother’s embrace. Brenda Avadian found laughter to be a powerful tool to coping with the difficulty of caring for her father. A sense of embarrassment from secretly miming strangling her father led to Brenda, her husband, and her father all laughing together. The experience eased the tension that had been building after a difficult time, and led to a feeling of joy. Try talking to caregivers you know to learn what brings them joy, and further your knowledge of this powerful dynamic. 

The Importance of Support

A study designed to determine what affects the variation in levels of joy experienced by different caregivers found that partner support was the most important factor. This was found to be even more important than possessing agreeableness and extroversion as personality traits. Not all types of support offered the same benefits. Support provided by family members other than a partner did not significantly affect the results. Researchers speculated this might be due to a partner better understanding your emotional state, so that support becomes timelier. Openly discuss your need for support with your partner so that they understand how important this is. The more joy you are able to experience as a caregiver, the better your relationship with everyone in your life will be, including your partner.

Take Care of Yourself

Doing something repetitively without proper rest typically leads to burnout. Caregiving is certainly not immune to this. In fact, the problem is getting worse throughout the population. Between 2010-2014, the rate of caregivers who could no longer look after family members rose from 7 per cent to 14 per cent in Ontario. Increased stress was the major contributing factor. Ensuring you are both mentally and physically well can significantly alleviate the stress you experience. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, and enjoying personal time should all be made a priority in your life. There is a reason why Olympic level athletes do not train continuously. Not only are there diminishing returns to such activity, but also doing so will decrease performance. Always keep in mind that the less stress you feel, the more likely you are to feel joy when carrying out your role as a caregiver. The more joy you feel, the better the care you provide will be.

Relevant Readings

5 Signs of Caregiver Burnout and How to Fix It
Family Caregivers: Don't Forget to Make Time for Relationships

Allocate Some of the Work

As part of taking care of yourself you need to recognize that there is only so much you can do. Managing your time between your loved one, your job, the rest of your family, and your own personal time is necessary to maintain your health. The first levels of support include your partner, and government assisted care. For information on government assisted care for your region, please browse some of our older posts. When these sources are exhausted, as is likely, due to governments being slow to address the serious concern of overburdened family caregivers, there are private options available to you. Paying for care will allow you to more easily experience the joys of caregiving by lightening your load. In addition, if you choose to use a reputable agency you can be more assured that you are receiving someone experienced and trustworthy. Your loved one will receive the precise care they need at the time that they need it. Perhaps it is easy for you to find joy in cooking for your loved one, but you experience difficulty feeling the same way while bathing them. You’ll be able to address this with your home-care worker, and work out the appropriate balance for you.

Final Thoughts

Finding joy while caregiving does not have to be an elusive emotion only experienced after ignoring how you really feel. You are going to be stressed in this role, especially in the beginning, but there is a positive outlook to keep in mind. Many have been in your position, and have found a way to get past their negative feelings. There is a reason why people volunteer their time in the service of others without court orders or school requirements forcing them to do so. The act gives them a sense of purpose. Time is your most valuable commodity, and choosing to use it to help someone you love? That is as good a reason as any to experience joy.