Caregiving is a marathon. These tips from 30-year caregiver Peter Rosenberger will help you pace yourself.
Jun 2, 2017
As families adapt to the massive need of caring for vulnerable loved ones, an increasing number of male caregivers are emerging. While the circumstances of caregiving can be similar for both men and women, the approach to the role can differ. Three decades of serving as a caregiver for my wife with severe disabilities has given me some insight into how to guide men in maintaining their own emotional health throughout their caregiving journey. That lengthy experience unexpectedly intersected with the martial arts I study, and earning my black-belt also provided teachable moments for me as a caregiver. Here are 4 tips for male caregivers that I've learned from martial arts.
1) Go with the Flow
When I was first introduced to martial arts, I, like many men in my class, mistakenly relied on my body size and muscles to execute a technique and intimidate an opponent. Referring to how so many men flex, strain, and use body strength to force a technique, we often hear our instructor repeating, “If you muscle up, you’re doing it wrong.”
With that admonition echoing in my mind, I can’t help but see the parallels in my journey as a caregiver. When I try to force an issue with personality, persuasion, or even power, I’m usually doing it wrong. I tend to approach problems by “taking the bull by the horns and wrestling it to the ground.” Serving as a caregiver, however, is not something to be solved, but rather a responsibility we assume and proceed to integrate with our lives. Like trying to navigate rapids on a flowing river, repeatedly fighting the “caregiving whitewater” will simply wear us out. Our strength, no matter how great, is simply not enough to face the torrents of caregiving. We need to seek out physical, emotional and mental support whenever we can, and we need to let go of our desire to fix things that are so beyond our control. Release the need for control and just support our loved one however we can.
Breathing slowly and purposefully is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. Inhaling for four seconds and then exhaling for eight seconds facilitates calmness. Breathing properly helps us remember our lack of control over most of the challenges facing us, as caregivers. We simply serve as stewards and do the best we can. Straining, while trying to "white-knuckle" through the crisis du jour of caregiving, renders us ineffective at best, harmful at worst. Calming oneself through purposeful breathing remains one of the most effective tools in my caregiving toolkit.
3) Address the Closest Need
Some men can look at all the problems in our field of view and subsequently try to tackle all of them at once. The healthier approach is dealing with what is nearest to us. An opponent at a distance can wait until we have subdued the obstacle directly in front of us. Difficult things may lurk on the horizon for caregivers, but fixating and fretting over them is unhealthy. Planning is appropriate, but we better serve ourselves and others by focusing on what lies within our grasp, rather than living in the wreckage of our future.
4) Respond Rather than Anticipate
Trying to predict the behaviors or words of others can launch us into action before events unfold. A recent Hapkido sparring match drove this point home in an uncomfortable way for me. Feeling certain my opponent would throw a punch, I fixated on his shoulder and mentally prepared my move. He surprised me with a roundhouse kick to the chest. The discomfort felt on the mat pales to my embarrassment over the same type of behavior as a caregiver. I’ve lost count of how many times I jumped the gun to quell something before it started, only to get it wrong—and sadly, worsen the situation. Waiting to see how events unfold allows time to respond rather than to mistakenly anticipate a possible outcome.
When someone we love is hurting, suffering, or is impaired, men often leap to action and fight the danger. While a good trait in an emergency, it’s unsustainable in the marathon of caregiving—particularly in relationship dynamics. That impulse to conquer a problem not only exhausts us, it can also easily misdirect us, while simultaneously engaging us in too many battles on multiple fronts. As Don Diego stated to Alejandro in The Mask of Zorro, "Oh, yes, my friend, you would have fought very bravely, and died very quickly."
While bravery and action remains important, discretionary valor is equally, if not more, essential as a caregiver. That discretion of knowing when to act, speak, or be still—comes with time and practice. If we, as men, must conquer something while serving as a caregiver, then overcoming our desire to feel in control is a worthy objective. The sense of being in control makes us feel better. The goal, however, is not to make ourselves feel better as a caregiver; the goal is to be better. That victory of being better happens for us as caregivers when we calm our hearts, focus on the immediate, and deal with what is—rather than what we anticipate or wish to happen. In equipping ourselves to flow with this raging river rather than fight it, we become healthier caregivers. And healthy caregivers make better caregivers.
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. Matthew 6:34