If a friend were to tell you that writing could help you cope as a caregiver, what would you say? “There’s no way I have time to write! I already have too much to do”? In my early years of caregiving, I’m sure I would have said the same thing. But your writing doesn’t have to be polished, or time-consuming. And it’s a great way to think about your own needs when you’re busy taking care of the needs of others.
If you’re feeling pulled in all directions as a caregiver, spending a minute writing down what’s bothering you can be a real stress reliever. When my mother moved in with me and my young family in 2005, she was in the early stages of dementia, feeling scared, sad, and irritable. I wanted so badly for it to work out, having Mom live with us, but I knew very little about dementia or this new job of caregiving. Used to focusing on myself and the well-being of my children, I struggled to adjust to being a “sandwich generation” caregiver while holding down a job.
Two things helped me find my balance over those years: talking with other dementia caregivers at my Office for the Aging’s caregiver support group (find your local Office for the Aging here), and writing. As Mom and I butted heads, I started scribbling my worries and frustrations on pieces of scrap paper. It only took a couple of minutes, but I felt much better. I hadn’t written anything in years, not since college, but writing a few sentences here and there served as my “safety valve.”
If you are feeling overwhelmed as a caregiver, I encourage you to give writing a try. You don’t have to be a “writer” to benefit from writing.
3 Easy Ways to Write Your Way Through Caregiving Stress
1. Keep a journal
In addition to those scraps of paper tucked around the house, I started carrying a small notebook with me each day when I took the bus to work. Writing in this journal cleared my head of what was worrying me, whether it was Mom’s reluctance to eat, her refusal to try an adult day program, or my frustrations with doctors and medical crises.
If the thought of keeping a journal feels like too much, I highly recommend the book “You Want Me to Do What? Journaling for Caregivers,” by B. Lynn Goodwin.
2. Join a writing group
Over the years, as Mom moved from my home into assisted living, a rehab center, a “memory care” facility, and a nursing home, and as we navigated various medical crises, my journal filled up, and I took the writing a step further by joining a writing group.
Not every caregiver will feel that they have the time to do this, but if you are open to sharing your writing with others, a writing group can be a supportive place to explore your feelings about caregiving. (If you care for a loved one at home, getting away once a week to go to a writing group can be a rewarding way to get some respite. You have to take care of yourself before you can be an effective and resilient caregiver for someone else.)
A couple of years into my caregiving journey I joined a women’s writing group, and then later a different writing group for men and women, the second of which was called, appropriately, “Writing Through the Rough Spots.” The leader of this second group encouraged us to write about whatever difficult issues we were going through. Again and again I found myself writing about my mother, our challenging relationship over the years, and my ambivalence about being her caregiver. Over time, I began to write about more positive things, such as how I learned to slow down and enjoy my time with Mom, how dementia allowed her to live right “in the moment,” and how caregiving brought us closer together.
To find a writing group in your area, Google “writing group” or “writing workshop” and your location. Look for a group that welcomes everyone, not just people who write professionally and are looking for feedback on their writing projects. (A writing group for professionals is a totally different kind of animal.) I found my two writing groups through word of mouth and announcements in the local paper.
3. Write online
Another easy way to write down your concerns and frustrations—and get some helpful feedback at the same time—is to join a Facebook group for caregivers. If you are looking for a Facebook community of people who can empathize with the challenges of elder care, here are some examples:
Senior Caregivers (for all diagnoses)
When I became a caregiver, very few blogs existed about caregiving. Now, tons of caregivers are finding the same type of emotional release and comfort writing blogs as I did those initial years writing on paper. Ann Napolitan, whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease, writes a popular blog called “The Long and Winding Road: An Alzheimer’s Journey and Beyond.” She first started blogging as a creative outlet, but over time it became a place to record and explore her thoughts and emotions about her mother’s worsening dementia. She says, “I’ve always found writing therapeutic, but as Mom progressed into the latter stages of the disease, that was even more the case. Nothing can replace what Alzheimer’s stole, but if my writing can touch others and perhaps help them just a bit, I feel as though there was a purpose to our journey.”
If time is short, you could just add your comments to some of these popular blogs by caregivers:
Missing Jim (by Karen Garner, whose husband has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease)
Alzheimer’s Speaks (founded by Lori La Bey, whose mother has Alzheimer’s disease)
Alzheimer’s—My Mom, My Hero (by Lisa Hirsh, whose mother has Alzheimer’s disease)
Alzheimer’s Reading Room (founded by Bob DeMarco, whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease)
Commonsense Caregiving (by Gary Joseph LeBlanc, whose father had Alzheimer’s disease)
Girlfriends with Aging Parents (by Toby Donner and Norma Rosenthal)
One Brave Cowgirl (started by Carol Fant, whose mother has vascular dementia)
The Art of Alzheimer’s: How Mother Forgot Nearly Everything and Began to Paint (by Marilyn Raichle)
Whichever way you choose to write, putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) can help you keep your sanity as a new caregiver, and help you slow down enough to appreciate the many rewards of this new phase of your life. Writing is also a great way to keep your own needs in mind as you focus so heavily on the needs of others.
How has writing helped you as a caregiver? Do you have a favorite Facebook group or caregiver blog you’d like to share with us?