I am a family caregiver to both my parents and my father-in-law. I value this role and wholeheartedly take on this responsibility to support my parents and in-laws in the final stages of their lives (for more on this see blog). As a critical care doctor, I am trained to diagnose and treat. I bring that paradigm into family caregiving. In my interactions with my older loved ones, I try and assess and figure out what I can do to relieve their stress and suffering. This problem-focused, solution-oriented approached has worked well for me so far. However, I am beginning to wonder if a new paradigm is needed – a paradigm that allows me to ‘sit with’ and ‘be with’ the sufferer without always trying to find and fix the problem. Let me explain.
My mother has advanced dementia and last year, due to the declining health of my father, we had to place my mother in long-term care. It was a very difficult transition for both of them. My mother to this day wants to go home although she has no idea where her home is or what it looks like. We visit my mom frequently and have organized friends and paid caregivers to provide companionship to my mother. However, she remains unhappy and even angry that she can’t be at home. My father is in pain witnessing my mom’s suffering and feels inadequate that he can’t continue to support my mom at home because of his declining health.
What if this is an unsolvable problem?
After months of dealing with this problem and trying different approaches to solving it, I am convinced it is an unsolvable problem. There is nothing I can do but ‘sit with’ my parents in their pain and provide emotional and spiritual support. I wonder how many other family caregivers, caring for loved ones with relentless chronic illnesses experience the same situation and have come to the same conclusion.
I am reminded of the “Serenity Prayer” that starts: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.”1 I pray for that wisdom to know when I can help relieve suffering and when I just need to ‘be with’ my loved ones in their suffering. Discerning the difference is vital to the role of family caregiver. If we were constantly writhing to solve the problem, to settle my mom, and ‘make her happy’, we may never pause long enough just to acknowledge, validate their pain, help them feel understood, and bring understanding to the situation.
‘Fixer Syndrome’ is a Pathway to Burnout
Furthermore, subscribing to ‘fixer syndrome’ is a pathway to burnout as a caregiver. There is evidence that the ‘acceptance’ of the reality of the situation is the first step to making that deep human connection with another that suffers, developing resilience, and finding peace in the journey.2 Family caregivers that can accept things as they really are and adapt to them, without having to ‘fix’ them, are likely to experience less depression, increased health, positive social support and improved quality of care for their loved ones.3
We will all become a caregiver or need a caregiver at some point in life. Wishing you all acceptance, courage, and wisdom in your caregiving journey.
For more on fixing vs. listening, see:
- Read more at: https://www.lords-prayer-words.com/famous_prayers/god_grant_me_the_serenity.html
- Moens M, Jansen J, De Smedt A, Roulaud M, Billot M, Laton J, Rigoard P, Goudman L. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Increase Resilience in Chronic Pain Patients: A Clinical Guideline. Medicina (Kaunas). 2022 Mar 30;58(4):499. doi: 10.3390/medicina58040499. PMID: 35454337; PMCID: PMC9025890.
- Sorayyanezhad, A., Nikpeyma, N., Nazari, S. et al. The relationship of caregiver strain with resilience and hardiness in family caregivers of older adults with chronic disease: a cross-sectional study. BMC Nurs 21, 184 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12912-022-00966-3