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Staying present enhances your caregiving

Taking time to smell the roses
Taking time to smell the roses
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The following is an exerpt for my forthcoming book One Foot in Heaven: Healing Wisdom for Families Coping with Alzheimer's disease. Please susbscribe to this e-zine to receive more excerpts like this one, and to receive special tips on how to reduce caregiver burn-out.

After my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease I cried for a solid month. I’d wake up every hour or so during the night crying and worrying about the future. Although I never had a full-blown panic attack, I was in a continual state of panic, thinking, “What happens when Morris is unable to recognize us? What happens when he can no longer drive? Will I have to put him in a nursing home? Will I have enough money?”

The questions would grip my mind and squeeze tears onto my pillow until I fell into an exhausted sleep. The cycle would repeat itself all night long. The same fearful thoughts intruded my day, only to be shoved into the background when I managed to write or tend to household chores. I discovered Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, which is what I credit with saving my sanity. It helped me learn how to stay focused on the present—the here and now. When you realize that the present is the only thing that is real it frees you from the fear of what is to come. Even though you might have an idea of what the future holds, from a medical prognosis or an astrology reading, if you stay focused on the present you can avoid the emotions that get triggered when you think about putting someone in a nursing home. . . or running out of money . . . or losing a spouse. The list goes on and on.

The reality of life is that we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. The only reality is what is happening right now in this moment. When you find yourself getting scared and fearful about what might happen tomorrow or next week or in a year from now, stop and ask yourself this: “How do I feel right now, this second?” Most of the time you’ll answer, “Okay. I’m okay right now.” You might not be okay in an hour from now, or tomorrow, but you can loosen the grip of fear when you come back to the absolute present, which is NOW.

Of course, in dealing with practicalities we have to plan for the future. Writing a will, filling out medical directives, making a doctor’s appointment, and taking the car in to get serviced require us to think about the future. It’s easy—and natural—to become preoccupied with future events. Ancient Vedic texts describe the human mind as a monkey jumping from branch to branch, until it is trained to settle down and experience pure consciousness, or the source from where all thoughts originate.

People have a tendency to play different scenarios over and over in their minds about what can happen if we make a certain decision or act in a particular way. Most of the time those scenarios are seldom realized. We play them out in our minds and they fade away after causing us to lose sleep, and wreaking havoc on our emotions and overall health.

Training my mind to stay in the present was one of the greatest tools that helped me to get through the day, the weeks, the months and the years of caring for someone with a chronic, terminal disease. During the day when I found myself thinking about a future event or outcome such as what will we do when we run out of money? I reminded myself to come back to the here and now, and that my thoughts about the past or future were not part of my reality. This technique definitely helped to dispel my worries about the future and helped me maintain peace of mind, which helped me stay calmer and more patient with Morris. And although it sounds contradictory, staying emotionally and mentally grounded in the present helped me maintain the mental clarity necessary for making future arrangements. Staying present is a valuable technique that I incorporated into my spiritual practice then, and which I still use and will continue to use.

Learning how to stay present enhances how you relate to the person you are caring for, allowing you to create community with that person. The simple act of breathing with someone—of matching your breath to theirs—enables you to create a spiritual connection with that person.
1) Light a candle to create a soothing space. Place two chairs side by side or facing one another.
2) Ask your care partner to sit naturally and comfortably.
3) Just breathe in and out, matching his or her breath.
4) Hold the person’s hand, if you like, and speak sweetly or sing together, staying in the present moment. Read a poem, chant or pray together, or listen to music together. Enjoy the moment. It will never repeat itself in exactly the same way.

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