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Empowering Caregivers

6 Steps To Reclaim Your Life And Relationships

Strokes, whether caring for your husband, wife or parent, you can follow simple strategies to solve problems and discover that your life and relationships are not over. You can uncover the love and caring you once experienced and reclaim the closeness and your loving bonds. Learned communication is the key to the options and choices which make this possible.

As you learned in my recent article, “Why You Should Discuss Sensitive Subjects”, caregivers avoid discussing difficult issues with their partners because it feels selfish. They feel guilty, they're afraid they’ll upset their loved one, that it won't make any difference, or they simply don't know how to do it. In their silence, the problems begin.

Do you experience these common caregiver concerns? Mark is recovering nicely from a severe stroke. However, now in their 70s, it’s hard for Mark and his wife, Mary, to handle unexpected changes that come their way. Watching her husband struggle is incredibly difficult, yet she also has to deal with numerous concerns common to most caregivers. These include her day-to-day role in his care, her self-care, household management, sleep, sex and intimacy--all of which put strains on their marriage. Hygiene and appearance concern Mary, as they do many caregivers. Mark has lost a lot of weight, and his stroke affects his posture. Mary is concerned that others might think she’s failing in her “wifely duties” because he looks unkempt. So, she criticizes him, in front of others, saying he looks like he’s slouching in his suits. Mark, and everyone present, is deeply embarrassed--for both of them. Instead of having a private discussion, she repeatedly breaks their intimate and loving bond. 

Using learned communication methods resolves concerns. Noticing other people’s reactions and realizing she was unkind, Mary decided she had to make some changes. Using my book, she learned the Six Step Communication and Resolution Strategy allowing her to compassionately and effectively collaborate with Mark. Here are the six steps:

Step 1. Declare your concerns – to yourself.

Mary began with the 24-Question Planning Guide and wrote down, for her eyes only, her concerns and complaints. A typical list may include topics ranging from minor annoyances (You’re always breaking things. I can't take your complaining), to fears (How will I pay the bills after if you can’t go back to work? You'll fall down if you don't use the walker), and everything in between (I'm sad we can't make love anymore. I wish I could get a break. Your family takes me for granted).

Step 2. Choose your discussion topics.

Next, Mary learned to organize her concerns so she could decide which things she would talk about with Mark. Four categories were all she needed: A--things I want to say but don't expect a response to; B--things I want to say but won't, because it won't make a difference; C--things I want to say but should only share with a friend; D--things I really need to talk about, know about, have resolved, or make a decision about. Category D are the topics you will discuss with your love one.

No topic is off limits, but the wording you use and the way you express yourself will determine the proper category. For instance, saying “You really stink and I can’t stand being around you” isn’t off limits, but would go into C--only to share with a friend or confidant. However, saying “I’m concerned about your hygiene” is fine for Category D and sharing with your loved one.

Step 3. Familiarize yourself with easy tips that make communication more effective.

Several techniques are described in “Sensitive Subjects”. In addition, Mary learned reflective listening, for which she’d repeat back to Mark what he just said, instead of interpreting. If you interpret what someone says, it will stop a conversation dead in its tracks.

Step 4. Make a "talking date" with your loved one.

Using her new tips and tools, Mary set up a “talking date” with Mark. Rather than, “We need to talk”, Mary began, “Mark, I have some concerns about your appearance. I know I’m not handling that very well, so I’d like to talk about it. Would this evening be good, or would tomorrow morning at breakfast be better?”  She used an “I” statement because, it wasn’t Mark’s desire to talk. Then, rather than demanding the discussion on the spot, she gave two closed-end options knowing that just asking Mark when they could talk probably would have been answered with, “Never! 

Knowing that some settings are more conducive to good conversation than others, Mary picked a lovely location. Depending on your loved one’s condition, you may choose a place such as your porch, a park, a boat ride or the hospital chapel or solarium.

Step 5. Prepare for the "big talk."

Before you have your discussion, take some time to look at your topic list and briefly run the discussion through your mind, focusing on ways to encourage mutual respect. Instead of an adversarial discussion, you and your loved one are going to collaborate to resolve issues and problems and plan a course of action. Next, put away your list and notes and make yourself as calm as possible. Avoid caffeine, cigarettes, and sugar which can make you hyper, and alcohol or drugs, which can cloud your thinking.

Step 6. Have your talk, and create agreements.

Having employed mutual respect and compassion in their discussion, Mary and Mark came up with several agreements, such as Mary no longer criticizing Mark and having some clothing altered. Occasionally, partners hit an impasse and have the option to agree to disagree on a topic in order to reestablish peace in the home. This is much healthier than continuing to argue over something that won’t change.

Now Mary has taken all the important steps on the path–the path to making life easier, and making her life and marriage work. She and Mark can now reclaim their loving bond.

By: Diana B. Denholm, PhD, LMHC, has been a board-certified psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For 11 years, she was the primary caregiver to her husband during a series of grave illnesses. Whether you are caring for a husband, wife or parent, you’ll find detailed guidance, support, and resources are in her book, The Caregiving Wife's Handbook: Caring for Your Seriously Ill Husband, Caring for Yoursel

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