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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mindfulness and Self-Care for Caregivers

My family is very private, so I won't go into too much detail. But I will say this:

My mom died of a brain tumor a few months ago. Prior to her illness she was a professor and a renowned scholar in her field. I'll leave it at that, but I'm sure you get the picture.

Since she was diagnosed after I started Mindful Teachers, I've sometimes felt like I've been living in an intense personalized mindfulness retreat. I've learned an incredible amount about the mind, and the brain, and myself, and mindfulness, and compassion, and teaching.

That journey has indirectly affected much of what I've written on other topics, but I wanted to devote an entire post specifically to caregiving. If you're a caregiver (carer), whether professionally or for a family member, I wish you all the best and hope the following advice and links give you some comfort and strength.


These are the practices that I found most useful while helping take care of my mom.


There's plenty of general advice like "It's important for caregivers to practice mindfulness," and "You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of others." Well, yes. But how? And please don't make it sound simple or easy!

The following articles have specific suggestions that I found quite helpful.

If you're a professional caregiver, I recommend the Top 12 Self-Care Tips for Helpers by compassion fatigue specialist Fran├žoise Mathieu.

Also be sure to check out the Self-Care page here at Mindful Teachers; it's not specifically for caregivers but there are links to a lot of resources on stress, burnout, and life-work balance.


Titles link to Amazon for your convenience; receives no financial benefit for books ordered through links on this site.


1. Practice a quick, neutral response to unhelpful advice.

As soon as they hear that you have a family member who's ill or in the hospital, a lot of people will give you 'helpful' advice without thinking through what they're saying.

Here's one of my favorites:

"I have to tell you about this great folk remedy that worked really well in curing my mom's cancer before she died."

Most of the time, it's appropriate to say something like

“Thanks for your suggestion.”


"Thanks for your support."

and leave it at that.

Or you might briefly explain why the advice isn't relevant to you, for example (and yes, I really said this to someone):

"I'm so glad that worked for you, but my parents don't have access to the urine of baby camels, so I think we'll stick with her doctors' advice."

But sometimes, the comments can be downright offensive.  For example, a kind, well-intentioned person tried to encourage my mom by telling her:

"Chemo is hard, but it's so worth it. I've been in remission for fifteen years, and I've never felt better. You can beat cancer, too!"

My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer (glioblastoma multiforme). Her friend survived stage 2 breast cancer. This is not an equivalent situation. (And by the way, we know a couple of women who died very young from breast cancer.)

If someone is going on and on in a way that's really bothering you, it's OK to say something like

"I understand that you're trying to help, but that's not the type of help I need right now."

[update 7/28/17: My dad just sent me a Huffington Post essay by a journalist whose husband died from gliobastoma.  Very hard-hitting but thought-provoking perspective.  Also worth sharing: How to Talk to A Loved One Who is Suffering, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant: 
"I knew that people were doing their best; those who said nothing were trying not to bring on more pain, those who said the wrong thing were trying to comfort. I saw myself in many of these attempts—they were doing exactly what I had done when I was on the other side.]

2. Quickly check to see if offers of help are sincere or just polite.

If someone says 
“Is there anything I can do? Anything at all?”

try immediately asking for something and see how they respond.
“That would be wonderful. We really need someone to take her to a doctor’s appointment Wednesday morning.”

The person will either:
  • say yes; 
  • scurry away as quickly as possible; or 
  • express regret but come up with an alternate way of helping. 
“I’m not available during the day, but I’d be happy to pay for a taxi or ask mutual friends if anyone’s available. In the meantime, would it be helpful if I picked up dinner for you on my way home from work?”

Any of these responses gives you very useful information about the person who's offering help and what to expect from them.

3. Know Your Own Limits

We had an amazing home health aide, and we're blessed with an incredibly supportive network of family, friends, and colleagues. It was still very, very hard to keep my mom at home throughout her illness. It was the right decision for us, but it isn't the right decision for everyone.

You have to make the choices that work for you, especially if you're a helping professional who's also caring for a family member. During the last month of our mother's illness, my sister arranged for a leave of absence from the church where she serves as pastor. Again, this isn't a viable option for everyone, but it's worth seriously considering what you can do to feel less torn between caring for your 'flock' and caring for your family: perhaps a reduction in hours, or a shift to administrative tasks instead of working directly with clients.


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