The Zen of Caregiving

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No one said caring for your elderly mother would be easy. Even though she’s in her twilight years, she still seems to know how to get under your skin with those perfectly-timed critical remarks, just as she’s been doing since you were a child.

So what should you do? Snap back at your mom like you did as a bratty teenager or just hold it in? Maybe you should take cues from Jennifer Block, purveyor of “contemplative caregiving,” which applies Buddhist principles to the care of your loved one. Block is the founder of the Beyond Measure School for Contemplative Care and former director of education at the Zen Hospice project in San Francisco.

The New York Times’ New Old Age Blog posted a Q&A with Block, giving insight to the instructor’s techniques. Below are some experts from the interview.

On the challenges of caregiving:

People are for the most part unprepared for caregiving. They’re either untrained or unable to trust their own instincts. They lack confidence as well as knowledge. By confidence, I mean understanding and accepting that we don’t know all the answers — what to do, how to fix things.

We live in a fast-paced, demanding world that says don’t sit still — do something. But people receiving care often need most of all for us to spend time with them. When we do that, their mortality and our grief and our helplessness becomes closer to us and more apparent.

On the benefits of contemplative caregiving:

We teach people to cultivate a relationship with aging, sickness and dying. To turn toward it rather than turning away, and to pay close attention. Most people don’t want to do this.

A person needs training to face what is difficult in oneself and in others. There are spiritual muscles we need to develop, just like we develop physical muscles in a gym. Also, the mind needs to be trained to be responsive instead of reactive.

Skills learned via contemplative caregiving:

[One skill] is to become aware of how much we receive as well as give in caregiving. Caregiving can be really gratifying. It’s an expression of our values and identity: the way we want the world to be. So, I try to teach people how this role benefits them. Such as learning what it’s like to be old. Or having a close, intimate relationship with an older parent for the first time in decades. It isn’t necessarily pleasant or easy. But the alternative is missing someone’s final chapter, and that can be a real loss.

On caregiver needs:

I think every caregiver needs to have their own caregiver a therapist or a colleague or a friend, someone who is there for them and with whom they can unburden themselves. I think of caregiving as drawing water from a well. We need to make sure that we have whatever nurtures us, whatever supplies that well. And often, that’s connecting with others.

For more information, the article suggests picking up a copy of The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work.

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