‘Who takes care of you?’

‘Who takes care of you?’

Conference for caregivers helps them remember that they also count 

JFCS’s CEO, Susan Greenbaum, and Banji Ganchrow talk at the conference.
JFCS’s CEO, Susan Greenbaum, and Banji Ganchrow talk at the conference.

Caregivers do not have it easy.

Whether you are a paid caregiver or a family member, the stress can be overwhelming. There is so much pressure to make sure that all the other person’s needs are met — feeding, clothing, toileting. The list goes on and on.

And it’s even harder if the patient has Alzheimer’s or any other kind of dementia.

When my editor forwarded me information about the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey and the Wolff Caregivers conference, “But Who Takes Care of You?” I jumped at the chance to hear what was going to be said. I was not the only one to react that way. The crowd at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly was an impressive one, which made me feel just a little less alone. Caregiving is one of those things that someone who is not doing it just can’t understand fully. And truthfully, you don’t want anyone to be able to understand it, because you don’t want anyone to be in that position. It is isolating, at times depressing, and emotionally draining.

The conference speaker was Maria Sirois, PsyD, who is an expert in something she called positive psychology. I, being anything but positive, was looking forward to being able to be cynical about it. But, fortunately, I was wrong.

Dr. Sirois explained that positive psychology isn’t about being positive all that time. That is humanly impossible. Her point is the importance of knowing that you are human — that you cannot be perfect. Still, you can find what she calls “micro-moments of positivity.” What are they? They are the moments we have, some in every single day, that are, well, positive. Noticing a beautiful blue sky, having a coffee with a friend, petting a dog — anything that is good; that gives you a chance to let your guard down. That makes you even briefly happy. It can be as fast as the time it takes to smell a flower. When you are a caregiver, your days can be long and stressful. It can feel like there isn’t anything good in the world at all. These micro-moments are ones that we have to pay attention to because they remind us that everything isn’t all bad, even if sometimes feels that way.

Dr. Sirois started the program with this story. And I am writing my version of the story, but we make the same point. There was a sage — usually we’re told it’s Rabbi Simcha Bunim — who said that you should always carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. One piece of paper says that you are nothing special. That you are dust to dust. And the other piece of paper says that the world was created just for you.

The trick is to figure out which piece of paper applies to you when. To balance them. To know that they’re both true. To realize that as caregivers, we sometimes forget that we really are special, and that doing the best we can is all we can do. We were put on this earth to help a loved one or to train to help someone else’s loved one, and just because we are dedicated to taking care of someone else, that does not mean that we should forget to take care of ourselves.

“It is okay to love ourselves,” Dr. Sirois said. “We have to give ourselves permission to be human. Permission not to be perfect. Permission to be human is an act of self compassion.”

As I said before, I really was ready to be cynical about all of this, but Dr. Sirois made so much sense and radiated so much compassion that I just wanted to hug and thank her for her words.

That feeling became even stronger when she said, “The balance of ‘I matter’ can become skewed.” It really does. How can you think you matter when you are caring for someone who doesn’t even remember that you are there? That still hurts, even when you know it isn’t their fault.

“You need permission to be human, to feel fractured, and then to repair yourself,” Dr. Sirois says. And it is so very true.

The group was given a homework assignment. (Don’t worry, we also were given bagels, so homework wasn’t so bad.) The assignment was that for the next 30 days, before we go to sleep, each of us was to think about what our best moment of the day was. Even if we had the very possible worst day, we should recall that best moment.

Dr. Sirios said that after time, the brain will retrain itself to find the positive. Is that true? Only time will tell. But I can tell you, with certainty, that I really have been trying to recognize those “micro-moments.” And it has been really helpful.

Susan Greenbaum is the CEO of JFCS, which co-sponsored the event with the JCC. “The Wolff Caregiver program is specifically targeted to support people who are caregivers for people with dementia,” she said. “Ilene Wolff and her family are sponsors of the event.” Ms. Wolff had a family member who suffered from dementia, which is why the family is so involved. She spoke at the program. “The Wolff Caregiver program offers family counseling, educational workshops, home health aide support,” as well as other services, she said; the JFCS can supply information about all of them.

Patty Stoll, who is the director of senior services at JFCS, told me that it offers “in-home assessments as well as home health care hours, if the patient meets the financial requirements.” This is good information to have, because hiring aides can place a tremendous financial strain on seniors who already have limited incomes.

For more information about these programs, call Ms. Stoll at (201) 837-9090, ext. 239. This is an important resource no matter where you are in the caregiver process. Support is so crucial in getting through day to day.

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