Care-giving < = > Heart-giving
It is estimated that over 40 million people in America are caring for a loved one at home. Every day, we see many instances where caregiving is done without pay. For example, in 2015 there were roughly 300,000 breast cancer patients in America who were all being cared for by their spouses. The data also showed that roughly 25%-35% of the caregivers are suffering from anxiety or clinical depression according to Dr. Frances Lewis, a Nursing Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
In many families in Hawaii within our Asian/Pacific Island culture, we see a steady increase of giving family care to those with dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, high blood pressure, terminal illnesses including the end stage of cancer, and heart disease. I believe some of the readers of this article are currently caregivers or at least know someone who is giving care to a family member at home or at a facility.
When we have a patient with a serious illness, whether it is physical or mental, medical attention is of course focused on the patient. Dr. Lewis cautions however, that illnesses have a strong affect to not just the patients but to their caregivers as well. She calls this the “jump” effect. Unfortunately, much needed care for those providing the care is often neglected. Caregivers often refuse to pay attention to themselves in the face of a more serious illness. They even feel a sense of guilt when they spend time to take care of themselves.
Dr. Lewis conducted a unique experiment on caregivers who cater to the needs of patients with breast cancer. The researchers requested these participants to complete simple tasks for an extended period of time.
- Spend at least 15 minutes a day doing something you enjoy that is not directly connected to caregiving. Examples include riding a bike, listening to music, calling friends, or practicing meditation. This task was to help them get used to spending some time on their self-care. them get used to spend some time for self-care.
- Practice active listening with a spouse by genuinely listening without trying to fix things. Dr. Lewis named it as the process of “becoming a love sponge”. By just simply listening to his wife, absorbing her words and feelings, similar to a sponge.
The results of the tests (including samples of both blood and saliva) showed intriguing results. On one hand, the breast cancer patients showed a remarkable increase of an anti-inflammatory biomarker. Interestingly, more than the patients, the caregiver’s immune system has improved in numbers. All the husband did was consciously take care of themselves and practice active listening with their spouse. Every day, the husband would ask their wives, “how is it today?” It was important to be there by listening and not seeking to “fix” things.
Caregiving is hard work and it requires both physical and mental tenacity. Dr. Lewis’s research shows that it is indeed a labor of love. Once the caregiver is able to understand that caring for themselves is just as important as caring for the needs of others, the work brings healing to both the recipient and the provider of the care. Active listening is an important part of “becoming a love sponge”.