Mindful caregiving
May 9, 2016 | by The Polyclinic

When someone you love develops a chronic condition, it can be emotionally challenging. Research is showing that mindfulness – or intentionally paying attention to the present moment with nonjudgment – turns out to be equally as beneficial for those of us who are caregivers as it is for those of us who need caregiving. A mindfulness practice can improve not only our experiences of caregiving, but also the ways in which we (re)act as caregivers.

The Hidden Patient

A caregiver is commonly referred to as the “hidden patient” because their needs and level of self-care are often either underestimated or ignored. The general rate of depression in caregivers is 1 in 5, compared to the general population’s rate of 1 in 20. Caregiver burden – or the natural effects of draining one’s emotional, physical, financial and social capacity in the well-intentioned name of providing care for another – is abundant.

In one study, 78% of informal caregivers, or caregivers providing care based on kinship or social connection, were in need of additional resources to prevent or support caregiver burden. Mindfulness is an affordable and accessible resource: You can practice for free, whether you are sitting in the car, in a waiting room, or on a meditation cushion!

In addition to looking at caregiver needs to prevent caregiver burden, researchers have been looking at the varied types of caregiving situations in which mindfulness provides benefits to caregivers. For example, research looking at caregivers of those with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) shows that paying attention to the present moment nonjudgmentally has protective factors against caregiver burden. It also promotes resiliency, which reduces stress: It helps us to see that disease is ever changing and moments of joy may still be present in the person for whom we are caring.

Benefits of Mindfulness Across Conditions

Fortunately, the benefit of mindfulness for caregivers isn’t specific to a chronic condition. Research on caregivers for both those with cancer and those with Alzheimer’s disease found that caregivers experience higher rates of depression than those for whom they are caregiving. It suggests that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy can be adapted to specifically address each type of caregiving to increase caregivers’ quality of life and improve self-rated mood. One study created a mindfulness program for caregivers of patients with mild cognitive decline, and 84% of participants felt they benefited from the program. Caregivers of frail elderly showed decreased levels of stress and burden at a 1-month follow up after an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course. Even caregivers of children with chronic disabilities or illness reported that using a mindfulness practice during a hospital visit helped the visit to go more smoothly. No matter the type of chronic condition you’re providing care for, a mindfulness practice can help reduce the level and experience of stress and caregiver burden.

Mindfulness is even being integrated into training for professional caregivers. One such training, Mindfulness-Based Positive Behavior Supports, teaches mindfulness to staff working in community homes for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities prone to aggressive behavior. Results showed a reduction in frequency of staff stress levels, injury and turnover, as well as a reduction in restraints used on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Mindfulness impacts not only staff’s internal experience of a challenge, but also their external reaction to that challenge.

In the busy and full world of caregiving, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself as well. But carving out time and money can make self-care seem like yet-another task. Mindfulness can help you practice the kind of self-care you need to continue providing care for someone you love.