Alzheimer's blog

Gratitude helps caregivers find a better way of living

By Angela Lunde December 1, 2015

I'm writing this around Thanksgiving, the official day of giving thanks and cultivating feelings of gratitude. I love writing about gratitude because it means that I'm taking time to reflect on my own life, and the ways I feel blessed.

Much of the time it can be hard to feel grateful. Few of us would feel grateful if we lost a job, had to leave our home due to unforeseen circumstances, or received a diagnosis of a progressive illness such as Alzheimer's. Most of you who are caregivers probably don't associate countless hours focusing on someone else's needs, with feelings of gratitude.

Yet, gratitude isn't a random feeling that only rises up if good things are happening. It's not a way of thinking and feeling only available at certain times. Gratitude is more like a radio channel. We decide when to turn it on, what station to listen to, how much attention to give it, and whether to turn the volume up or down. In this way, gratitude is a cognitive process, one that each of us controls and cultivates.

Cultivating gratitude begins by paying attention and acknowledging all that we take for granted.  Did you sleep well last night or sneak in a nap? Did someone treat you with courtesy? Did you catch a glimpse of the sunrise?  Did your warm shower feel good on a chilly morning?

The next step is recognizing that we choose what to focus on and how to interpret whatever comes our way. When you go for a walk, do you focus on litter or the flowers in lawns and parks?

Do you feel annoyed by the homeless person you pass, or do you take that moment to give thanks for the roof over your head and food in your refrigerator?  Do you become agitated by the repeated questions from the person living with dementia, or are you grateful for the virtues they're teaching you — patience, resourcefulness, acceptance, empathy, courage, forgiveness, and slowing down.

Seeing our life through a grateful lens doesn't mean denying that bad things happen. I'm not advocating you put on a pair of superficial rose-colored glasses. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking will change this truth. I'm saying you can experience a better way of living by tuning in, and turning up, the channels of gratitude.

Maybe today you could search for that channel in your mind, the one that says, "Life right now isn't necessarily great, but I'm grateful for _____ (fill in the blank). Consider staying tuned in for a few minutes. These moments you spend paying attention to what you're grateful for are the same moments you aren't feeling sad, angry or helpless.

But if you just can't shake the painful feelings, that's all right too. There's beauty in pain. Pain symbolizes that we love or care about something or someone. Know that you can be grateful for painful moments as well, and that this is a form of self-care.

"As difficult as these challenges are, they can also provide profound moments of inspiration and grace. Sometimes it is through caring for others that we find healing in ourselves and a deepening of our faith."
— Kim Campbell (wife of Glen Campbell)

Recently AARP launched a new campaign called Random Acts of Kindness for Caregivers. The editors describe it as "our guide to gratitude and payback".  I encourage you to visit it at aarp.org/caregiverkindness

Please share what you're grateful for.

Dec. 01, 2015