The importance of hope and optimism for carers

At long last there seemed to be a few things to provide hope for some carers – the start of being able to visit loved ones who are in care homes, the possibility of protection as a result of a vaccine and maybe even the prospect of more opportunities to meet and spend time with family and friends or join in various activities which can all contribute to taking care of yourself and staying well. However, at the same time, the new variant of the Covid virus is incredibly frightening and has led to increased restrictions in all our lives.

Working with carers over many years has taught me how important hope can be and what a difference it makes to have a sense of a future. Many carers told me that they had completely lost their feeling of the future. Sometimes they described how the work we did together restored their ability to look forward with a degree of hope and positivity. What they talked of to me was not about a dissatisfaction with the present. For many, myself included while I was caring for my mum, there is much about a caring role which is incredibly satisfying. While it can be tough on both a physical and an emotional level, it can also feel like a privilege to be able to provide care for someone you love. It may lead to a different and very precious relationship. There may be the opportunity to make decisions in a way which is right for yourself and the person you care for and as a result, a feeling that you are managing life in the way which works best for you. And there might just be a little less anxiety and worry since you are not relying on others and hoping they will care in the way you would hope for.  

While we sometimes might think it is not possible to feel two types of emotion at the same time – feeling blessed to be able to care for someone and at the same time exhausted by it – it is possible and it does happen. One moment a feeling of joy and satisfaction and the next a cloud of weariness and frustration descends on us.  Or worse, we can feel resentful, irritated or even angry, quickly followed by guilt and remorse. All of which is so exhausting!

So, what is the connection with a sense of the future and hope? One way of looking at this might be that resilience is the connection, resilience being the ability to cope and bounce back from whatever life throws at us.

One of my projects with carers was to look at and attempt to measure resilience. Several models of resilience include a sense of purpose as a key component. During the course of this particular project, I worked with carers whose resilience seemed to be connected to something inside them – their core, their inner strength. Elements of that core were their sense of themselves, their sense of purpose and connection with something bigger than themselves. For some it was a religious belief, for others something spiritual, or on occasions it was something else difficult to name.  

When we are resilient, we have more ability to do that coping and bouncing back in the face of life’s challenges. But resilience can be changeable like the weather. One day we can cope with anything and everything which comes our way and yet on another day, the same challenges completely destabilise us. Of course, there are some people who seem naturally more resilient than others. But don’t despair, just because we don’t feel resilient at the moment, it doesn’t mean we can’t find a way to become a bit more resilient.  

Our sense of ourselves with an identity and a feeling of purpose in our lives, other than as a carer, is crucial. If we have a sense of ourselves then we can feel OK about paying attention to our own needs as well as the needs of those we care for. And paying attention to our own needs can only happen if we are aware of them and value ourselves enough to satisfy those needs. Many carers have told me that reminding themselves of the self they may have forgotten, the self that is an individual as well as a carer, enables them to take care of their own wellbeing and to connect with the future and to plan for it in a more positive way, with some hope and optimism.

Unfortunately planning can seem a fruitless occupation as a carer! Frequently it is necessary to completely reorganise what we had planned in order to deal with something unexpected. The unexpected can disrupt our plans for the coming weeks and months, the next day or sometimes even for just the next hour. Being forced to change our plans on its own can make us feel slightly unstable. But if the unexpected also results in us missing something we had been looking forward to – a coffee with a friend, a few moments to ourselves, a long-anticipated telephone call – it might really blow us off course. Remembering what makes us an individual as well as a carer, may contribute to our resilience so that we are more likely to be able to stay afloat and adjust our plans without being completely destabilised.

Last Christmas I wished you peace at the festive season and in the year ahead, through the ability to accept how things are and freedom from longing for what is not possible. A year ago, we had no idea that this message might have even more poignancy for Christmas 2020. There is so much more this year which is either not possible or carries major risks. I wish you peace, joy and safety this festive season and in the year ahead.