Do you at times wrestle with the questions “Who am I really?” and “What am I doing with my life?” A caregiver’s personal identity may become overshadowed by the loved one with dementia as the disease progresses.
In speaking to caregivers, some have shared that they feel they have lost their personal identities. Their lives became so totally focused on their loved ones, that when the person dies, they are at a loss as to who they are and how to move on with their own lives.
When I was in college I loved studying psychology. I found the writings of Dr. Erik Erikson on the concept of core identity fascinating. In retrospect, I believe I was trying at that time to come to grips with my own sense of identity and purpose in life.
Erikson proposed a psychoanalytical theory of human development comprising eight stages from infancy to adulthood. “According to Erikson, the ego develops as it successfully resolves crises that are distinctly social in nature. These involve establishing a sense of trust in others, developing a sense of identity in society, and helping the next generation prepare for the future,” writes Saul McLeod.*
During major milestones and crisis situations in our lives, I think we wrestle with identity questions. The answers to these may change significantly over the course of our lifetime. Being a caregiver for my mother became a part of my identity when I was in my mid-fifties. In hindsight, I now realize what a major milestone it was in my life, and how this role helped fashion who I am today.
My friend and mentor, Merle Stern, composed the following meditation to help caregivers reflect on the basics of self-identity – our name.
Find a place and a time when you can quietly follow this meditation. Sit comfortably and gently close your eyes. Become aware, as you close your eyes, of the darkness replacing the light.
Listen to the sound that emanates from silence. Become aware of the sounds coming from the vibrations of your body when you are at peace; when you are angry; when you feel resentful; when you have a heavy heart; when you feel impatient; when you are singing; when you are crying; when you are laughing; when you are engaged in an argument; when you are dancing; when you are walking; etc.
Now take a few moments to reflect on your name. How it has come to define you, influence you, shape your identity? Take a few moments to reflect how you have evolved over the years and are still in the process of evolving.
What is the history surrounding your name? Who gave you your name? Try to imagine yourself as a baby and hearing your name being called by the people who surrounded you at that particular time in life. How would you have felt as a baby hearing your name being called?
When you think of your name, what story, memory, or experience flows out of it? How are your story, memory, or experience and your name interconnected?
How has your name grown with you over time: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, family relationships, different relationships along your life’s journey?
Identify some major life tasks that hinge on using your name, for example, when you went for your driver’s license, signing your name to a lease or mortgage, signing a marriage license, etc. How are these defining you?
What traits and values are important to you? What makes you different from any other person?
Lastly, gently close your eyes again and become aware of your breath, your body. Feel energy emanating from your body as you slowly say your name in a gentle, loving way. Feel the energy emanating, detoxifying any negative feelings that emerge physically, emotionally, and mentally. Let a sense of peace and contentment surround you.
Take a few minutes now to write out what you have experienced in this reflection on your name.
I hope this meditation helps affirm who you are, and that what you are doing as a caregiver has meaning and purpose. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who was exiled from Vietnam, wrote a book, Going Home, in which he discusses what it means to be human: “Live your daily life in a way that you never lose yourself. When you are carried away with your worries, fears, cravings, anger, and desire, you run away from yourself and you lose yourself. The practice is always to go back to oneself.”
Keep in contact with others for respite and support. I encourage you to regularly visit a support group in your local community. Support groups can offer a safe environment to express your struggles, anxieties and fears. They can offer help in reclaiming your identity if you feel lost at times in the caregiving role.
As Erik Erikson puts it, “The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.” Every bit of self-care and self-understanding improves your ability to care for your loved one.
I wish you peace, patience, and joy in your caregiving today and every day!
* * *
If you found this meditation helpful, I hope you will share it with family and friends. Please remember to credit Merle Stern and this website. Thank you!
* * *
To read the full article about Erik Erikson by Saul McLeod, go to: https://www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html.
* * *
Lizzie Velasquez is a motivational speaker, not a caregiver, but she gives wonderful insights in this TED talk about “What defines who you are as a person?” Watch it here: https://youtu.be/QzPbY9ufnQY.
* * *
To find a support program near you, check out the Alzheimer’s Association website: http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-support-groups.asp#chapter.