Empowering Caregivers {interview with Gail R. Mitchell}

I was talking with a great friend about balancing work and family, having time to nurture your creative side, and how to approach the delicate subject of caring for your parents as they age.

At this moment, neither of us is in a caregiving position for our parents or in-laws, but we know that as the years go by, this topic will become our reality.

My friend was clear and very serious when she said, “My focus is and will always be on my husband and children. I do not want to think about my parents getting older or in an ailing way. I do not have that nurturing chip for older people, and I feel kinda bad about that, but I’m being honest.

Ok, that’s one approach.

I respected my friend’s honesty about being a future caregiver for her parents and I was surprised she was thinking she would be opting out of caring for them as they aged. I guess as an only child, I never thought I would have a choice whether to care for my parents, or not, when they need me to step up to that task.

My friend has two siblings and maybe she’ll put the two of them in the driver’s seat when it’s time to care for their parents.

This exchange got me to thinking about caregiving and I was fortunate to be able to discuss this topic with Gail R. Mitchell. Gail is the founder of Empowering Caregivers, as well as an artist and a fascinating lady. We had a great time discussing the topic of caregiving.

For me, talking with Gail felt like I was chatting with a close girlfriend. She was generous with her time and I learned a lot during our discussion.

What are you doing in San Miguel de Allende right now? I’m so jealous. I did some of my field work, for my graduate studies, in San Miguel. 

I’m working on ceramics.  This led me to work on Crystal Illumination art and Crystal Lumière.

Where can I see some of your artwork?

Check out my websites – Crystalilluminationart.com, crystallumiere.com or Gailrmitchell.com. For me, art is healing. I’m at the time in my life where I want to continue to heal and inspire, in addition to making a difference in ending suffering.

That sounds amazing, Gail. What made you create Empowering Caregivers?

I took care of my husband in the 80s, and two friends dying of AIDS. I began meditating to deal with the stress. I moved back to New York, from Arizona, when my father was diagnosed with cancer.

I immediately fell into the support role for both my parents, and my father was sick for two years. I used journaling to capture my thoughts. I did this every day.  In 1995, there was not enough information around caregiving. There were “how-to” books, but the direct experiences of caregiving and the various dysfunctions were not addressed in these books. This lack of resources motivated me to develop a website to support others. I wanted my site to offer spiritual, emotional, and mental support because most of the other caregiving sites had an academic focus with a lot of stats.

I founded the National Organization for Empowering Caregivers and it closed after about nine years so I could move on to a different chapter in my life.

I know Empowering Caregivers is an older site, but it does provide a warm fuzzy feel, and it is still thriving. It has seen over 12 million visitors from over 200 countries. It’s an incredible support and resource for caregivers and most of all a labor of love.

You have a lot of great information on the site, if someone is new to the site, where should they start?

Checking out the caregiving articles is a great place to start. There is a directory of areas readers can explore. The categories also help to organize the information for easy navigation.

There are excellent resources from various caregiving experts and contributors with lots of points of views. The forums are interesting. Right now, people don’t actively participate, but they are lurking and reading the information. There is a great value in reading other’s experiences to heal yourself, and to learn and grow.

Journaling can provide a space and place to release negative thoughts into the pages. The exercises are really good because caregivers are often in isolation with too much time alone to focus on negative thoughts. Many times challenging situations can be resolved via journaling. It’s extremely cathartic and allows you release your thoughts so they don’t build out of proportion.

Caregivers are afraid to reach out for support and let others know they are vulnerable. People mask their vulnerability because they don’t want to upset others. Caregiving is an emotional roller coaster and caregivers blame themselves for a lot and struggle to release control. It is ok to release and cry. Caregivers need to remember this.

Many caregivers who do reach out for support don’t receive it because people who have not been caregivers don’t know how to deal with it – or how to offer support. Most of them are in denial about helping those in need because they haven’t walked in a caregiver’s shoes. The only people who really understand are other caregivers going through it and some professionals.

The internet is a great resource to lessen isolation. It can serve as an incredible healing tool and can be a life support and life saver for caregivers. It’s important to find a community of other caregivers because people who have not been in this situation don’t want to deal with death, dying or poor health – they can’t cope.

Caregivers forget to make time and space to take care of themselves and to heal. Caregivers need support in prioritizing self-care time when they are not exhausted.

When people hear caregiver, they often think of caring for young children or older adults with failing health – help us better understand who falls into the caregiver category.

There are the sandwich caregivers – who are taking care of kids, spouse and their elderly parent. Anyone on this list can be ill – which is very difficult for sandwich caregivers.

What are you currently reading?

No time to read right now, I’m just doing research. When I do read, I’m not reading caregiver books. I’m reading books that are spiritual in nature.

I’m at the point in my life where I have the chance to reinvent myself and move on with my life. I have spent so much time in my personal and professional life focused on caregiving – it’s time for something different.

What is your 6 word memoir in regards to being an effective caregiver?

Knowledge.  Forgiveness.  Love.  Gratitude.  Mindfulness. Surrender.

Anything else to share?

It’s easier to care for others than it is to care for ourselves. If we gave ourselves 50% of the love and care – that we give to our loved ones – we’d be in much better shape.

Be open, clear, transparent, and talk about caregiving decisions as early as possible.

As a caregiver, get out of your ego as much as possible. Be clear about your needs and don’t try to predict the needs of those you are caring for.

We put such pressure on ourselves over things we do not have control over. Death will come and we don’t go a minute before it’s our time. We lose site of the spiritual side to strengthen us. We get caught up in the drama of the caregiving and forget about the compassion within this important work.

Thank you, Gail.


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