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Posted: April 28, 2005

Caregiver Journaling

Find Long-Lasting Self-Help at Your Fingertips

Today's elder-caregiver is turning increasingly to a simple yet surprisingly effective age-old tool to help them with their daily challenges: journaling.


The process is really very simple; you don't need special tools or abilities to benefit from journaling. Yet keeping a journal -- simply recording feelings and events in a private or online log -- can turn into a long-lasting self-help tool leading to healing and empowerment for caregivers. And, according to studies, the time-tested practice also offers physical health benefits to caregivers.

Drive Longer, Stay Independent

A notebook or blank journal and a comfortable writing instrument are really all you need to begin down the cathartic path of journal writing.  Allow yourself the freedom to write when you feel heavy with worry and burdens or when you are joyful about a particularly uplifting event.  Caregiving carries enough demands without feeling pressured to write on a daily basis.  Rigid structure isn't required to reap the benefits of this down-to-earth yet powerful tool. 


Finding time to write can be a challenge for anyone, let alone a time-stretched family caregiver.  The next time you are waiting at the doctor's office, consider using the time to update your journal.  Journaling may even cut down on doctor visits, according to research.  James W. Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, conducted studies that showed improved immune system functioning in individuals who wrote about emotionally difficult events or feelings for 20 minutes at a time over a three- or four-day period. 


Additional research from the University of North Dakota found that journaling reduced symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis when individuals wrote about traumatic events.  Starting your day a half hour earlier or staying up a half hour later is another way to find time for yourself.  Journaling before bedtime may even offer a more restful night of sleep.  Caregivers who use respite services can dedicate a small portion of that time to writing.


Guided journals are available that contain topic starters to help journalists get started writing.  Marion Karpinski, registered nurse and author of A Guided Journal for Caregivers, says journaling gives caregivers an opportunity to express anger without hurting anyone and provides a way to release difficult emotions.   Karpinski adds that "journaling also allows caregivers to explore parts of themselves they may not be aware of.  It allows them to reflect on their life experience and to preserve memories about the person being cared for."


Another popular journaling option is the web log, or blog.  A blog is a website in which authors post thoughts and photos that can be read by anyone who happens to find it on the Internet.  This type of journal is interactive because there is usually an option for readers to email the author of the blog.  Most blogging services are free and easy to set up. 


Lawrence, a spouse who cares for his wife diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, chooses to use an online blog to record his caregiving journey. He also requests anonymity for this article because his wife is unaware of the blog.  When asked why he chose an online format for his journal, Lawrence said it is a useful tool for keeping friends and family members updated about his wife's condition.  He also says the blog "has provided me with a way to vent -- to express my exasperations, frustrations, and fears to no one in particular and to everyone in the world at the same time."  Another motivation is an effort to "help a few people understand that it could happen to them too, and perhaps take time to discuss the hard issues with their spouse before it is too late."


Christine Luce, a caregiver in Orange, Texas, to her mother diagnosed with lung cancer, says, "I wish that someone had told me at the beginning to journal.  Even though I did not know it at the time, I would want to look back over the events and even medical information." 


Luce now reaches out to other caregivers and says, "I encourage others who are dealing with cancer to keep some sort of diary or journal.  Putting the facts and feelings down on paper or in a computer helps individuals face what they are feeling."  A journal can function as an organizational tool by offering a central location to record eating changes, important phone numbers, appointment dates, behavioral changes, and medical updates. 


Attorney William Hammond, a Kansas-based lawyer with the Alzheimer's Resource  Center in Overland Park, frequently encourages his clients to participate in journaling as a coping tool.  He says journaling offers caregivers a space to "track what's going on with the disease process of their loved one as well as what is going on in the caregiver's life." 


There are endless possibilities to fill the pages of a journal.  It can be a space to record simple joys, things you are grateful for, inspiring quotations, or favorite recipes.  The pages of a journal may serve as a map for goals or a place to connect with a higher power through written prayers or meditations.  Creativity is an area that is often neglected because of the daily demands and duties of caregiving.  A poem or song may emerge that has been waiting for an opportunity to be expressed.  Drawing or sketching in the pages of a journal is another way to express creativity.  Consider recording nightly dreams.  This practice can offer enlightening information about what is going on in within the subconscious. 


Composing a letter in the pages of a journal or on a blog is a technique that can bring emotional release and closure.  Photographs can serve as visual prompts to encourage therapeutic writing.


Try finding a quiet place and a few minutes to spend with your journal the next time you're feeling overwhelmed or on the brink of burnout.  You will probably feel quite liberated and uplifted by the experience.  You will also have a record to reflect upon as your caregiving journey progresses.



Lori Ritchie is a freelance writer living in Wolcottville, Indiana. She is an experienced elder-caregiver in the Alzheimer's unit of a long-term care facility and a nursing student.



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