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Posted: July 28, 2004

Professional Caregiving

Parsing 'Caregiving' for Total 'Care' and 'Giving'

In my work as a coach, I have found enormous satisfaction in the focus coaching brings to my work with caregivers. Many often ask, what?s the difference between a coach and a counselor or psychologist? The analogy often used is of a personal trainer and a rehab therapist.

The latter takes patients who are in pain, or are limited in their functioning, and helps to bring them to a place of lessened pain and greater functionality. This is the patient that psychologists and therapists primarily treat, especially due to third party reimbursors requiring a diagnosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The personal trainer, on the other hand, takes a well person who seeks greater strength or flexibility and coaches them to meet their goal, making them fit enough to run the marathon, lift greater weights or feel greater strength than before. That?s the difference: taking clients who are seeking growth and positive change by building on already successful foundations.

This approach can be applied to our careers, our personal lives and our dreams, and it can be a significant gift you offer your customers, colleagues and family members. Positive Psychology, developed by Martin Seligman, PhD, who heads the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania, has taken psychology and turned it on its head by flip-flopping the focus of psychology from deficits and mental illness to an expanded repertoire of interventions that can help our clients increase the quality of their lives, meaning and a good life.

Seligman has studied and written about this new psychological intervention in his book ?Positive Psychology.? More recently, he published ?Authentic Happiness,? which is a model that is being taught around the world to therapists who want to learn how to coach clients toward greater satisfaction. He most recently published Character Strengths and Virtues: A Classification Handbook, which is the UN-DSM listing the 24 strengths grouped in 6 categories -- knowledge, courage, love, justice, temperance and spirituality.

We can apply his work to the field of caregiving. Have we pathologized caregiving by focusing on the stressors, the burden, the burn-out and depression when our best care is something that, if not in the moment, will sustain us and nurture our best sense of ourselves when we look back at our lives? If we can help the families with whom we work, identify their signature strengths, and thus have them incorporate these strengths into a re-crafting of their lives, not limited to caregiving but certainly including it, the perceived weight of the job can be lessened and even shifted into an activity that brings meaning to their lives.

Let?s turn caregiving on its head and re-examine the word. Care and giving. ?Care? in the thesaurus brings up ?to mind, worry, attend, and bother about? which denote a certain attention to a subject. ?Giving,? on the other hand, brings up ?charitable, philanthropic, generous, benevolent and bountiful.? These behaviors are core activities Seligman discusses as bringing on the highest level of life satisfaction and meaning. Doing that which is outside of yourself, that?s what benefits another. The good life -- and a meaningful one -- is enhanced through the pursuit of giving, even when the work is challenging and sometimes difficult.

When Seligman studied the qualities and characteristics of happy people, he found that those who pursue pleasure may be ?happy? in the moment, but when the pursuit -- eating, shopping, gambling ? ends, the happiness quotient doesn?t last. Inversely, when we engage in acts of giving, the satisfaction and sense of meaning persist after the act is completed.

How can we use this approach in working with the families of seniors and disabled adults? First, I would suggest you try your own hand at identifying your Signature Strengths through an enjoyable, enlightening 20-minute process. The Signature Strengths test is free and can be found on Seligman?s website, After completing the survey, you will receive an email with your 5 top signature strengths identified. In my case, I was shocked to see how closely they matched my expectation. It is the way in which we use these strengths in our work, our play, our parenting and our love and friend relationships that matters.

Seligman calls these the long-cut to happiness, knowing your greatest strengths and using them in activities with the greatest challenge. This produces an experience he calls ?flow,? when time stops, when you are ?one? with the activity. NO short-cuts here. None.

Importantly, if we apply our signature strengths to our lives, we will be happier for it. If we help our clients, the caregivers with whom we work, find and apply their Signature Strengths, they will be more fulfilled and the burden they had been carrying will become a beacon from which they will hearken back with pride.


Sylvia Nissenboim is a licensed clinical social worker and who has been working in the field of adult day services in the St. Louis area. She is the director of four adult care and enrichment centers for the American Red Cross and also operates a personal and professional coaching firm, LifeWork Transitions, specializing in caregiving concerns, adult day care management and other aging services, such as virtual coaching and family care giving support groups. She co-authored The Positive Interactions Program, is a national speaker, and has served as president of the Missouri Adult Day Care Association and as a member of the Missouri Governor's Advisory Council on Aging..

© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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