I grew up in Southern California and this meant annual birthday trips to Disneyland. To this day it still ranks as one of my happiest places on earth. One of my favorite rides at the famed theme park is It's a Small World. Watching all the internationally dressed dolls dancing and singing in their native tongue but with the same tune and melody we all know and love is a cherished childhood memory.
It's a Small World reminds me that our world today is truly a global village and within our communities we are experiencing the same phenomenon: family and friends are stepping into the role of caregiver for those battling a chronic or terminal disease, disability or disorder or for loved ones who are simply getting older and need more help.
In 2013, an international consortium of organizations representing Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, formed the International Alliance of Carers Organization (IACO) to address the needs of the more than 63 million caregivers (called carers in the U.K., Australia and some other countries) worldwide.
The IACO's mission is to increase global advocacy and visibility for caregivers, share best practices and provide assistance to countries to develop formal caregiver organizations and support services. The National Alliance for Caregiving serves as the U.S. representative and secretariat to the organization which now also includes Finland, India/Nepal and Israel.
When I was writing my book, A Cast of Caregivers, my research was not limited to the U.S. In fact, many of the great tips, inspirations and empowering stories came from lands far and away. Since most caregivers do not typically get a chance to take vacations -- especially to exotic international locales -- I thought I would share my caregiving global tour.
In celebration of National Family Caregiver Month, here are internationally inspiring ideas to help caregivers get through the day.
Australia: The Caregiver Walkabout
There is a cultural tradition among Aboriginal Australians that very closely resembles the journey caregivers take. It is called a walkabout and is a rite of passage for adolescent boys to become men. These young boys have no choice on whether they want to do this or not -- it is a long-held tradition these people believe connects them to the land they love. They are sent out alone into the Outback, sometimes spending months in solitude.
Many of the boys follow ancient songlines or dreaming tracks where they learn to find food and shelter - the same types of food and rock formations their ancestors found before them. During this quest, they develop deep self-awareness and when they return to their families they have a greater sense of who they are, their importance to their family and their heritage.
In many ways, caregivers are on a walkabout. Caregivers often feel they had no choice to care for a loved one. They may spend months or years feeling all alone in their journey. But along the way, they learn about food, shelter (and legal paperwork, Medicare eligibility and insurance rules) in the care of an aging or ill loved one. When they return from their caregiving journey, they often feel a sense of connectedness to their past and their future. In this journey called life, caregivers understand their purpose, their role.
While caregivers may have felt alone in the Caregiving Outback, friends, experts and others were helping to guide them in the same way the stars and the whispers of the wind at night helped the Aborigines. When a caregiver connects to his or her past and the present, they realize they are not alone.
Denmark: Caregiver Stress Unplugged
Happiness is just like health. Health is 50 percent genetics and 50 percent how we live our lives (nutritious eating, physical fitness, enough sleep, positive outlook on life, etc.). Happiness is the same -- it can be impacted by outside forces but it is the strength and reaction from within us that determines happiness.
My stepdad always said, "Happiness is a choice -- you can embrace it or ignore it but it's what you choose ... it doesn't just happen." While happiness may not be one of the first emotions that caregivers express, ignoring the silver linings of caregiving can rob caregivers of an emotional gift that stays with them forever. Caregivers need to learn to find time for themselves to go from harried to happy.
Caregivers need to think of maintaining their happiness in a similar way as they maintain their physical health such as eating a well-balanced diet and staying active. Happiness is the same. Caregivers have to constantly pursue their happiness. Unfortunately there is no happy pill that will make caregivers blissful for the rest of their lives.
Sometimes it is in the accomplishment of small daily tasks of care. Author Gretchen Rubin writes in her book, The Happiness Project, that little things like making your bed every day can make you happier. And sometimes it is in taking a few moments that are focused on self-care and calmness. My prescription for this is called Me Time Monday - finding a few moments each week that is just about you.
When it comes to happy countries, Denmark tops the list for global happiness surveys attributed to the fact the Danes know how to go off grid. They eliminate the noise pollution in their lives, turning off smartphones, unplugging from TVs, computers, iPods and video games and practicing the ancient Danish art of hygge (pronounced HOOgah) which loosely translated means peaceful cosiness. The Danes curl up with a good book in front of the fire or make life simpler by spending a day fishing or cooking with friends and family.
Italy: Caregiving Alla Famiglia-Style
In America, our children grow up and leave home (well maybe not until you are 30 if you are a member of the millennial generation). This is the symbol of adulthood, a signal to the world of independence and freedom. I believe it is because of our roots as a nation -- pilgrims and other immigrants left their homelands for a better life.
However, when caregivers embark on their journey, they are pilgrims who may be returning home - if not literally then figuratively. Rather than grow frustrated over the loss of some independence and maybe a little freedom, caregivers need to look at their new role like the Italians do where family is everything.
In the Italian Constitution, the basic unit is the family not the individual. Many Italians do not leave home -- multigenerational households are the norm. The older family members watch over the younger. They learn from each other, they share stories and memories and the caregiving begins with the babies and continues with the aging parents -- a seamless circle of life.
Scientists tell us maintaining social networks and socializing within families and communities will help us live longer and happier. Embrace the return of family that comes with caregiving. In fact, a growing trend among U.S. families is to move everyone into multi-generational housing. Communities are being developed across the country that are specifically designed to accommodate the family unit while also allowing for some independence and privacy for older kids, grandparents, parents and pets!
Thailand: Letting Go Gracefully of Caregiver Guilt
Caregiver guilt is a common refrain. Guilt over not doing enough. Guilt over not being there all the time. Guilt over ignoring other responsibilities at work or with kids or spouse or friends because you are taking care of mom or dad. Some days, caregivers may grow frustrated and blow their stack -- and the guilt grows. Going from guilt to gratitude is never easy but it can be done.
I like activities that are symbolic which is why I love this idea from Thailand. It is about letting caregiver guilt go and it is called The Lantern Festival. The Thai people gather on one day in November (you can do this alone or with friends any day although November is National Family Caregiver Month and a good time to try this).
They write down in notes to people whose forgiveness they seek -- telling them they did not mean to hurt them or they are sad they cannot change things. They put the notes in candle-fueled paper lanterns. As the notes burn inside, the lanterns are released into the sky and float away. It is a very spiritual symbol for the Thai to see all these lights lifting away the bad and creating a warm glow in the sky.
Since I am sure the local fire department will hate this idea -- I am recommending caregivers use the concept not the pyrotechnics. Write down your regret or something you are feeling guilty about as a caregiver. Read it out loud. Give it a moment for the words to evaporate into the air and then scrunch the note into a ball and throw it into the fireplace or tie it to a helium balloon and let it go outside. Feel the sensation of the guilt floating away.
Caregiving touches everyone around the world. Take a moment to reflect on your role in the global experience we call caregiving and embrace the ideas from other countries and cultures to help you on your caregiving journey.