(excerpt from Chapter Four, Applying Mindful Caregiving Principles to Your Emotions,  from “The Caregiver’s Compass”)

“And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”

—Anais Nin

Life can be chugging along nicely, feeling like a known quantity, and then caregiving hits you broadside. It could be a sudden health issue, a change in your loved one’s personality, or a failure of your carefully constructed support system.

These out-of-nowhere snags are not system failures—they are simply part of the caregiving package. Success now and along the way will depend on where you focus your awareness. To get your bearings when trouble hits, first take a deep breath. Start where you are by looking at the breadth of your life. You are part of a much bigger picture than it can sometimes feel.

As this chapter unfolds, you will learn creative techniques for tuning your resilience as you navigate. You will become more comfortable with risk during the ebb and flow of caregiving. You will learn how to adjust your degree of sensitivity. You will see that, despite fear, you can stay present and able to do your best caregiving.

Alive In Fear,

If we let things terrify us, life will not be worth living.”

—Seneca, Epistles

If you want to shift the way you relate to fear, know your fear. Is it fear of risk? Fear of change? Fear of anger or of loss? Aspects of upbringing can contribute to a fearful response to life. Some of us simply have a fearful nature. You probably want your loved one to think the best of you. Perhaps you want him/her to see the highly functioning adult that you’ve become. Are you unnerved by the switch of roles that happens in caregiving? Now you are the responsible one. Has your loved one always been there for you but is weakening? Now you must be the strong one. How will he/she age? How will you know how to respond?

While these thoughts are normal they are also emotionally laden and fear-driven, lacking obvious answers. Fear takes you out of the moment into an imagined future that doesn’t serve you. There are more useful places to focus. Fear can be of some use, serving as a reminder to focus on the moment and just do the best that you can. It really is all that you can do. Some days you will fall short of your ideal. The world does not end. Once fear has captured your attention you can reclaim your authority over your emotions by managing your thoughts. Let us consider a worst-case scenario, one of those that appears to be life-threatening.

This is from year three of my own caregiving decade. Mom had been living in a local retirement home. Her tolerance had steadily dwindled.

When my mom had reached her limit of cohabitation with old people, she found herself an apartment in town. Five days before her move, on Christmas night, I drove her back to her retirement community. Walking slowly up the path, she shooed me away telling me to go home. Shortly after I arrived home, a nurse phoned. Mom had fallen, breaking her ankle.

The moment that her ankle bone snapped we were shot into an alternate universe. As can happen with elders on pain meds, she was crazed with hallucinations. She believed people were coming to kill her, thought I was in cahoots with them. As I sat bound to her bedside as her scapegoat, I recalled a funeral at which a close friend of the deceased stood and said, “The audience of my life has fallen.” Perhaps my purpose was simply to bear witness. I wondered if she might contract pneumonia and die right then. I just didn’t know. I had no say in it. Resisting like mad, I sat for three days, present to my not-knowing, and allowed it to be. As I thought about my resistance and the unknowns, I thought of something that I did know, something I had learned from a relevant experience.

I had once taken an advanced driver training course taught on the runway of the local airport. As I swerved between rubber cones at 60-mph, I learned to disassociate the smell of burning rubber and the
shriek of tires from I’m going to die. At Mom’s bedside, and throughout our decade together, I remembered that the unexpected isn’t necessarily life threatening.

In turmoiled moments when there is little time for contemplation, three little questions can help to clarify your appropriate next step.

  1. Is this a true crisis, a life or death issue? (If not, what is Really happening?)
  2. Is this urgent, or merely a misperception?
  3. What is my appropriate role in this and who can help?

A few moments of reflection can save time and stress. Conserving your energy needs to be a primary goal, right up there with supporting your loved one. Unnecessary anticipation of crises can cause an
over-reaction to unexpected events. Someone else could be the more appropriate one to handle a situation. And even if it is yours to resolve, it is never wrong to ask who could take some pressure off of you.

But what about when there is no imminent danger? What about the pervasive fear that can color the fabric of caregiving? Step one is to identify your fear. Name it, examine it, so that you can let it be. Remember that what you resist persists. Accepting the fact of your fear frees it to evolve. You then become stronger. There’s fragility in needing to know or understand. Allowing the unknowns simply to be leaves you freer to experience the present. You begin to trust your instincts, your ability to do the right thing.

None of us gracefully handles every moment. Gradually we learn to roll with it, fears and all. We resist. We notice. We step back with humor and self-compassion and we roll with it. Aikido is a martial art called “The Way of harmonious spirit.” Like caregiving Aikido masters we can step aside and then move with the force of the moment. Moving with the prevailing wind we maintain control. Allow fear to be. Then speak in a way that keeps you in the present moment where you can generate acceptance, gratitude, any number of life-supporting emotions.

Book Description

“The Caregiver’s Compass” is guidebook for achieving well-being and emotional balance while caring for a loved one, “The Caregiver’s Compass” is one of few books offering real techniques for managing the emotional challenges of caregiving. Through 36 short sections and seven chapters, the author coaches the reader down a sure and gentle path to greater peace

Holly Whittelsey Whiteside
This work may be shared freely only when accompanied by a byline attributing the work to the author.


  • Holly Whittelsey Whiteside, Caregiver’s Coach and Advocate, is author of “The Caregiver’s Compass: How To Navigate With Balance & Effectiveness Using Mindful Caregiving”. She is a member of the board of the NH Coalition for Culture Change in nursing homes. She lives in a former one-room schoolhouse in New Hampshire, with her luthier husband of 37 years and two Golden retrievers.