July 28, 2016


AARP Meditations for Caregivers: Practical, Emotional, and Spiritual Support for You and Your Family. By Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., and Julia L. Mayer, Psy.D. Da Capo. $15.99.

     Deeply well-meaning and structured with the intent to be pragmatic rather than overly optimistic and blue-sky in nature, AARP Meditations for Caregivers attempts to answer the needs of those who selflessly answer the needs of others – such as aging parents and seriously ill family members. Husband-and-wife clinical psychologists Barry J. Jacobs and Julia L. Mayer clearly intended to write a book both practical and inspiring. That is, in fact, the book’s structure: its 28 chapters on specific topics are subdivided into sections that begin with a short story taken from a real-life situation, then continue with a comment or suggestion on how to apply the lessons of that story to one’s own situation. The structure is not unlike that of a typical church homily.

     The attempt here is to deal with a comprehensive list of caregivers’ feelings and concerns: among the chapter titles are “Anger or Resentment,” “Devotion and Dedication,” “Forgiveness,” “Gratitude,” “Humility,” “Humor,” “Know Your Limits,” “Optimism and Hope,” “Sacrifice,” and “Stress Management.” Really, though, the entire book is about stress management: some 40 million Americans provide unpaid care to family members and others in any given year, and even when such care occurs only for a set period rather than for many years – because the person needing it recovers or dies – the stresses associated with it are enormous. Whether those stresses are adequately met by the sermonette-like comments of Jacobs and Mayer will be a highly personal matter: people soothed by traditional religious observances, for example, will likely respond better to these ideas than ones who are less spiritual or less comfortable with organized religion (even though the summations and recommendations are generally secular in orientation). For instance, an observation about sibling anger during caregiving says, “By leading with empathy, we forge new bases for understanding and support.” One about forgiveness says, “As we gain greater understanding, our hearts grow.” One about understanding one’s limits notes, “By knowing the limits of our energies and capabilities, we are better able to find compromises to please others and ourselves the best we can.” One about respect says, “Even when it comes to difficult situations, when we take the time to listen to our loved ones, we can better treat them with the respect that they deserve.”

     All these comments, and many others, are extremely well-intended; but they have a tendency to be more simplistic, more push-button, one-size-fits-all in their orientation, than Jacob and Mayer likely are in their professional practice. What is missing in the book is nuance – exactly the sort of thing that is needed to differentiate between responses and forms of support that may be just right for one caregiver but off-base for another. This directly parallels the reality that a useful way of providing caregiving to one individual may be unhelpful and even deleterious for another – because those needing aid are individuals, no matter how physically or mentally compromised they may be and no matter how similar their diagnoses. Identical treatment of identical conditions may not work equally well – a point that it would have been helpful for Jacobs and Mayer to make explicitly.

     AARP Meditations for Caregivers also omits some very practical issues that caregivers face: it is a book about feelings, not one about the need to cope in the real world with financial hardship, job loss, deterioration of relationships with children because of the time and effort needed to care for parents (a “sandwich generation” situation), and the difficulty (if not impossibility) of finding the time to do certain things that a caregiver knows are desirable – for instance, saying “Seek Out Other Caregivers” (one chapter title here) is all well and good, but “Find the Time to Seek Out Other Caregivers” would have been more useful if the authors were really able to show how to do it.

     One of the most important things that caregivers must do, and one of the most difficult, is to find time for themselves. Call it recharging, unwinding, destressing or whatever you will, it is crucial both for a caregiver’s own coping needs and for his or her ability to provide better care. AARP Meditations for Caregivers does not deal with this much-needed element of caregiving except occasionally in passing, as when Jacobs and Mayer write, “If we aim for perfection in our caregiving, we will be wracked with disappointment and guilt. Our loved ones need good enough caregivers. With humility and planning, we can manage that.” Yes – with humility and planning and time, time to get in touch with one’s own needs (practical, family, emotional, psychological) and to separate, however briefly, from the needs of the person requiring care. AARP Meditations for Caregivers is a valuable book for those seeking solace from the emotionally draining elements of caregiving, and able to find it in the warm and well-meaning words of encouragement the authors offer. The book does not, however, deal with some of the most stress-provoking and difficult elements of caregiving: readers looking for that sort of help may actually do better with an earlier book by Jacobs, The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent. It would be even better to read and absorb both that book and this one – provided one can find the time to do so. And there we come again to the issue of time – ultimately, one that neither of the books successfully addresses, and one that may not be realistically addressable, no matter how much one wishes to do so.

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