A Coaching Power Tool By Susan Haffner, Life Coach, UNITED STATES
Rigidity and Overwhelm vs. Flexibility and Ease Transforming the Caregiving Role
According to the Caregiver Family Alliance: “An estimated 44 million Americans age 18 and older provide unpaid assistance and support to older people and adults with disabilities who live in the community…
Evidence shows that most caregivers are ill-prepared for their role and provide care with little or no support, yet more than one-third of caregivers continue to provide intense care to others while suffering from poor health themselves. Studies have shown that an influential factor in a caregiver’s decision to place an impaired relative in a long-term care facility is the family caregiver’s own physical health.
A substantial body of research shows that family members who provide care to individuals with chronic or disabling conditions are themselves at risk. Emotional, mental, and physical health problems arise from complex caregiving situations and the strains of caring for frail or disabled relatives… burdens and health risks can hinder the caregivers’ ability to provide care, lead to higher health care costs and affect the quality of life of both the caregiver and care receivers.” (1)
The quality of life of the care receiver is directly affected by the well-being of their caregiver. As the above-referenced article suggests, most caregivers have little or no support or formal training. This can lead to stress and frustration by the caregiver, which in turn, affects the person being cared for. Due to little support, education about the disease (such as Alzheimer’s), and experience, caregivers are sometimes locked into a rigid mindset that tells them there is just one way to do things. This makes things especially difficult for the caregiver of a person with Alzheimer’s Disease, for example, because the disease itself causes behaviors that are difficult to understand and where one’s usual habits, routines, and ways of relating to the world no longer make sense. Caregivers may find themselves actually working against the person they are caring for, although unintentionally. This can easily happen as the caregiver has many responsibilities and is trying to get the care receiver to get dressed, get them to take medication, or get them to stop unwanted behavior. A person with Alzheimer’s may not understand the need for any of these things and is left with feelings of resistance, which make tasks all the more difficult for caregivers and care receivers. This power tool aims to transform the caregiver’s mindset to help enable them to provide care with greater ease by helping them to be more flexible to ever-changing needs.
Explanation: Rigidity and Overwhelm vs. Flexible and Ease
Rigidity is defined by Oxford Languages defines as follows: “inability to be bent or be forced out of shape,” “inability to be changed or adapted,” or “unwillingness to be adaptable in outlook, belief, or response” (2). The rigidity can take a variety of forms in the world of a caregiver. It could be feeling one has to adhere to a strict schedule. It also could be thinking something has to be done only one certain way. It also could be when a caregiver is unable or unwilling to see how the person they are caring for has changed, physically, mentally, or emotionally, and that they may have different needs now than they did before, so a different approach may be needed.
In coaching in general, there are times when a client can seem stuck. They may be stuck in their habits, stuck in their thoughts, or stuck in their beliefs about themselves, others, or their situation. When our thoughts and habits are rigid, it makes it very difficult to become unstuck. A coaching client that is a caregiver may feel that they are endlessly overwhelmed and frustrated in their role, but that they have to just tolerate the situation because it is their duty.
In the theoretical model of stages of change, action can be described as follows: “Action is the stage in which individuals modify their behavior, experiences, or environment in order to overcome their problems. The action involves the most overt behavioral changes and requires considerable commitment of time and energy.” (3)
Rigidity means that someone is unwilling to modify their ‘behavior, experiences, or environment’ and this is why it makes it so difficult to overcome the problem. It may seem cliché, but in this case, the common idiom rings true: something has to give. Sometimes the thing that has to give, is rigidity. Rigid thinking can affect people struggling in a caregiving role, especially when caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. To a person with Alzheimer’s Disease, the world they live in does not appear to them the same way the world appears to their caregiver. Rigidity in the caregiver is like building a wall that gets in the way of clearly seeing the needs of the person being cared for. Rigid thinking steals away options. It eliminates the consideration of any alternative approaches or interventions that could reduce frustration, stress, and overwhelm for the caregiver and the person they are caring for.
On the flip side, there is flexibility. Flexibility can provide a sense of ease, and encompasses the idea that we can adapt our thoughts, our behavior, etc. to affect change. It is the perspective that adapting, adjusting, and being open to a new outlook or belief, can provide us with a whole new set of possibilities. Flexibility gives options, whereas previously in rigidity, there were none.
Unfortunately, when someone has Alzheimer’s Disease, the disease itself robs them of cognitive abilities that would normally enable them to problem solve, adapt, etc. Therefore, the primary place where change and adaptation can happen primarily lies with the caregiver. The more the caregiver is flexible, the more easily they can adapt and respond to the changing needs of the person they are caring for.
One example could be, when a person with Alzheimer’s continuously wanders into a room that is dangerous for them to be in alone, such as the kitchen, due to the stove, kitchen knives, and other kitchen items that they could harm themselves on. A caregiver who is of a rigid mindset might get overwhelmed and stressed by constantly telling the person repeatedly that they cannot enter that room, yet the person continues to try over and over because they do not understand, or forget. A caregiver with a flexible mindset may consider an alternative, such as going with the person into the kitchen, baking cookies with them (so they are supervised and don’t harm themselves), and then when the task is complete and the person has enjoyed eating cookies, they may be content to sit in another area and relax for a while. A rigid mindset simply repeats ‘no, no, no’, whereas a flexible mindset says, ‘how can make this work?’ and ‘what is the true need of the person I am caring for, and in what ways can that be met?’
Coaching Challenges: Rigidity and Overwhelm vs. Flexibility and Ease
Although it may be easy to point out rigid thinking in others, it may not be so easy to spot when we take a look at ourselves. This is where coaching comes in. Coaching challenges our underlying beliefs and habitual thought patterns. It shines a light that enables us to see ourselves and our situations more clearly. Caregiving can be stressful and caregivers may feel overwhelmed and have difficulty seeing where alternative options and interventions could be possible.
An example of the coaching process and possible questions could be as follows:
- Start where the client is, allow them to express their experience of their caregiving role
- How are you feeling currently about your caregiving role?
- What is important to you about being a caregiver?
- Connect with the client by acknowledging their experiences and how it has affected them
- How is this impacting you?
- How does that make you feel?
- Evoke awareness with the client to expose rigid thinking that may not be benefiting them
- Mirror back current thinking, what do you think when you hear that back?
- What or who is telling you that it has to be that way?
- What or who is telling you that you should do that?
- What might it look like if there was a way to respond differently?
- How might you adapt as things around you are changing?
- Support and provide presence with clients through their own process of problem-solving
- What additional information would be helpful for you to know?
- What are your needs?
- What are the needs of the person you are caring for?
- What alternatives are coming up for you?
- Assist with action planning, to help the client respond with flexibility
- How would you like to move forward with the alternatives you have identified?
- What can you put in place to support yourself in adapting to changing needs?
Rigidity and Overwhelm vs. Flexibility and Ease on the Role of the Caregiver
The role of the caregiver is not an easy one. Caregivers need support to be able to thrive in their important work. Stress and overwhelm can limit a caregiver’s view and lead them to be rigid in their thinking and actions, which can lead to more stress. Flexibility creates ease. This does not mean that caregiving will suddenly become easy, rather, it means that hopefully with flexibility by the caregiver, there will not be as much resistance from the care receiver. In addition, ease would be a reduction in the sense of stress and overwhelm of the caregiver. It may not be easy, but the caregiver will feel more empowered by an increase in options and interventions.
Caregiver Health By Family Caregiver Alliance in cooperation with California’s Caregiver Resource Center and reviewed by Moira Fordyce, MD, MB, ChB.
Stages of change