When I was supposed to have "quickly terminal" cancer (11 years ago this spring), I experienced this effect in doing full-time volunteer work in my community. The more I gave of my time and energies, the more I felt I received in return, even though I never anticipated that would be the case (no one but my husband and I knew my diagnosis was so serious). The stress of waiting out that year was in major part balance and enhanced by a powerful sense of purpose and effectiveness. And it's a prescription I have always given to my private therapy practice patients who had depression that just wouldn't budge: help others without expectation of anything in return... it will feel good and it will help with healing.
And how does this apply to our subject matter here of the elderly and the younger disabled? I tell our caregivers to suspect that many of our clients are not sure of how to channel their need for purpose and meaning given how much their health and abilities may have changed over time. I train them to help clients -- especially those who seem depressed, self-pitying and needy -- be more well (if not more healthy!) by reminding them of the ways they used to give to others, and how good it made them feel. Did they do some particular volunteer work in the past? Did they support certain causes -- and not just with money? Is there an organization or issue still near and dear to them?
I encourage caregivers to open a conversation about the client’s history with altruism. Let them tell you why this has been so important to them, and reflect back to them how important supporting a beloved cause is to you, too. Talk about this for a little while, and notice if there is a shift in short-term energy and mood -- even color in their face may improve. They may likely express regret not being able to engage any more.
But, oh, they still can! Caregivers just need to re-imagine with them how. It’s important to assure them that they are still needed and able to help, if only it can be figured out. Talk through with them about ways they can still give valuable aid -- quite apart from donating money. For example: reading about and raising awareness in friends and family around the importance of their favorite cause. Watch a TV show with them that touches on their altruistic interests; ask questions and discuss it with them. Remind them that spreading the word on a grassroots level is one of the most powerful ways to give.
I encourage non-profits to find concrete ways – beyond donation of funds -- to include roles specifically for older and disabled folks in their organizations’ activities. This is a powerful constituency who can both do good for noble causes, as well as for themselves by actively engaging at whatever level they can accommodate.