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Martial Arts Wisdom for Alzheimer's Caregivers: Rolling with Life's Punches

By Mark Matloff

Learn to Roll with Life's Punches and Bounce Back

What can the martial arts teach Alzheimer's family caregivers? Plenty. One powerful lesson comes from Aikido, a powerful, ethical,dynamic and beautiful martial art. Aikido means: "The Way of Harmonizing Energy." Aikido practitioners learn to blend and steer an opponent's force to safely control a situation. In the process of training we learn a lot about ourselves as well.

One thing that we learn in Aikido is ukemi (pronounced ooh-keh-mee) training. Ukemi is the art of falling down safely. It is important to learn how to fall in this martial art, so that you don't get hurt when you are thrown. Basically, injury to yourself is not the result of being thrown hard, it's the effect of falling poorly. Knowing how to fall well is essential for those times when you are thrown. You can spend a lifetime perfecting this skill. And you might as well. Take it from me: Gravity Always Wins.

In everyday life, when we fall down, we automatically tighten up our bodies, and increase the risk of injury. In ukemi trraining, we learn to gradually relax and let go of tension, even as we fall. This training leads to much softer impact, and a much happier Aikido-ist. Falling begins to feel more like floating, and less like crashing.

Now, am I sugesting that you drop everything and go enroll in Aikido classes? Of course not! But you can adopt the philosophy of falling well. What is the lesson of ukemi training for life? Putting aside the martial arts reasons for training, IN LIFE WE CONSTANTLY FALL DOWN! And caregiving is a continual challenge filled with even more sudden throws, and many expected and unexpected falls.

So we need to learn to fall with grace.

Think about it. If a person is bound and determined to never ever waver, to never try a different approach, what will happen when she hits an obstacle? What will happen when her usual approach to caregiving isn't working right? Any Alzheimer's caregiver knows that mistakes, challenges, and frustrations are inevitable.

And you know what makes that simple setback worse? It's that good old human tendency to get upset because you made a mistake. We are expert at tormenting ourselves by getting distressed, angry anxious, nervous, worried, or whatever- just because we ran into a frustration. That's the way in which we tighten up emotionally as we fall. And we know what pain that can lead to. Sound familiar?

So, how can we roll with caregiving's punches?

1. Expect to fall, to be frustrated at times. It is inevitable in life, and even more unavoidable for a caregiver.

2. Perfect your own personal emotional ukemi training. Stubbornly refuse to torture yourself about your mistake. Learn to relax when you are frustrated.

3. Find ways to remind yourself that it's OK to make mistakes, and that the important thing is to relax, get your balance, and get back up. You could make a sign that says something like "Relax," or "Balance," and hang it where you can see it. make more than one.

4. Don't ignore your signs once they are up. When you pass your sign, stop a minute, and rehearse its message. That's the way advertising works.

5. Get in the habit of rewarding yourself not for being perfect, and not just when things are going along smoothly. Instead, celebrate that you got back up to try again.

6. If you are comfortable, try sharing this radical philosophy with others.

7. Remember: it's not the mistake that stops you. It's your decision to stop that stops you.

8. Finally, keep in mind a wise old Buddhist saying:

"if you fall down seven times, get up eight times."

I trained for years with a very remarkable person who was also a caregiver. When I would see him and ask how he was doing, he'd smile and say, "I'm still taking ukemi." And then we'd train. I wish you good ukemi!

Alzheimer's Family Caregiver Support is a series of articles to help empower someone who cares for a person with Alzheimer's disease. The material in this article is educational, and is not a substitute for professional advice.

Copyright 2006 Mark Matloff

About The Author
With more than 28 years of professional experience, Mark Matloff, Ph.D. brings his skills and passion to helping people and agencies improve and thrive. Since his graduate research in gerontology, he has worked with Alzheimer's caregivers, the elderly, and a variety of caregiving agencies, in addition to his general adult outpatient private practice. He is a private practicing psychologist, author, speaker, consultant, and coach. When he is not at work, he studies Aikido at Aikido of Central New York, where he is a second-degree black belt and assistant instructor. His recent book, "Strength in Caring: Giving Power Back to the Alzheimer's Caregiver," is a resource for family members caring for a person with Alzheimer's disease.

You can subscribe to his free newsletter for Alzheimer's caregivers by sending a blank email to

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