Questions For Caregiving

QuestionForLiving interview with Holly Whiteside, November 7, 2011 regarding questions for caregiving.  

Holly Whiteside's Introduction:

The voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes but in having new eyes.  —Marcel Proust

I began to see “life through new eyes” at age 33 when I took the Landmark Forum. That transformational training and subsequent workshops taught me, among other things, the power of a question, taking me into a vital new career, through ten years of challenging yet successful caregiving, into my current work as a caregiver’s coach and Elder advocate, and now into yet another reinvention of my life purpose. Chapter Three of my book, “The Caregiver’s Compass” (in which I happen to reference!) begins by applying the power of questioning to surviving and thriving on the journey of family caregiving.

QuestionsForLiving: What were the specific questions that led you to your life's work?

Whiteside: The quality and direction of my life’s work has been determined, for better or worse, by the quality of the questions I asked over the last 38 years. Early on, my questions were limited by certain underlying assumptions or beliefs, at times painfully faulty. For instance, the questions and assumptions that sourced my first working decade were:

- How can I stay safe? (False Assumption: Life can be both happy and safe.)

- What work can I find that will make me look good?

(Dangerous Assumption: I can be good at anything if I try hard enough.)

My career choices resulted in a number of dead ends and demoralization.

In my second working decade, I asked myself:

- How do I prove to myself that I can be good at something?

(Seductive Assumption: To be good at something is to guarantee long term happiness)

My choices then yielded a happy but limited ten-year career. I became bored. Then I took the Landmark Forum, and life became very interesting, very fast.

Some say that the Chinese characters for “crisis” are made up of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”. Occasionally (often in mid-life) an unexpected life circumstance lands like a bomb. The derailment puts you on a powerful new path, only if you’re willing to ask the right questions. For me at age 43 the bomb was caregiving. My mother, who I had been avoiding since I was 14, came to live near me. The quality of my questions suddenly became critical to my emotional survival—I had to get very clear very quickly.

QFL: What questions did you ask yourself as a caregiver?

Whiteside: The questions that drove my caregiving decade of survival and personal growth evolved from,

- To what am I committed? and How can I give without giving myself away?


- What is the source of my energy and peace? and then

- What would be available to me if I opened my heart to my mother?

Those four little questions, as you can see, cover a lot of terrain. They were answered by applying to myself the life coaching principles that I had been learning and teaching others over the previous decade. And, yes, by the end of my decade with Mom we had forged a loving relationship.

QFL: What specific questions did you ask yourself when writing your books?

Whiteside: After Mom died, I asked two questions, Who am I if I am not a caregiver? and Can what I have learned about thriving during caregiving be of some use to others? I documented the coaching principles that had kept me sane, and tested them out by coaching other caregivers. The principles worked well, so I wrote “The Caregiver’s Compass”, a handbook that offers caregivers access to greater emotional and life balance. But what questions helped me to write it well? It had seemed to me that of the few caregiving books addressing the emotions of caregiving, most fell short by becoming mired in the personal story of the author. The author’s story could, I thought, prevent the reader from making the lessons their own. So as I wrote I asked,

- How do I distill what I have learned in a way that is respectful of the unique personal experience of each reader?

- How do I keep my story from being an obstacle to their learning?

“The Compass”was written with enough of the personal to make it real, but with the intent of helping the reader to discover their own positive experience.

But while that approach worked well for most people, it turned out that a few needed to hear my story. When I did the rounds of promotional book readings and speech-making, a few people asked, “When are you publishing the memoir? I learn best through other people’s stories.” Soon after my mother/daughter caregiving memoir “Exploring Hell and Other Warm Places” was published.

QFL: What questions do you ask caregivers that mindful caregivers could ask themselves?


- In this one-and-only moment, what are my choices, inner and outer?

Since all we have is the present moment, the choices we make Now cause everything that follows. Everything hangs on that momentary question and its subsequent choice.

- What “stories” do I tell myself about caregiving that make it harder?

Our inner stories give us our emotional experience of life, so we’d better make up good ones. Life-serving ones.

- What are my strengths and survival habits?

A kneejerk positive attitude can blind you to the truth. The need to be right can have you miss important learning opportunities. Which survival habits are undermining your effectiveness? Which will help you to succeed?

- What am I resisting that I might begin to allow?

Most energy sinks are cause by resisting someone or something. Therefore the more we can accept and allow, the less energy we waste.

- When is my helping actually disempowering my Elder/loved one?

Are you trying to fix your loved ones life, or empower her/him? The two often work at cross purposes.

- What expectations are my expectations?

Expectations will often trip you up. Identify your expectations of caregiving, your family members, and yourself. Whenever possible, consider lowering the bar.

QFL: How do you frame your coaching questions to help your clients optimize their learning? 

Whiteside: I begin by giving the client a lot of room to describe their experience, while I listen, listen, listen for the words they use to describe it. This is true in all of my coaching, not just with caregivers. First I listen for what is missing, the presence of which would have others feel more grounded, more alive, more balanced. Also I listen for their choice of words, which determines the way they feel about life and the caregiving results they are getting. And finally, for me their words  are my windows into their world and how they operate, what their values are, where their boundaries are, a whole host of bits of information. Then, based on what I have learned, I begin to ask questions. I don’t tell the client what I see as true—I ask questions that will hopefully have the client see themselves and their life from a new perspective, see some new truth or possibility.

How do we go about being happier and continually learning? 

  • Mind your own business.
  • Don't try to change others.
  • Focus more on who you are being, and less on what you are doing.
  • Focus more on what the inner world of others looks like, and less on trying to convince them that your way is right.
  • If you keep getting disappointed, lower your expectations.
  • Be authentic.
  • Release control in favor of movement and resilience.
  • Notice resistance in your body, identify what you’re resisting, then let it be.
  • Repeatedly throughout the day step back from what is happening and just notice it without judgment.
  • Look for multiple ways of interpreting whatever is happening.

If life is just a series of stories we tell ourselves, continually ask, "What story would now best serve me?"

QFL: What questions do you think people should ask themselves to make this world a happier and healthier place to live?

Whiteside: Byron, I’ve come to the belief that the only way to make the world happier and healthier is for each of us to become happier and healthier. We spend too much time trying to fix or change other people. The ways in which we are unhealthy are an illness that we promote in the world, however good our intentions. Our unhappiness is an infectious dis-ease. I believe the world would be a better place to live if we each took care of cleaning up our own thoughts, our own actions,  our own relationships, and our own environments. If you enjoy “paying it forward” then do that out of the joy of giving, and let go of the outcomes. One of the things I love about caregiving is that the experience is so huge, so earth shaking, that it often knocks people into new realizations of how to live better. I am for celebrating life and its transitions at every stage. Hence my life coaching practice, TurningPoints Coaching, my hospice work, my nursing home culture change work, and my long-term care ombudsman work. Sometimes it’s the seemingly catastrophic events that can bring us, ultimately, to a place of greater celebration if not peace, but only if we let life teach us. Stay present to who we are being. Practice acceptance. Keep learning. Life can be a celebration.




Jodi O'Donnell-Ames's picture

Great interview!  My role as a caregiver was my greatest role, one which I will never forget.  You offer great advice for living that role in a healthy way.


Good to know about the Caregiver's Compass- I will share it with the ALS families I work with....

Thanks, Jodi

Holly Whiteside's picture

Hi Jodi,

Thanks so much for sharing The Compass with those in your world who may need it. I'd love to hear your feedback on the book.

I also enjoyed your description of caregiving as your "greatest role". Well said.

Best, Holly

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