My October interview with Dr. Roy Hamilton provided lots of food for thought. In honor of Thanksgiving, I’m offering Part II as a second course for caregivers seeking helpful strategies they can incorporate into their daily routine.
I asked Dr. Hamilton, who sees a diverse group of patients at Penn’s Memory Center, if he notes any differences in the effectiveness of care practices used by families of different cultural backgrounds. In his research on this issue, Dr. Hamilton found that in certain Latino and African American populations, families are less likely to pursue assisted living or nursing home care and prefer to care for family members at home. His review of studies on the topic of home care revealed that there is some evidence – but nothing conclusive – to suggest that there are lower mortality hazards associated with caring for family members at home. Although not all studies agree with this finding, it does offer some moral support for those of us providing home care for dementia patients.
On the topic of non-medical strategies that caregivers can adopt, Dr. Hamilton offered the following advice, “It’s important to make nutritional and lifestyle changes. A heart healthy diet rich in antioxidants can be useful for maintaining overall cognitive health.” Furthermore, he warns that, “Those who don’t follow this path risk exacerbating the accumulation of vascular disease in the brain.” This can make things even worse for a dementia patient. Dr. Hamilton also mentioned that, “Aerobic exercise helps to preserve cognition for just about everyone — and patients benefit from a regular aerobic exercise regimen and hobbies that keep them mentally active.” Dementia patients also do better when they have a high degree of social engagement. Those who make friends and stay connected with other people fare better than patients who have become socially isolated. It is good to remember this as we approach the winter holidays. Now is the time to arrange visits with friends and family members who may not always remember to stay in touch. And if you and your loved one are eating lots of rich holiday foods, try to work some exercise into your schedule.
On a related note, Dr. Hamilton mentioned that, “The prevalence of depression is much higher among dementia patients than it is within the general population.” If depression is left unaddressed, it can promote faster cognitive decline. Keeping your loved one active and engaged with other people may help to reduce the impact of depression. To help my mom, I try to: 1) Take at least two long walks every week, 2) Organize at least one weekly dinner or lunch with friends, and 3) Encourage Mom’s friends to call her and share information about their lives. Although she doesn’t have a lot to say, she is so happy when she gets a call that shows people still care about her. As a busy caregiver, these scheduled walks and calls from others also help me feel healthier and more supported as we navigate the strange path of this disease. Despite the daily ups and downs, we are planning to have a Happy Thanksgiving and hope that you will too!