Category Archives: Caregiver — For those involved in caregiving

Staving Off Dementia: A success story

When someone gets a diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), they can slide into despair, believing that dementia is their destiny. But we now know more about factors that promote brain disease — and practices that can protect us from it. This week I spoke to a valiant woman who’s decided to fight back.

Between the Pond and the Woods -- Fighting Dementia

I won’t state her full name, but Kay is the name I’m using for the amazing person I just interviewed. She carries a cane, but doesn’t use it much. The words that come out of her mouth are just twisted enough to make you guess something might be wrong. Her eyes sparkle despite the fact that she’s received two gamma knife treatments — at the maximum radiation level. Kay displays insight and passion that many healthy people lack.

Kay has a diagnosis of MCI and a condition called a degenerative cerebellum.  I’d never heard of this disease before. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders says symptoms may include “a wide-based, unsteady, lurching walk, often accompanied by a back and forth tremor in the trunk of the body” as well as “slowed and slurred speech”.

But I’m not writing to explain her neurological problems. I want you get inspired by her story. Instead of letting the symptoms take over, Kay has developed a lifestyle that she calls “very busy”. I met her during rehearsal for a choir performance. Kay joined the choir because her doctors suggested that musical activity might help address the disease symptoms. She also learned that socialization is an important disease fighting strategy. The choir helps her connect with others.

During choir practices, Kay has learned to read music. She believes that the musical training has helped her project her voice better and pronounce words more clearly. But she wasn’t willing to stop at just those benefits. Kay decided to learn to play music, too. At first, her third and fifth fingers ignored efforts to push them down. But now they both respond.

Kay says her doctors believe that the musical training is helping her to “postpone the inevitable.” Her symptoms have declined and she says that music has helped her “create new pathways” in her brain. In addition to her musical activities, Kay follows a rigorous diet. She eats few carbs, no sugar and no red meat. She’s in her sixties, but I would have guessed that she’s ten years younger.

Her example is a good antidote for people worried about inheriting the Alzheimer’s gene. It’s also instructive for anyone who has experienced brain trauma through injury or stroke. If we have one of these problems, we could fret about what will happen to us in the future. We could sit back and wait. But we also have the option of doing what Kay does: taking a proactive approach to our health.

I’m the first one to be lazy about diet. I crave chocolate and I love the second glass of wine. Cholesterol is a problem I don’t want to face. But I looked at this woman and was so impressed at how hard she works to live well. Kay believes she can “postpone the inevitable ’til the very end.” Would you fight that hard? Could you be that committed? What would it take to make you answer yes?

Aromatherapy in Dementia Treament

I come from a family of sniffers. My Mom’s super smelling powers have declined. But it seems that dementia patients like her could still benefit from aromatherapy.

Between the Pond and the Woods -- Dementia and Aromatherapy

Studies in Taiwan have shown that therapy with essential oils can help lower agitation levels of dementia patients. The impact of the oils is even greater when healing scents are combined with acupressure. This research, described in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, was conducted in veterans’ homes and long term care facilities. At the beginning of the study, caregivers measured their patient’s degree of agitation. Then dementia patients were randomly divided into three groups. Groups included equal numbers of male and female participants. The average age of participants in each group was over 80.

One group of patients received no special treatment. The second group of people had lavender oil applied to pressure points on the body. In the third group, acupressure points were pressed for 2 minutes with 2.5% lavender oil. Then a 5 minute warm-up exercise was completed. The treatments for all groups lasted no more than 15 minutes. But sessions continued over several weeks.

At the end of the study, patient agitation was measured again using the Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory (CMAI).  This is a survey that caregivers use to measure how much agitation a dementia patient displays. The Taiwan study found that aromatherapy and acupressure both lowered agitation among participants.  But the best results were found in the group that got aromatherapy combined with acupressure.

Most caregivers haven’t been trained in acupressure. So it’s not practical to think we can all use both techniques easily at home. But if you live near a health food store, you may want to pick up a bottle of lavender oil. These oils are also sold in high end supermarkets like Whole Foods and Wegman’s. Many sites on the Internet offer a diagram of acupressure points. Try helping your loved one reduce their agitation with a simple oil massage on the wrists and the back of the knees.

Although the study doesn’t mention it, you may want to try essential oils for reducing your own agitation and stress. I put a few drops of oil on the light bulbs in my bedroom and sometimes sleep with a lavender eye pillow. Both help me relax and rest. Who doesn’t enjoy that?