Category Archives: Interviews with experts

Guest interviews help readers figure out how to solve care dilemmas.

Dementia Caregivers: Take a Labor Day Rest

For the past few weeks I’ve been interviewing experts on the topic of stress and Alzheimer’s. Every conversation has reinforced the message that caregivers and patients can protect their health by reducing their stress. It’s a commonsense idea, but hard to practice once dementia invades your life.

butterflies at Pennsylpointe

For years, yoga served as my stress reduction activity. When my mom first got sick, I used to rise early and do a series of poses before she woke up. Those morning moments helped me foster my own sense of calm before the day’s chaos took over. Then a yoga retreat introduced me to the restorative power of meditation. Today, I rarely go through a day without taking time to meditate. Many premier health centers like the Mayo Clinic and UMass Medical now offer programs to teach this practice to cancer survivors and others dealing with serious illness.

While researching ways that meditation can help caregivers, I’ve learned that many people don’t grasp how this practice can help us through daily challenges. My interviews led me to a great book called Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This volume reviews studies that document the links between our emotional states and illnesses like cancer and heart disease. Evidence suggests that our methods of managing emotions can exert great power over our health. Kabat-Zinn’s ideas now form the centerpiece of mindfulness training programs for patients across the country. I feel a little dumb for not discovering this book sooner, but now it can be purchased as an e-book or paperback. Both formats offer practical ideas about how to use meditation while fighting stress.

Of the various types of stress, I think caregivers suffer most from what Kabat-Zinn calls “role stress”, which springs from our thoughts about “the ways other people have done things” and “the expectations we hold for ourselves.” We are constantly driven by our ideas of how we “ought to act” to keep the care situation under control — even when such behavior damages our own health. Shaking loose from these beliefs can help us take better care of ourselves while we manage the difficult aspects of our lives.

Imagine how different you might feel if you stopped telling yourself, “I’m exhausted but I just have ten minutes to get his dinner ready” and instead said, “We’ll eat a little later because I need five minutes to myself before I start cooking.” In the first example, you stick to your imagined confines of the role — in the second, you give yourself permission to rest and recharge before reacting to your responsibilities.

The great thing about meditation is that it teaches  you to pay attention to your thoughts and notice moments when you have an opportunity to slow down and act with kindness. Making these small choices helps you develop the habit of caring for yourself — while you care for others. If you need practice identifying these situations, try starting with “one minute meditations.” Each hour of the day, pick one minute to stop what you are doing and pay attention to your breathing. Try it before you wash the dishes. Look at the kitchen clock, then look out the window and breathe slowly in and out — for just sixty seconds. Do this for a single minute of every hour you’re awake. Guaranteed, after one day you’ll be looking forward to these precious breaks.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, a holiday that specifically instructs us to rest from our labors. Make it your day by picking a moment of potential stress that you transform into a minute’s relaxation. I hope you enjoy that minute and sincerely wish you a peaceful, restorative holiday.


Dementia Detective: Dr. Virginia Lee

When considering the dangers of nuclear war, Albert Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Ending the Alzheimer’s epidemic  also requires thought that is far more advanced than our current understanding of the disease.


Fortunately there are some great minds working to unlock the mysteries of dementia. Last week I interviewed Dr. Virginia M-Y Lee, director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Lee is an extraordinary dementia detective who has spent years studying the nature of tau and other proteins that accumulate in brains plagued by Alzheimer’s. Her discoveries have helped identify new paths for research that may guide development of improved treatment.

Although Dr. Lee’s ranks among world experts in her field, I did not meet her to discuss scientific research. I talked with her to learn more about her practice of meditation as a form of self-care. Since studying mindfulness meditation in 2006, Dr. Lee has been using this technique to help reduce stress and its negative impact on her own health. Her preferred form of mindfulness meditation is taught at the University of Pennsylvania as a healing strategy for people struggling with stress and illness — including Alzheimer’s.

Professor Lee’s meditation practice — like other aspects of her life — conflicts with our stereotype of the “typical” scientist. Dr. Lee’s early years, as described in an article by Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay of the AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR BIOCHEMISTRY AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY, were spent in southwest China. When she reached the age of five, Dr. Lee’s family moved her to Hong Kong where she remained until 1962. She left then to study piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music. When approaching college age, she decided to switch her studies to science, eventually earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry. At the master’s level, her interests shifted again — this time to biochemistry. Pursuit of further education moved her through academic programs in San Francisco, the Netherlands, and Harvard.

This incredible career path pushed Dr. Lee to become fluent in many languages including Chinese, English, music, and the advanced vocabulary of science. While her diverse education helped her become a formidable champion in the effort to end Alzheimer’s, it also fostered her ability to think across traditional boundaries that often separate art and science, East and West.

The breadth of her knowledge has indeed elevated Dr. Lee’s thinking to the level Einstein prescribed for solving global problems.  For those of us who are not world class scientists, Dr. Lee also recognizes our need to manage stress driven by our relationship with dementia. After years of extraordinary accomplishment, she uncovered a deep truth that applies equally to professors and caregivers, “You must come to terms with the level of responsibility you carry in life.” She observes that we often take on more and more tasks without ever noticing that we’re asking ourselves to do too much. We can’t forget, she warns, that we must care for ourselves if we really want to help others. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking with others like Dr. Lee who are using new techniques like mindfulness to manage the stress of lives touched by dementia. Stay tuned.