Category Archives: Support for Caregivers

Posts mention resources and suggestions that can help caregivers stay healthy.

Caring for Ourselves II: Diet, Purpose, Spice, Life

Dementia looms like a mythical monster with countless arms and changing faces. We try to be brave as we confront the challenges of the disease. But while we care for others, our self care must find a high place on our to-do list. Our actions are the only real defense against getting the disease ourselves.

Last week this site offered ideas about physical habits that can help us maintain good health. Now let’s consider diet and lifestyle choices. The ideas below were drawn from an article by Beth Howard in AARP Magazine. But similar recommendations have been made in a wide range of recent articles from international research institutes like Rush University and the Karolinska Institute.

1. Eat with your health in mind. Caregiver stress may make you crave salty carbs or sweets, but you can help yourself much more by eating some version of the Mediterranean diet. Try to focus on  fresh fruits and green, leafy vegetables. If the oranges and apples in your supermarket are too expensive, check out farmers markets in your area. Seasonal foods are often cheaper and more nutritious than chain retailers’ expensive produce.

2. Add spices to your food. Science has discovered some amazing links between better brain health and consumption of cinnamon, parsley, ginger and turmeric. Turmeric is thought to bond with the amyloid plaques that have such devastating effects on dementia patients. This spice has even been found to have positive effects on cancer patients.

3. While you’re adding spice to your diet, make sure that you aren’t suffering from any vitamin deficiencies. People who do not absorb enough Vitamin B from their food can put themselves at risk for lower brain performance.

4. Hone in on the higher purpose of your life. Some of us have a clear sense of why we are here and what we want to accomplish through our actions. But the caregiver role can make us forget that we have a purpose beyond care. Keep a journal, reserve some quiet time, or just meditate on your goals to help keep your inner compass steady.

5. Maintain your social connections. If you don’t take time to talk with friends, relatives or other caregivers, you may be depriving yourself of an important source of protection. People with larger social networks have a strong, proven health advantage.

Time, of course, is our sworn enemy. Getting from sunrise to sunset can feel like a marathon. But some of these recommendations require just two minutes in the spice section of the supermarket or one hour at a caregivers meeting. These small investments in ourselves may make the difference between staying healthy longer or facing a devastating illness we still have time to prevent.

The Caregiver’s Future

Too often, a caregiver spends each day meeting others’ needs while ignoring their own health. This practice of self-neglect brings up a deeper question: Will we get dementia too? Research on dementia prevention is growing. But many recommended prevention practices require that we dedicate at least as much attention to our own health as we do to that of others. This article is the first part in a series on dementia prevention strategies you may want to consider.

Beth Howard’s article in the February/March issue of AARP Magazine outlines ten recommended practices for helping to prevent dementia. They are drawn from the research of doctors like Gary Small at UCLA’s Longevity Center. If you are close to a dementia patient, you know the idea of longevity is a two-edged sword. Living many years may imply a long existence with low quality of life. If you could adopt ten habits that might help prevent the onset of the disease, would you be ready to pay more attention to your own health? Four suggested practices follow below. Are you already doing them — are you willing to try?

  1. Exercise! Rates of dementia are 30-40% lower among people who are physically active. Exercise appears to keep the hippocampus healthy. This is the part of the brain that governs memory formation. Researchers recommend 150 minutes of moderate weekly activity, but just 15 minutes of exercise, three times a week can help you get essential benefits for your brain. Are you giving your mind what it needs to stay ahead of the game?
  2. Weight lifting. Okay, pushing a wheelchair might count, but have you considered doing something a bit more rigorous? At the University of British Columbia, older women in a weight-training program did much better on tests of cognitive function than those who had done a different type of exercise routine. You don’t have to aim for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique. Resistance bands are cheap and hand weights are not hard to manage once you learn a routine
  3. Learning new skills. Mastering new ideas and aptitudes increases the number of brain cells you engage and builds connections across cell networks. If you relax by surfing the Internet, consider using it to learn about topics that can broaden your knowledge and show you new ways to use it. Learn to cook Thai food or knit something in a new pattern.
  4. Meditation. You may already practice some form of this, but doing it in a structured, focused way can help to reduce your stress. Stress, as we all know, can impair many aspects of our health. What is the antidote to this sinister pressure that makes us feel we’ve been pushed to the brink? Scheduled sessions of quiet “mindfulness” allow us to become more aware of our sensations, feelings, and state of mind.

Naturally, it’s much easier to tell people what they should do than to actually change our own habits. But if you have the compassion to look after someone else’s health, doesn’t your own health deserve the same consideration?