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Caregivers Lose Memories, too

Caregivers lose memories, too. We don’t lose them the same way #dementia patients do. Instead, our duties make it difficult to keep track of our own lives and what makes them meaningful.

Caregivers lose memories too

Our role as #caregivers gives us chances to transform ourselves through service to others. While doing this work, we often create new memories. But the never-ending list of duties makes it hard to enjoy special moments from other periods of our lives. Forgetting the past can erase too much of our true identity.

This loss of identity can also happen during other phases of life. When parents have their first child, most experience a tsunami of change. They know they’ll be responsible for the health and safety of a tiny vulnerable creature. But they also expect their child to be the focus of happy memories they will create together as a family.

Unfortunately, the transition to the role of #caregiver is not accompanied by so much hope and joy. We become guardians of a person in the midst of steep decline. This demanding role absorbs our full attention. It’s easy to forget we had pleasant times in the past. My sister recently accused me of forgetting a nice memory we discussed a few weeks ago. I told her candidly, “My mind seems to reject any information that is not essential. Every day I’m trying to keep track of which bills need to be paid. When I finish thinking about that, my mind fills up with a mental picture of what we need from the supermarket. Then I have to worry about who will be here to provide support each day.” This never-ending list of worries takes up room that could be dedicated to happier thoughts.

Remembering who we used to be

I want my life to be more than a to-do list. Fortunately, we’ve had a few days of fantastic weather in our slice of the Poconos. As I sit on the porch writing on my laptop, the occasional breeze makes me close my eyes for a moment. The green smell of the forest takes me back to my childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. I used to lie on our front porch swing and pretend I was asleep. To make sure no one would bother me, I’d put an open Nancy Drew book across my face. [When I added that Nancy Drew link just now, the sight of those book covers brought back ten years of my childhood.]

Thoughts of Nancy Drew take me further into the past. We had a large maple tree in front of that porch where I passed countless days reading or playing with friends. At certain times of year, the wind sent little seeds flying to the ground. Kids from my block called them pug noses. We opened them in the middle and used the maple sap to stick them to our noses. The Internet did not exist. We invented every interesting thing in our lives.

We built doll houses out of tissue boxes and played Monopoly for days. If someone was on the verge of going broke, one of the other players handed them money so they could stay in the game. Our goal was to keep the game going. No one ever felt entitled to own everything. Now our world is being managed by billionaires and corporations that won’t be satisfied until they own every resource on the planet. It’s a sad commentary on how the world has changed. But it’s also a good reason to take time to treasure your memories. No one can raise the price on the life you’ve already lived — and they can’t repossess your recollection of living it.

Social Connections Help Caregivers

Social connections help caregivers stay healthy through the long struggle of dealing with #dementia. It’s not easy to spend time with friends when you’re immersed in #caregiving. But research shows that staying connected with people can have a positive impact on your physical and emotional health.

Social Connections Help Caregivers

I didn’t write here for a while because I was practicing the important skill of networking with people I love. Over the past few weeks, I was able to spend some time with old friends from college and work. Several years ago, my college circle lost a cherished member. Our friend died of ovarian cancer. The rest of us continue trudging along — searching for meaning and joy as we go. We have all had to face the complexities of caring for aging parents. Each one of us bears that stress in different ways. But even as our lives grow more complicated, we understand the value of maintaining our friendships. They give us strength.

Many people have examined the positive effects of building strong social connections. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Bethany Kok, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences have researched the topic for years. Their work studies the links between emotions and social connections. Frederickson says their research shows that daily moments of connection with others “emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health.” 

Erickson, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology, is not the only researcher reviewing the impact of social connections. John Cacioppo, professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago, looks at the issue from a different perspective. His group studied the ways that a lack of social connections can influence health. Cacioppo found that feelings of isolation can interrupt healthy sleep, increase our levels of cortisol, alter our immune cells, and prompt feelings of depression. In a 2016 article in The Guardian, Cacioppo says that “when you allow for all the other factors, you find that chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by 20%…which is about the same effect as obesity.”

I’m not a scientist, but my life has teetered on both sides of this divide. Last winter, I felt isolated by my #caregiving duties. I was very close to falling into depression. Bringing hospice support into my house lifted my burden in small ways at first. When hospice aides helped me get more free time, I could feel my mood rise. Once my mood improved, I had more energy to go out and take positive actions to improve my health. First I started walking more, then I began to go for bike rides. All these things made me feel better, but nothing beats quality time with friends. Taking time to re-connect with them has given me the fuel I lacked just a few months back.

If you feel like you want some of that social fuel, start getting it by making a list of the people you miss. Maybe you read each other’s notes on Facebook, or send the occasional email. But when was the last time you called and talked to them for more than five minutes? If there is someone you are missing, just pick up that phone and see if you can’t re-connect. Start the conversation by remembering some fun you once shared. See where it goes from there. We only live this one time and so many things in life can wear us down. #Caregiving has its high points, but it can beat us up physically and emotionally. Taking the time to nurture our best relationships can help us rise once again. Even if we can’t re-build a strong connection immediately, it is worth the effort to try and try again.