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.


How I spent my Caregiver Respite

This is the story of how I spent my Caregiver Respite. I had five glorious days with no one to lift, wash, or feed. The van picked my mother up last Sunday and brought her back on Thursday. The days between felt like an extravagant gift.

How I spent my Caregiver Respite

My first stop was the porch. Our house lies between a pond and the woods. It has a long covered porch that faces the forest. In good weather months, this space becomes my dining room, office, and library. When my mother’s van departed, I sat outside to absorb the summer breeze.

First I read a glossy magazine, then I did some client work. Finally I just sat staring at the trees until I got annoyed by a chipmunk racing past my chair. When I stood up to scold the chipmunk, I noticed a long thin snake scurrying under the picnic table. We haven’t had a snake on the porch in years — and I haven’t had real privacy at my home in years. So I stood on a bench and yelled at the snake AND the chipmunk. Then I went in the house and left them alone.

Although I didn’t want to be indoors on a beautiful day, it was nice to sit in a rocker and enjoy the silence. My mother has been living here for a long time. She’s needed nearly constant help from aides or volunteers for the last 1.5 years. The experience of being in a completely empty house was almost as soothing as time in church. Peace came over me like much needed balm for my soul. I savored a few minutes of quiet and went back to my work.

That night I was able to have dinner with my sweetheart and stay over at his house. This is rarely possible because my mother requires overnight help. He usually has to come to our house. The gift of a night without babysitters pumped oxygen into our relationship. Time, however, ticked on.

I had to complete a 65-page project for a client. The basic outline was complete before my mother left, but I had lots of research and editing to do. Although I did not want to spend precious #respite time working, I had to finish the project before I could do anything fun. I worked Monday night, then all day Tuesday and late into Tuesday night. Wednesday morning I got up and drove to Times Square with a good friend who helps care for my mom.

We went to participate in Mind Over Madness, an annual celebration of the Summer Solstice in New York City. During this event, Times Square traffic is suspended and thousands of people practice yoga together on some of the nation’s busiest streets.

How I spend my caregiver respite

#SolsticeTSq #MindOverMadness

It’s hard to explain how much fun this is, or the energy you feel from doing downward dogs with people from all over the world. It’s the exact opposite of the typical bustling New York situation, so it feels like you’re creating a powerful antidote to the world’s stress. When you finish a yoga session and lie down on your mat, you can look up at the skyscrapers and see the blue sky between them.


View while enjoying #SolsticeTSq

Once we finished our session in the middle of the city, we were famished and thirsty. We headed to Greenwich Village, where the city’s pace is a bit less hectic. Our lunch went down fast and easy. We drank an entire bottle of club soda after working our muscles in the heat.

Last year my #caregiver responsibilities kept me from traveling to New York so I wanted to make the most of this trip. We drove to visit a friend in Queens who has two little boys. Children grow and change so fast. If you don’t see them for a year, you miss a lot. It was sweet to read with them and observe how much they’ve learned since my last visit. When we left my friend’s house we returned to the city and spent a night in a hotel that had wonderful beds. I slept ten hours without interruption. TEN HOURS!

Why caregivers need and deserve respite

#Caregivers give up so many things, often without realizing it. We sacrifice sleep, nutrition, time with friends, and time with other loved ones. Our energy can drain down to the barest minimum if we don’t plug into some powerful restorative resource. On my last day of caregiver respite I felt like my real self for the first time in ages. I’m not saying these things to make you feel bad about your own situation or invite jealousy. I’m writing to encourage you to use any means available to get respite for yourself during this long journey of care.

Ideas for getting your #caregiver respite

Persuade a friend or relative to step in for you — if only for one night. Try to get hospice services, even if your loved one is not yet in dire straits. I resisted asking for this for too long. Nursing homes would not give us respite care because Mom is too fragile. But #hospice groups have contracts with many facilities and they cannot refuse. There are many hospice providers and Medicare pays for these services. Read agency evaluations online before you sign any care agreements. Or use any resource you can think of to get support: the long lost cousin, the generous friend. Try your best to get help for yourself while you’re caring for others. There is no substitute for self care and nothing nourishes the soul like a night of tranquil sleep.

What I did during my caregiver respite brought life energy back to me. Oddly enough, sleeping might have been the best part of my break!