Tag Archives: caregiver health

Building Healthy Caregivers

Sometimes you have to hear a message many times before you really get it. After talking with experts like Dr. Michael Baime and reading the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, I now see why it’s crucial for caregivers and dementia patients to do activities that protect the hippocampus region of their brain.

Caregiver health

Research shows that the hippocampus  plays an important role in consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. We have two hippocampi, one on each side of the brain.  They display the earliest signs of damage when Alzheimer’s disease attacks.

The work of Baime and Kabat-Zinn has shown that a regular meditation practice can actually promote growth of grey matter in this brain region which is so essential to preserving memories. This week my regular news scan led me to another article, by Margery Rosen, stating that physical exercise has also been shown to boost the size and vitality of the hippocampus. Rosen writes in the AARP report that, “Scientists think exercise boosts the flow of blood to certain parts of the brain, spurring the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) …[which] stimulates the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus….At the same time, [BDNF] repairs cell damage and strengthens synapses, or the connections between brain cells.”

The effects of exercise can be significant, even if you are older or were not physically active earlier in life. A study from the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 70- to 80-years-old women who already had symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, had better focus and decision-making skills after doing one to two hours of weight training two days a week for six months. Rosen also quotes Kirk Erickson, neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the exercise study, as saying, “This was the first time that we were able to demonstrate that you can actually increase the size of the hippocampus…People need to know that dementia is not inevitable.”

While his comment on inevitability may be an overstatement, these two research studies give us plenty of reasons to try to fit these two activities into our busy lives. It looks like 15 minutes of morning meditation — and a 30-minute walk before dinner — could drastically improve the lives we lead 20 years from now.

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.