Tag Archives: caregiver health

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.

 

How’s YOUR Memory?

If someone in your family has dementia, you might be worried about losing your memory. While there are genetic factors we can’t control, studies now say that exercise and other good habits may protect our ability to remember.

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In a recent AARP Magazine article, Lisa Davis (no relation to me) described how she investigated her own troubling lapses of memory. Davis went to Maryland’s Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness, to undergo a comprehensive process now used to assess cognitive health. The brain exam begins with a health history to identify possible sources of past trauma (like concussions) or physical problems  (high cholesterol, for example). From there, the exam moves into cognition tests that require you to complete word lists and solve visual problems.

The final aspect of the health review focuses on fitness. A person must ride a stationary bike while electrodes monitor how well their body pumps blood to the brain. As it turns out, this sort of exercise may be a really effective activity for preventing the advance of Alzheimer’s disease.

Davis cites the work of Dr. Arthur Kramer of the University of Urbana-Champaign whose studies have shown that older adults who walked for 45 minutes, 3 days a week, showed marked improvements on cognitive tests after one year of sustained walking.

In addition to adding this kind of basic exercise program to your life, you may want to consider other strategies suggested by AARP. They include:

  • Learning a new skill  — Have you tried knitting or carpentry? Mastering new ideas helps your brain build cognitive resilience.
  • Getting sleep!! If caregiving responsibilities disrupt your sleep, try to figure out what you can change to get the rest a healthy brain needs. Consider respite care or trading night time roles with another family member so you can restore your cognitive health.
  • Eating better — Focus on green leafy vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil. Limit refined carbohydrates like bread and starchy snacks.
  • Challenging yourself to memorize things — Try learning the names of trees and flowers in your neighborhood or the top golfers in the U.S. Open. Using your memory skills help you retain them.
  • Learn to meditate — Practicing meditation improves breathing; this reduces stress and increases blood flow to the brain.

Of course, it’s easy enough to read a list of things we ought to do. If you are a caregiver, just keeping up with the demands of daily life might feel like a marathon. But no one else will protect your future health if you don’t do it yourself. Pick one thing in the list above that you’re not currently doing and make an effort to try it three times this week. They say it takes 21 days to establish a new habit. Your future is likely to stretch much longer than that. So why not start preserving cherished memories today?