Tag Archives: caregiver health

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.

 

Caregiver Life Span

Research studies warn that stress can shorten the caregiver life span, but our lives are not one dimensional. Most of us did many other things before we got involved in #caregiving. We can also play different roles in the future, especially if we protect our health. Here are some ways we can add back the years that #caregiver stress might steal.

caregiver life span

Increasing Caregiver Life Span

Most of these suggestions are drawn from an article called Live Long and Prosper, written by Alyssa Giacobbe and Jessica Migala, published in Women’s Health, Jan/Feb 2017. Although the following ideas appeared in a magazine targeted to women, their life extending power can help #male caregivers, too. Some recommendations seem obvious. If you want to be healthier, eat nutritious foods and eliminate soda pop from your diet. Other suggestions promote health benefits you might have overlooked. Start with the basics:

  • Take in more Vitamin D by drinking fortified milk and eating egg yolks — it could add 5 years to your life.
  • Walk just 10 minutes a day (or more if possible) to add 1.8 years to your life. Walking helps you ward off illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
  • Volunteering your time — whether it’s at a local school or an animal shelter — can add between 4 and 7 years to your life. You may not have time to donate right now because #caregiving demands your full attention. But if the day comes when your loved one must move to a different care setting, dedicating time to a social cause can be therapeutic and beneficial to your health.
  • Eating six servings of leafy greens and two cups of berries each week can add 7.5 years to your life.

Less obvious ways to add healthy years

  • Owning a dog can add TEN years to your life. Dogs need to be walked, so they help their owners stay fit. They also give you unconditional love, which helps lower blood pressure and risk of depression.
  • Build a group of friends that you socialize with at least once a week. For some mysterious reason, having six friends is the magic combination.
  • Developing a sense of purpose in life can increase your life span by 8 years. Some of us find that caregiving brings tremendous meaning and purpose to our lives, but we may only play this role for a limited time. Staying healthy as we age means finding purpose across the entire scope of our lives as family and other relationships change.

And now, a surprising and simple habit that can add six years to your life:

  • FLOSS YOUR TEETH!

Don’t ask me how flossing increases your life span. Studies simply find that people who floss regularly have lower rates of heart disease.

I feel like a wrung out dish rag at the end of most days, but I believe I could do most of the things on this list. I’m not ready to get a dog, but I’m happy to walk my neighbor’s rescue pup whenever she asks, and I love berries.