Tag Archives: caregiver support

Caring for Ourselves II: Diet, Purpose, Spice, Life

Dementia looms like a mythical monster with countless arms and changing faces. We try to be brave as we confront the challenges of the disease. But while we care for others, our self care must find a high place on our to-do list. Our actions are the only real defense against getting the disease ourselves.

Last week this site offered ideas about physical habits that can help us maintain good health. Now let’s consider diet and lifestyle choices. The ideas below were drawn from an article by Beth Howard in AARP Magazine. But similar recommendations have been made in a wide range of recent articles from international research institutes like Rush University and the Karolinska Institute.

1. Eat with your health in mind. Caregiver stress may make you crave salty carbs or sweets, but you can help yourself much more by eating some version of the Mediterranean diet. Try to focus on  fresh fruits and green, leafy vegetables. If the oranges and apples in your supermarket are too expensive, check out farmers markets in your area. Seasonal foods are often cheaper and more nutritious than chain retailers’ expensive produce.

2. Add spices to your food. Science has discovered some amazing links between better brain health and consumption of cinnamon, parsley, ginger and turmeric. Turmeric is thought to bond with the amyloid plaques that have such devastating effects on dementia patients. This spice has even been found to have positive effects on cancer patients.

3. While you’re adding spice to your diet, make sure that you aren’t suffering from any vitamin deficiencies. People who do not absorb enough Vitamin B from their food can put themselves at risk for lower brain performance.

4. Hone in on the higher purpose of your life. Some of us have a clear sense of why we are here and what we want to accomplish through our actions. But the caregiver role can make us forget that we have a purpose beyond care. Keep a journal, reserve some quiet time, or just meditate on your goals to help keep your inner compass steady.

5. Maintain your social connections. If you don’t take time to talk with friends, relatives or other caregivers, you may be depriving yourself of an important source of protection. People with larger social networks have a strong, proven health advantage.

Time, of course, is our sworn enemy. Getting from sunrise to sunset can feel like a marathon. But some of these recommendations require just two minutes in the spice section of the supermarket or one hour at a caregivers meeting. These small investments in ourselves may make the difference between staying healthy longer or facing a devastating illness we still have time to prevent.

Together We Might Advance — How Caregivers Can Help with Dementia Research

It’s tough to think ahead when you are in the middle of a caregiver crisis. We constantly respond to the needs of our loved ones, yet seldom have time to learn better ways of solving problems. Today, however, there are pioneering research studies underway to help caregivers find new techniques for managing stress and reacting to common dementia care problems. To learn more about one study, I interviewed Jennifer Merrilees, RN, Ph.D., who is part of an international team now working with caregivers in the United States and Australia.

The U.S. section of the research group works out of the Memory and Aging Center of the University of California, San Francisco. But because the work is done over the Internet, caregivers from any part of the country can participate in their study.  Sessions are carried out using online technology that is adaptable to any computer with a webcam. The only restriction for participants is that the dementia patient they care for must have a confirmed diagnosis of Frontal Temporal Degeneration (FTD). This includes people diagnosed with Corticobasal Syndrome, Pick’s Disease, and other variants of FTD. Click here to learn more about definitions of FTD.

This study is unique because it helps the caregiver learn to focus on skills that may help them reduce stress and find new meaning in their role. Facilitators from the study help caregivers identify — and focus on — small things that are valued and helpful in the course of a given day. The general theory underlying the study is that if caregivers focus on specific skills, it could help them cope better. The strategies employed in this study have already been used successfully by Judith Moskowitz in her work with people who have HIV. By offering new tools for managing problems, researchers hope to help reduce stresses that might affect caregivers of different ages and backgrounds.

After an interview with Judy Mastick, the project’s research coordinator, participating caregivers are assigned to one of two groups. One group is interviewed and receives support around life events, while the other gets instruction on the “skill-building” approach. Caregivers engage in one hour online sessions every week for five weeks. Sessions cover a different set of issues and techniques which caregivers can practice between meetings. The U.S. team is seeking 20 caregivers from across the country and would love to get a diverse group of caregivers of all ages.

Jennifer and Judy have extensive clinical experience in the dementia field. Jennifer earned her Ph.D. last year and has spent a dozen years providing dementia care. She also has a faculty position educating nursing students for the field. Judy is a Family Nurse Practitioner and has been involved in research studies for over 15 years. Both of them really understand the impact of dementia on patients and families. The Memory and Aging Center — where the study operates — is a national leader in training doctors, nurses, and pharmacists for positions in the dementia field. You can learn more about research at Memory and Aging Center by viewing their YouTube links.

If you’d like to participate in the study, do what I did: send an email to judy.mastick@nursing.ucsf.edu. I did it because I want to learn better ways to take care of my mom — and myself.  I also hope that my experience will benefit other caregivers who share my challenges today …or will face them in the future.