Too often, a caregiver spends each day meeting others’ needs while ignoring their own health. This practice of self-neglect brings up a deeper question: Will we get dementia too? Research on dementia prevention is growing. But many recommended prevention practices require that we dedicate at least as much attention to our own health as we do to that of others. This article is the first part in a series on dementia prevention strategies you may want to consider.
Beth Howard’s article in the February/March issue of AARP Magazine outlines ten recommended practices for helping to prevent dementia. They are drawn from the research of doctors like Gary Small at UCLA’s Longevity Center. If you are close to a dementia patient, you know the idea of longevity is a two-edged sword. Living many years may imply a long existence with low quality of life. If you could adopt ten habits that might help prevent the onset of the disease, would you be ready to pay more attention to your own health? Four suggested practices follow below. Are you already doing them — are you willing to try?
- Exercise! Rates of dementia are 30-40% lower among people who are physically active. Exercise appears to keep the hippocampus healthy. This is the part of the brain that governs memory formation. Researchers recommend 150 minutes of moderate weekly activity, but just 15 minutes of exercise, three times a week can help you get essential benefits for your brain. Are you giving your mind what it needs to stay ahead of the game?
- Weight lifting. Okay, pushing a wheelchair might count, but have you considered doing something a bit more rigorous? At the University of British Columbia, older women in a weight-training program did much better on tests of cognitive function than those who had done a different type of exercise routine. You don’t have to aim for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique. Resistance bands are cheap and hand weights are not hard to manage once you learn a routine
- Learning new skills. Mastering new ideas and aptitudes increases the number of brain cells you engage and builds connections across cell networks. If you relax by surfing the Internet, consider using it to learn about topics that can broaden your knowledge and show you new ways to use it. Learn to cook Thai food or knit something in a new pattern.
- Meditation. You may already practice some form of this, but doing it in a structured, focused way can help to reduce your stress. Stress, as we all know, can impair many aspects of our health. What is the antidote to this sinister pressure that makes us feel we’ve been pushed to the brink? Scheduled sessions of quiet “mindfulness” allow us to become more aware of our sensations, feelings, and state of mind.
Naturally, it’s much easier to tell people what they should do than to actually change our own habits. But if you have the compassion to look after someone else’s health, doesn’t your own health deserve the same consideration?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.