The times when I feel sorry for myself are not my proudest moments. But when you’re caring for a mom with dementia, sometimes you’ve got to ask, “Why me?” On those days, I try to remind myself that dementia is mainly a disease of old age. If your mom has lived long enough to get it — and you’ve lived long enough to become her caregiver — luck is at work in your life.
Open any tabloid and you’ll be reminded that many children lose their mothers to cancer and drunk drivers. Some kids never know their mom because adoption or divorce gets in the way. A dear friend of mine died at 37, leaving behind a five year old son. She would have suffered any discomfort imaginable to buy one more day with her boy. But science could not help her earn a pass to longer life.
My mom is sick, and there’s nothing I can do to stop the advance of her illness. But I’m so thankful that she lived long enough for me to really know her before dementia took over. I’m grateful that I, too, survived these years and learned what it’s really like to care for a parent I had taken for granted.
Being a witness to this disease can be hard, but on Mother’s Day I try to keep in mind that good fortune wears strange masks. Sharing a meal with my mom and giving her a hug is quite a privilege. Fate has kept her alive and taught me to see that being a “mother” to my mother can be a gift. For the weary caregivers, I say, “Happy Mother’s Day everyone!” And for the many moms we care for: “We love you, mothers!”
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?