According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 16 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. This care ranges from assistance with activities like bathing and dressing, to financial assistance, to coordinating care or providing emotional support.
Different care responsibilities are important to note because although traditionally we may think of “hands on care,” as the primary role of a caregiver, there are many ways to be involved in managing a loved one’s diagnosis.
“Many people are long-distance caregivers or care partners. Adult children living out of the area often help by assisting with paying bills or helping coordinate care. Those responsibilities make you a care partner too,” said Sarah Harlock, program director for the DENT Integrative Center for Memory.
“I encourage caregivers and care partners to think of their own health and consider steps to put into play to ensure they are taking care of themselves,” said Harlock.
Importance of Prioritizing Your Health
“As the care partner to someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, you yourself are at increased risk for higher levels of stress, depression, anxiety, negative physical health changes, or complications to existing health problems,” added Harlock. “Study after study shows that care partners have increased stress and depression scores over the general public.”
Often, with all the added responsibilities, caregivers will begin to neglect their own self-care. Many caregivers feel like they can’t find time to exercise or are too tired to prepare healthy meals for themselves. It is also common for caregivers to put off their own healthcare appointments or treatments.
An Analogy for Caregiver Health
Harlock likens the rules of maintaining caregiver health to the instructions given when flying on an airplane.
“I recently had the opportunity to travel by airplane and the safety instructions they provide haven’t changed much. They tell you to be cautious moving about the cabin, to keep your seatbelt on even when sitting, to put your own oxygen mask first before assisting others and so on,” said Harlock. “And I found it’s a pretty good analogy for caregiving.”
1. “Be mindful when moving around the cabin”
Be aware of your overall health. This includes your physical, mental and spiritual health. Being a caregiver to an individual with dementia can have a negative impact on your health. Paying attention to changes in your own physical and mental health will keep you and the loved one in your care in healthier.
2. “Keep your seatbelt fastened, even when seated”
Memory disorders can bring a lot of change and you want to be prepared for when that change happens. As professionals, we can’t tell you exactly what changes you will see next or when you’re going to see them. Gathering information and staying prepared can help you be prepared for when changes do arrive. Generally speaking people feel more at ease, more confident and less anxious when they have done some preparation.
3. “Be careful opening the overhead bins as contents may have shifted”
Be mindful that things are going to change. It’s important that you know what kinds of community resources are available to you. This informed and prepared approach will help increase confidence, decrease depression and decrease anxiety.
4. “Know where your emergency exits are”
Know how to give yourself a break. Know who you can call, for instance the neighbor who offers to stay with the person with dementia when needed, or know where you can turn to when you need assistance with your care partner roles. This plan could include some social programs that provide care partners some respite, or volunteers to come and visit, so you can take a break.
5. “If there is a change in cabin pressure and the oxygen mask drops in front of you, put your mask on first before assisting others”
If you are not in good health it’s hard to give your all to the person you are caring for. It is not selfish to care for yourself while you are providing care to others. You owe it to yourself AND the person you are caring for to care for yourself.
Questions to Ask Yourself
Try to look at each part of your health. First, look at your physical health. What is your doctor saying? Are you noticing any negative changes in your physical health?
Also make sure to check in with your mental and emotional health. Are you in a good mood most of the time or are people commenting that you don’t smile or laugh much anymore? Do you find yourself short tempered (more than before). Do you have healthy coping skills like exercise or coffee with friends?
It is also important to be aware of your spiritual health. What brings you peace? Are you doing the things that being you peace or is there something else you can do that gives you that feeling?
After checking in with yourself act accordingly to work on any part that may be out of sync.
With everything else going on, how do I make time?
“I think it’s important to set goals, then break those goals down into small manageable steps. Create an action plan,” said Harlock. “There is a great program out there called Powerful Tools for Caregivers which has its participants develop action plans.”
Sarah provided the following action plan as an example.
“Let’s set the goal as wanting to lose 20 pounds. Rather than looking at all 20 pounds at one time and all of the activities you have to accomplish to do that, break it down into manageable steps,” said Harlock.
Start by making the statement I will __________ fill in the blank with the healthy activity, on __________ fill-in the days of the week you will perform this action at __________ give a time.
The statement might read, “I will walk for 10 minutes Monday, Thursday and Friday at 4:30 pm.”
Look at the statement and decide how confident you are that you will be able to achieve this small step. On a scale of 1-10 (1 being not confident at all and 10 be extremely confident). If your confidence is lower than a seven you need to rethink this step.
For instance maybe three days a week that is not realistic, 4:30 may not be the best time to achieve that goal. If at 4:30 pm your care recipient is typically engaged in an activity like a nap, then it might be the perfect time. However, if your loved one starts to get anxious, restless or more confused in the late afternoon, you may need to rethink the time. Adjust this statement until you feel confident you can accomplish it.
“The point is you build on the success! This week you may walk 10 minutes on Wednesday at 2:30 pm because you know that your husband will be having coffee with the guys. You see that you were able to do it and maybe next week you walk twice for 10 minutes. Now, walking 10 minutes once a week is not going to make you lose 20 pounds, but gradually those small steps will help you accomplish that larger goal of losing the 20 pounds and you keep building on your success.
“The concept applies to other goals such as being a happier caregiver, feeling less stressed. You break it down into reasonable and manageable steps and you build on your success. If you don’t accomplish the task one week, look at why, adjust and try again,” said Harlock.
Care partner well-being is so important to you and to the person you are caring for!
To view the entire presentation, check out the video below.
The content of this post is intended for general educational and informational purposes only; it does not constitute medical advice. Readers should always consult with a licensed healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment.