There are few tasks more demanding than caring for a loved one, especially if that loved one has dementia. Because caregiving in these circumstances is so challenging, it’s easy for a caregiver to overlook the need to take care of themselves. But as everyone knows, self-care is vitally important. How can caregivers look out for their own health so that in turn they have the physical and emotional reserves to take better care of a loved one with dementia?
Caregiving is All-Consuming
We discovered this recent article on this topic on the NBC News website, and we wanted to share it with our AgingOptions blog readers because we know from experience that many of you find yourselves immersed in your role as caregivers. “It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the mind to understand why caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease is challenging,” says the article, written by reporter Sarah DiGiulio, “especially when that someone is a loved one.” DiGiulio writes that the work of providing care is demanding in a whole host of ways. “It can be physically taxing work, particularly in later stages of the disease when the person needs more and more help with daily functioning. The disease progresses, so care strategies that may work one day may need to be re-written the next.” On top of that, there’s the pain of loss. “Caregivers face the emotional challenges of losing a relationship with their loved one (or losing that loved one as they once knew them).”
As if the double-whammy of physical exhaustion and emotional pain weren’t enough, there are other factors at work that create a unique burden for those caring for loved ones with dementia. Because those with dementia can’t do basic things for themselves, says NBC News, caregivers fill a lot of roles, from cooking meals to administering medications to managing a loved one’s personal affairs. For caregivers in the “sandwich generation,” there’s the combined responsibility of caring for aging parents while also raising kids at home (or sometimes providing financial support to grown children). Many times, the caregivers are also dealing with personal health concerns. As the article reports, older caregivers “[may] face their own chronic conditions (such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and others), which they need to manage along with caregiving.” The poor health of many caregivers takes a toll of its own: “individuals with more than two chronic health conditions [are often] at increased risk for cognitive impairments themselves.”
Caregiving Can Lead to Depression, Anger, Health Problems
Warns NBC News, “It’s probably not surprising that the burden of caregiving can lead to depression, anger at the person with dementia, social withdrawal, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, and both physical and mental health problems. That’s why it’s so important that caregivers recognize that there are resources they can turn to when they need help.” The article lists nine useful tips that might help you as a caregiver avoid burnout.
- Learn how to be a caregiver: “Seek out information about Alzheimer’s disease [and] what types of behaviors to expect,” says NBC News. Groups like the Family Caregiver Alliance and the Alzheimer’s Association are good places to begin.
- Schedule breaks: Experts say caregivers can and should schedule breaks, for a few hours, a full day, or longer. Ask family members and friends for relief or contact local respite care services. Research shows that restorative mental breaks make caregivers healthier and more effective.
- Ask for help: “Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease – especially if you are the primary caregiver – is a huge burden,” says the article. “It’s okay to ask family members or friends to help out with caregiving tasks, with other tasks you need, or just to come over and provide some company for a few hours at a time.”
- Ask questions: “Don’t hesitate to ask questions or speak up when you don’t understand something,” says NBC News. Make sure health care providers understand the challenges you are facing, and ask them about your loved one’s behavior changes.
- Ask about financial aid: “Alzheimer’s care is expensive,” the article observes. “There may be local or national aid available to help with respite care or home-delivered meals. Organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association help connect caregivers with needed resources.” Your doctor may also have some ideas, or call us at AgingOptions.
- Grow your support system: “Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease requires caregivers to start dealing with a whole host of new challenges they likely are not used to dealing with,” NBC News “Getting support from a counselor, friends, or peer support group can help immeasurably.” In other words, don’t go it alone.
- Ask other caregivers: Nobody else can appreciate the weight you bear like someone who has walked the same journey. They can show you new strategies to cope and new resources in your community, and provide needed reassurance. Seek peer support.
- Journal about your experiences: As the article explains, caring for someone with dementia can change from day to day. A journal can help you maintain perspective. “Writing all of those challenges and victories down in a daily journal can help you appreciate the small steps you are taking in what otherwise may feel like a daunting role [and] help you appreciate the progress [you’ve made].”
- Take care of your own health: Don’t feel guilty about taking care of your own needs. “You might feel inclined to always put your loved one’s needs first, or you might feel too exhausted to take care of your own needs after worrying about your loved one’s — but ignore your own needs too much, and you won’t be able to take care of anyone.” That includes eating right, getting enough exercise, and taking regular breaks.
Rajiv’s Recommendation Goes One Step Farther
Rajiv Nagaich from AgingOptions has seen hundreds if not thousands of families struggle to bear the burden of caregiving for a loved one, and he has walked that path himself. “There’s a reason why nursing homes have three shifts,” he says – “it’s because being a full-time caregiver is so incredibly demanding. We strongly recommend people work with a care manager to develop what’s referred to as a plan of care. That way,” Rajiv emphasizes, “families can figure out how to use every tool at their disposal – financial resources and human resources – to ‘out-source’ some of the stress of hands-on caregiving.” A care manager can help you work out an arrangement where you may provide care during “one shift” and get help with the other two. If funds are tight, a qualified person can show you how to access VA and Medicaid benefits. Please contact us at AgingOptions or attend a seminar (see below) to get the help you urgently need.
Get a Glimpse of Your Retirement Future
As all-consuming as caregiving can be, we also suggest that it’s essential for you to look beyond the present and to plan for your own future in retirement. There’s no better way we know of to do this than to attend a free LifePlanning Seminar with Rajiv. There you’ll gain some valuable perspective on how all the essential elements of retirement need to work together, not be treated as separate and disconnected pieces – including financial plans, legal protection, housing strategies, health care provisions, and family communications. Don’t allow the cares of today to keep you from considering your dreams for tomorrow.
Visit our Live Events page for a complete calendar of upcoming seminars. It will be our pleasure to meet you at a LifePlanning Seminar soon and to give you a glimpse of what retirement can look like. Age on!
(originally reported at www.nbcnews.com)