Bethany's mother has Alzheimer's and Bethany is the primary caregiver. In fact she's the only caregiver. She's on duty 24/7 and, after three years in this role she often feels physically and mentally exhausted. If only she had some time to herself. She used to love photography but hasn't had time for that since before her mother got sick.
Then she remembers something she read on the Alzheimer's Association website. It said to ask for help. While Bethany prides herself in being able to "do it all," she realizes she badly needs help in order to continue her duties. So she calls her brother, Bob, from across town, and asks if he could come stay with their mother for a few hours every Saturday morning. He's more than glad to do it.
The first Saturday Bob comes, Bethany decides to go to the nature center to take some pictures. She spends a tranquil morning there. While photographing numerous wild flowers she becomes completely engaged and it seems that time stands still. She returns to the house totally rejuvenated and calm. She resumes her caregiving duties with renewed dedication as she excitedly plans what she'll do for pleasure the next Saturday.
Last week I published an article here entitled Alzheimer's Caregiving May Be Wrecking Your Health. It stated that "What many Alzheimer's caregivers may not know is that carrying out their duties may be creating chronic stress, which, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance, can lead to a steady and significant decline in physical and mental health." I listed numerous negative health symptoms commonly experienced by Alzheimer's caregivers.
The present article focuses on how to reduce that stress, thereby decreasing the effects Alzheimer's caregiving can have on your physical and mental health.
Before talking about the stress management tips, however, let's take a look at the symptoms of stress. The Alzheimer's Association lists the following:
Denial, Anger, Social Withdrawal, Anxiety, Depression, Exhaustion, Sleeplessness, Irritability, Lack of Concentration, and Physical and Mental Health Problems.
While many of these symptoms are signs of general stress, there are some stressors that are unique to Alzheimer's caregiving. These include:
- Being on call and busy 24/7, leading to insufficient sleep, physical exhaustion, and having no time to oneself and no time for self care
- Feeling emotional distress at seeing a loved one's mental capacity slowly disintegrate
- Losing the person the loved one was even though that person is still here
- Being depressed (The American Psychological Association has estimated that 40 - 70% of Alzheimer's caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression.)
The Alzheimer's Association has extensive material on this topic on its website, including a PDF entitled Take Care of Yourself: 10 Ways to Be a Healthier Caregiver. That PDF includes the following tips:
1. Understand what's happening as early as possible
2. Know what community resources are available
3. Become an educated caregiver
4. Get help
5. Take care of yourself
6. Manage your level of stress
7. Accept changes as they occur
8. Make legal and financial plans
9. Give yourself credit - not guilt
10. Visit your doctor regularly
Nearly all sources listing ways to manage the stress of being an Alzheimer's caregiver include "getting help." The Mayo Clinic has an article, How to Ask for Help, on its website.
In addition to including many of the Alzheimer's Association's 10 tips on managing stress, HelpGuide.org mentions joining a support group and states that sharing with others in the same situation can be very helpful.
In an article I previously published on the Alzheimer's Reading Room (What to Do When You Just Can't Take It Anymore), I listed seven additional stress reduction strategies for Alzheimer's caregivers:
Remember that although you can never completely avoid the strain of Alzheimer's caregiving, you can use stress management techniques to lessen the negative impact your caregiving has on your physical and mental health.
1. Call in a Geriatric Care Manager (Go to CareManager.org to fine one in your area)
2. Contact the Alzheimer's Association for help (1-800-272-3900 - 24/7 helpline)
3. Contact the Alzheimer's Foundation of America for help (Counseling and advice - 1-866-AFA-8484 Monday through Friday from 9AM to 5 PM)
4. See a psychotherapist
5. Consult with your spiritual leader
6. Consider a day care program for your loved one
7. Get respite care, either from a friend or relative or from a respite care facility
Marie Marley is the award-winning author of the uplifting book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy. Her website contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.
Talking with other people who face the same daily challenges can help caregivers manage stress. Specific types of support groups can vary on a community-by-community basis; check out this Caregiver.com guide to find the right program for you.
Caregivers have their hands full and may not have the time to meet with an in-person support group. In that case, an online support group can be a great alternative.
Support groups not your thing? You can see what other people are saying about caregiving by just checking out a simple message board, such as this one sponsored by AARP..
You may need to attend an event or simply seek a few hours for some much-needed rest. Eldercare.net offers a Search For Respite Tool or Eldercare Locator where you can find professional help. Also check out this guide from caring.com for more respite-care ideas.
Does your loved one need transportation to go buy food or go shopping? There are numerous van and shuttle services specifically for seniors. Contact your local Area Agency On Aging for one near you.
Don't have time to shop and cook? Consider a service that will deliver gourmet meals to your home, no matter where you live. For low-income seniors in need, AssistGuide Information Services offers a directory of food services available.
During the 2009 economic downturn, 1 in 5 family caregivers said their finances were so strained that they were forced to move into the same home with their aging loved ones to reduce expenses, according to a survey by caregiving.org. Some 47 percent of working caregivers indicate that an increase in caregiving expenses caused them to use up all or most of their savings. The Many Strong Support Network has a fundraising tool which allows other people to anonymously donate funds to people who are under financial strain.
If ever you have a question about resources, or need support at a moment's notice, AARP's caregiving support line is available at 1-877-333-5885, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Senior care advisors for Care.com, also provide free counseling for caregivers, and help them map out the best course of care for their loved ones.
Organized caregiver co-ops can provide an affordable way to coordinate care for your loved ones. Check with local community centers or this Adult Day Care Directory to see if someone in your area has already started one.
Care.com's Senior Care Directory can set you up with a housekeeper, errand runner, pet sitter, or whatever you need to make the caregiving experience a little more manageable.
According to author of "The Medical Day Planner", Tory Zellick, hospital social workers are a great resource for all caregivers. "[Hospital social workers] are always armed with information for your community," said Zellick.
Websites like Lotsahelpinghands have caregiving communities that connect volunteers with caregivers in need of support or help.
Family gatherings offer a great opportunity to discuss the future of loved one you care for, says Dr. Bruce Chernof, president and CEO of The SCAN Foundation. The group offers a guide -- "10 Conversations To Plan For Aging With Dignity And Independence" -- to lay the groundwork for these critical discussions.