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Don't Believe These 6 Excuses That Add Stress to Alzheimer's Care

03/25/2014 11:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2014
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Stress -- petty or epic, sneaky, relentless -- is like the evil twin of Alzheimer's when you're caring for someone with the disease.

Of all the things that help lower caregiver stress -- knowledge about what to expect, insight into why behaviors happen, healthy self-care -- possibly the most overlooked tool is enlisting help. Specifically, help that gives you a periodic break to recharge and keep going.

This kind of stress-busting is often overlooked because it's so easy to resist. We can find a million excuses that sound plausible (but aren't always rooted in fact).

Are you letting these excuses get in your way?

Excuse #1: "I can manage fine without a break."

Now, there's proof behind my favorite advice for getting out in front of caregiver stress using respite care: A new Penn State study has found that for every day a caregiver uses adult day services, his or her body's stress response is restored closer to normal.

The study, reported in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, looked at 151 caregivers of a family member with dementia who used adult day services at least twice a week. The caregivers averaged 62 years of age. Their levels of a key stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland DHEA-S were measured through saliva and monitored over time.

The body needs DHEA-S to guard it from stress's damaging effects. But when stress is chronic and prolonged -- can you say Alzheimer's care? -- DHEA-S gets depleted. The study found that DHEA-S levels rose in the caregivers, however, on the day after they used respite care, suggesting that getting a break allows the body to recover and "re-set" from chronic stress. Caregivers' reported moods lifted, too.

Excuse #2: "It causes me more stress to get her there."

Nope. The Penn State researchers also found that it's not more stressful to get someone to and from a day program than to not use it at all. Focus on the benefits: You'll wind up with better health and a second wind -- and more of what it takes to be a great caregiver who's there for the long haul.

Excuse #3: "It's just babysitting."

Sure, there's a range of quality to everything, including dementia-care respite programs. Most, however, are full of good-hearted people who work to engage visitors. Some day services even offer physical, cognitive or occupational therapy. Look for a program designed for people with dementia. Try to check it out by yourself first to get a feel for what happens there.

Realize, too, that even having a companion sit with your loved one to talk or walk at home is providing valuable social stimulation (and a valuable break for you).

Excuse #4: "My mom/husband/etc. will never go for it."

Worried your loved one will balk at the idea of day services? Many people respond well to being told a program is "a club" or "therapy the doctor thinks will help." You might be surprised how even a very dependent person with Alzheimer's welcomes fresh faces and activities. And you won't know until you try. This is a good kind of selfish act.

Excuse #5: "I can't find affordable help."

I'll be the first to admit that services for people with dementia are under financial siege and under-supplied in many areas, and can be expensive. Some places to start a search:

* Your local Area Agency on Aging (a clearinghouse of community programs)
* The National Adult Day Services Association
* The US Department of Health and Human Services Eldercare Locator
* The Caring.com Adult Day Care finder

Note: The term "adult day care" is little dated (and cringe-worthy, like "adult diapers") but you're apt to see it and many people search using this term.

Please don't overlook informal respite. It, too, has the power to dramatically lower stress. This could be a friend who spells you while you get a haircut or go to the store. A few hours of a hired elder companion playing cards with your loved one every week while you exercise is respite. A Girl Scout or church member coming over to read to your loved one provides respite. A family member giving you the weekend off or a week away is love-you-forever respite.

Excuse #6: "Nobody looks after her as well as I can"

You're right. Nobody can replace you. But you're not looking for a replacement. All you need is somebody to relieve you, for a little while.

It's common to feel guilty or anxious about leaving a loved one with Alzheimer's in the care of someone else. Focus on the benefits he or she gets out of it: a break from you, social interactions, fresh things to do and possibly even delayed cognitive decline.

And don't think it's selfish to do what benefits you. The Penn State news about a few hours break being enough to normalize stress hormones should make any Alzheimer's caregiver sit up and take notice -- and reach out.