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.