Stress management is one of the most overlooked facets of Alzheimer’s caretaking. Given that our focus is typically on the patient it’s a somewhat understandable oversight. That does not make it excusable however. Stress compromises not only our quality of life, but also our level of proficiency in our duties. Long story short, your stress becomes the patient’s stress. This article gives caretakers 8 tips they can use to minimize their stress and perform their best, always.
Taking care of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s is a challenge unlike most faced in life. At times, it can seem like a continually expanding list of responsibilities and challenges. Patients tend to vary in their emotionally stability, level of lucidity and ability to self-direct. Some days things are easy and other are beyond description.
A “bad day” in Alzheimer’s care, is a catastrophe by most other standards.
This is not to say that caring for a person with Alzheimer’s is without it’s rewards. In fact, professional or otherwise, Alzheimer’s care can be just as rewarding as it is challenging. However, those rewards are easier to see and emotionally connect with, when caretakers take good care of themselves.
We’ve put together this guide to help care takers with the task of caring for themselves. Self-care might seem selfish or unreasonable, but your charge deserves you at your best- and so do you. In this blog, we’ve put together 8 pieces of advice to help you minimize stress and perform your best.
Let’s dive in.
Paint a Realistic Picture of what to Expect
Expectations can have a powerful shaping effect on our experiences. Typically, if we expect something to be a particular way and it falls short- we feel disappointed. On the other hand, should events play out better than we expected, it’s easy to feel grateful or happy.
One major reason that Alzheimer’s caregivers often become overwhelmed is not setting appropriate expectations for a given situation.
The course that Alzheimer’s disease usually takes is a hard thing to reconcile yourself to. The early stages of the condition are relatively simple to manage. Patient’s typically remain able to care for themselves to some extent for a time before the disease progresses.
During this time, it is easy to give in to our tendency to create idealistic expectations. Especially when the person we’re caring for is a loved one.
If we paint an overly optimistic picture- we suffer for it in the long term, as the disease inevitably progresses.
Of course, this isn’t to say you should proceed forward with utmost pessimism. A far too negative outlook can end up creating a worse experience than need be. As people we’re far more susceptible to the moods of others then we realize.
A negative outlook could create a negative experience through:
- Your patient perceiving your negative moods as their fault- this could lead to even greater stress in your patient which could worsen their condition- especially over the long term.
- Negative mood making things hit emotionally harder than they should
- Negative moods increase the stress hormones in your blood- this leads to a number of things, especially over long periods, we’re not designed for long-term stress:
Increased stress, illness, weight gain, decreased ability to think logically, increased tendency toward intense emotional reactions
A balanced focus on the present moment, framed by an understanding of the progression of Alzheimer’s is one of the healthiest ways to move forward. You see, despite the fact that Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, even in the worst stages there will still be good days and bad days. By focusing on the present, instead of our ideal, we’ll have a much easier time adjusting to what our patients require from us.
In doing so, we also minimize stress on ourselves, especially in the long-term. Think of it like being a blade of grass in a storm, as opposed to a tree. A rigid attitude (negative or positive) will eventually break in the storm- especially one that only gets more challenging as time goes by. A flexible blade of grass however, will bend low in all directions and never be broken.
New ground is being broken in Alzheimer’s research on a regular basis and many revolutionary treatments are either here or on their way. However, until the time comes where a cure is announced we should maintain our focus on the present moment and deal with things as they are.
Keep your Skills Updated
Improving your skillset as time goes by may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but it’s far easier than you may believe to fail to do this. If we’re already struggling to balance the stress of caretaking with self-care, taking the time to learn new skills may seem unreasonable or impossible.
However, improving your skills even a little at a time can give you an enormous confidence boost in your ability to handle new situations, as well as, improved technical abilities.
The truth is, it can be difficult to continually improve, if you try to cram oodles of knowledge into your brain every week. Instead of taking the typical college undergrad approach to learning, try learning just one or two new things every week.
These nuggets of knowledge can be about anything related to your profession. They can even be in fields adjacent to your profession, as long as they deepen your understanding of Alzheimer’s and your ability to care for your charge.
Tips on keeping updated:
- Subscribe to Newsletters about Alzheimer’s- Email newsletters can be a great way to get digestible pieces of information on a daily basis
- Subscribe to Health Magazines
- Join Social Media Groups related to caretaking or Alzheimer’s – you’d be surprised how much you can learn form the stories of others and their bits of advice
Take time to connect with your patient every day
The quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our experiences and our relationships. If we were to acquire all the material possessions we wanted, it would mean nothing without relationships. We could be drowning in wealth, but with no one to share that experience with, to acknowledge our hard work or effort- it would be a hollow existence.
Many of the simple things in life are dramatically enhanced through the sharing of an experience with others. In sports, close bonds allow teams to work harder and develop faster as a unit. Military front line soldiers develop such intense bonds that those relationships become their primary motivators in dangerous situations.
In fact, it is more common for frontline soldiers to put their lives at risk for one another, than for them to do so under orders. They are simply that close.
In the case of caretaking, it’s important to take the time to build deeper connections with our charges- even if they seem one sided at times.
There are a number of benefits to this, for one, the day to day tasks and stresses of caretaking are easier to deal with when you are emotionally connected to your patient. Nature has wired us that way, we are designed to form connections and are biologically and psychologically rewarded for doing so.
Mothers for instance are not driven to care for their children out of practicality, but out of love.
The creation of emotional bonds with other humans causes the release of “Feel good” hormones in both parties. These hormones, such as oxytocin and dopamine, have an incredible number of cascading effects on the body, including better health and decreased stress levels.
Getting closer to the person you’re caring for doesn’t need to be tedious or awkward. In fact, it can be quick and easy, so long as you’re consistent. On days when conditions allow, try having a conversation about something personal. Try finding areas where you genuinely connect emotionally with your charge.
Maybe you share a favorite sports team, or even have the same retro denim jacket.
Even if you happen to be taking care of a loved one, don’t make the fact that you may know them well an excuse to not try. Even if you are close, there are always new places to explore in conversation. Be sure to spend a few minutes a day sharing words.
Develop Support Systems for Yourself in Advance
Everyone needs help from time to time and it’s particularly unhealthy to imagine that you don’t. As a caretaker it’s easy to refuse help, in fact, it’s generally easier for people in general to pretend that they don’t need help instead of asking for it.
Asking for help means being vulnerable- which can be embarrassing or even painful depending on the context. That being the case, there is far more benefit in gritting your teeth through a bit of awkwardness than living without an outlet for your tension.
Luckily for you, there’s an easy out when it comes to awkwardness- setting up support systems in advance.
When you take the time to make an arrangement with a close friend or relative in advance, when you get to the point that you need to vent or take a break- there’s an expectation in place. The person you confide in has known for some time that there was a possibility of this and has prepared for it.
Furthermore- they agreed to support you in the first place!
You and the person/people of your choosing both had opportunities to consider the possibilities and agree or disagree to being available for support. The agreement in itself can be a big help, because if you feel stressed, simply knowing that you have someone you can turn to brings a feeling of relief.
Support systems are not always linear, or a single person- they don’t even always need to be your family or friends. Instead of relying on your support systems when things get tough, you can build them into your regular routine.
Taking care of a relative? Why not have your other close family members help with some of the basics, like grocery shopping or basic clean up?
That way you get more time to focus on caretaking and significantly reduce your levels of stress. You can even use some of this extra time for some of the other recommendations we’ve made, like exercise and meditation.
In the event that you don’t have family available or close friends, why not consider hiring professional caretakers for just one or two days, every couple of weeks? There are no days off when it comes to caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, so sometimes it takes a bit of creativity to create that time.
You can check out some professional care options by conducting a quick google search of your area. Try searching:
- Alzheimer’s caregiver/caretaker “insert your city here”
It’s not uncommon for caretakers to have difficulty finding time to simply be outside. Alzheimer’s patients often require round the clock attention, especially on bad days. Direct exposure to sunlight has tremendous benefits on our bodies and spirit.
A study conducted back in 2010 showed that employees who got access to less sunlight were sick more often, had more deficits in memory and mental performance and were the victims of mood swings far more often than employees who got adequate sunlight.
The impact of sunlight is so profound that since the 90’s office spaces have been going their best to incorporate as much natural lighting as possible in their designs. Remember the enormous glass windows in the last office building you visited? That’s not a coincidence, businesses want their employees functioning as optimally as possible, as often as possible.
If you can’t find time to get out in the sun, try to emulate clever office designs where possible. No, I don’t mean remodel your home to look like a Fortune 500 Company, but you can consider doing some of the following:
- Repainting with light colors that absorb less light
- Using lighter drapes or curtains
- Holding curtains open during the day
- Using automatic or rotating drapes
- Taking short walks with the person you’re caring for when possible
Whichever way you go about it, including a few minutes of sunlight per day can have a tremendous impact on your health and spirit.
Exercise Regularly- It’ll Make You Happy
Regular exercise is a must for any happy and healthy person. It’s possible to be happy without exercise of course, it’s simply FAR less likely to be the case. Especially on a consistent basis. We are quite literally hardwired to feel good after a solid workout.
Once we’ve hit a certain point in our exercise, our bodies begin to release endorphins, which are the “feel good” hormones in our brains.
Even if you’re not big on fitness, you’ve probably experienced the “high” that comes from physical exertion. Maybe you’ve spent time playing with your kids or grandkids in the pool or got really into a game of touch football at the family reunion.
Maybe, you simply got caught up in a wild night of dancing and despite being tired- you couldn’t get enough of it.
Starting your day with just a few minutes of exercise can trigger this “feel good” sensation. It’s not coincidence that some of the highest achievers we know, like Tony Robbins, start their days with exercise almost religiously.
Now, don’t let the thought of being tired and sweaty turn you off- not all exercise routines need to start off with 1000 pushups and a 5-mile run. All you need to get started is a 15-minute walk at a moderate pace. Try to go fast enough to challenge yourself without needing to “force” it.
Once you’ve hit that 15-minute walk a few times a week, it’ll not only become easier, it will start to feel natural. Pretty soon, you’ll find that your days feel “less” if you miss workouts, then, you’ll start doing more and eventually it’ll be a normal part of your routine.
Exercise is pretty essential for stress management, especially with a workload like a caretaker. The best part of exercising is that the benefits are non-negotiable. No matter what kind of mood you are in before you start- you are biologically hard wired to feel good because of your workout. Which makes it easier to do on days when you really just don’t want to.
Healthy eating should go without saying, but for the sake of being thorough, we’re going to say it once more. When you eat well, you generally feel well and feeling well leads to you performing your duties better. All of this adds up to a lovely feeling of accomplishment on a consistent basis- instead of mounting stress.
Plus, you might drop a few inches on your waistline! Which is always fun.
For the sake of keeping things simple, we’re only making one recommendation regarding diet, which we’ll cover below.
Intermittent fasting is a style of dieting that has gained increased popularity in recent years. In a nutshell, it is predicated on extended periods of not eating followed by short windows of eating your fill.
It was based on the foraging patterns of our early ancestors, who despite not having the technology we have available today, maintained good physiques for most of their lives. Obesity wasn’t even an option in those times. Partly because of the hormonal effects of this style of diet, but also because food was far more scarce before agriculture.
One could argue that the scarcity of food forced this diet on our ancestors, but one thing is for sure- it works. A number of studies have been conducted on intermittent fasting, you can find some of them cited in this article by Healthline.com.
Here are some of the benefits you can expect:
- Reduced Belly fat
- Lower risk of Type 2 diabetes
- Improved Brain Health
- Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease
- Improved Heart Health
- Decreased likelihood of Developing Cancer
As you can see, there’s far more in it for you than a bit of hunger and a decreased waistline. Intermittent fasting can open the doors to new energy levels, happiness and performance in your daily routine.
How to get started with IF:
Getting started is pretty simple as well. A quick way to jump in, is to simply eat your last meal at 6 pm today, then your next meal should be at noon tomorrow. You’re pretty much only skipping breakfast, then everything else is as normal- except for midnight snacks and pre-midnight snacks.
Generally, you can eat whatever you want once you’ve completed your fast, but it’s a good idea to make your meals as healthy as possible. Include as many leafy green vegetables as you can to increase your anti-oxidant profile and try adding some virgin coconut oil to a salad or meal.
(We’ve talked about the many benefits of Coconut Oil in another article, wich you can find by clicking Here.)
The best part about Intermittent fasting for our purposes, is that it’s easy to begin and you don’t need to go buy a bunch of fancy foods and supplements to reap the full benefit.
Meditate at Least 10 minutes a Day
Meditation started off as a pseudoscience in the United States but has very quickly gained a foothold in the scientific and business communities. What once was a fairly “out there” exploration of the spiritual nature of man, has now evolved into a well-documented tool that not only helps us grow as people, but quite literally makes our brains, emotions and bodies healthier.
One study, that tracked 1200 adults over the course of 8 weeks, saw a significant reduction in stress and inflammation. This effect was even more pronounced in the adults who had high levels of stress on a daily basis- looking at you care takers.
The best part is, all it takes is 10 minutes of quiet time.
No need for scented candles and crystal balls. Just a quiet, cool room where you won’t be interrupted and your own mind.
The impact that meditation can have on your life as a caretaker cannot be overstated. Many of the benefits that come from lightly practicing (10 mins a day) directly improve key aspects of a caretaker’s persona.
- Increased attention span
- Increased Self-awareness (you’ll know when you’re getting burned out or stressed)
- Increased self esteem and positive self-outlook (No more worrying whether or not you can get the job done)
- Decreased Blood Pressure
- Improved duration and quality of sleep
If you’re ready to jump into mediation right now, or at least learn more, you can check out Headspace.com. Headspace provides a free app that helps you make daily meditation a habit. They even provide detailed tutorials on mindfulness meditation here.