Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease impacts every aspect of daily life. As Alzheimer’s patients lose one ability after another, caregivers face tests of stamina, problem-solving, and resiliency. During this long and difficult journey, communication diminishes, rewards decrease, and without strong support, caretakers face challenges to their own well-being.
Maintaining emotional and physical fitness is crucial. Preparing and protecting yourself, working to understand your loved one’s experience, and embracing help from others can minimize the hazards and enhance the joys of your caregiving experience.
Caring for a person with Alzheimer’s disease is often a series of grief experiences as you watch memories disappear and skills erode. Initially, this process can go unnoticed until difficulties impact more areas of daily life and the disease can no longer be denied. For both caretakers and their loved ones, this often produces an emotional wallop of confusion, anger and sadness. If left unchecked, these feelings can last throughout a caregiver’s long journey.
Exploring common Alzheimer’s experiences can shift your perspective and show you that you are not alone. For many, Alzheimer’s care includes not only challenges but many rich rewards:
Caring for Someone with Alzheimer’s Disease
Providing care for a person with Alzheimer’s disease is sometimes described as the reverse of raising a child. You can support and nourish your loved one’s independence and stability, but cognitive and physical regression will ultimately require 24 hour care. Although medical advances can slow early stage decline, Alzheimer’s remains a terminal disease.
With this difficult outlook, caregiving can become all-consuming as your loved one diminishes over a period of years. Grief, depression, and anger are common, but anticipating and learning about the disease can reduce your frustration, foster reasonable expectations, and prepare you for new challenges.
Your commitment to Alzheimer’s caregiving is a remarkable gift. Learning all you can about what is happening and what to expect not only helps your loved one, it is the first step towards protecting your own total health.
Balancing the enormous task of caring for a cognitively impaired adult with your other responsibilities requires skill, attention, and diligent planning. Fortunately, many professionals and caregivers have developed a wealth of resources to help you prioritize your efforts and provide effective care.
Planning for your own care is also vitally important. It is easy to abandon the other people and activities you love when you’re mired in caregiving, but you risk your health and peace of mind by doing so. Though your caregiver’s journey is full of the unexpected, learning to protect, reflect, and connect can reveal surprising opportunities to meet your needs and nurture your sense of satisfaction.
Protecting yourself from burnout during Alzheimer’s care
From the first acknowledgement of mental changes to your loved one’s ultimate death, you are likely to experience a changing constellation of emotions, mind-numbing exhaustion, and altered relationships for a number of years.
Excessive stress and tension
Persistent anxiety, anger or guilt
Extreme irritability or anger with the patient
Decreased overall life satisfaction
Relationship conflicts and social isolation
Lower immunity and greater need for healthcare services
Excessive use of medications, drugs or alcohol
Because caregiving is such hard work, you must learn to protect yourself first. These simple strategies will fit into your most demanding days and can energize you against the pitfalls of excessive stress:
Schedule mini-workouts throughout the day. Regular exercise not only keeps you fit, it releases endorphins that keep you happy. Ten minute sessions sprinkled over the course of the day are easier to block out than an hour away. Look for library videos, websites, and TV programs to keep your routines varied and motivating.
Take time to play. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, include your loved one in short walks, board games, or jigsaw puzzles. Join an online scrabble tournament, practice your golf swing, or master the yo-yo. A daily dose of fun is good medicine, and doesn’t require money, a car, or huge blocks of time.
Try something new. Challenge yourself to learn a new skill while you are “on the job.” Order a self-paced foreign language program and you will count to 100 in no time. Join the video game fitness craze to try a new sport. From singing to bowling to pitching a strike, systems like the Nintendo Wii offer living room-friendly activities for every age and skill level. With just a few minutes of practice each day, you can flex mental muscle and release harmful steam.
Keep ‘em laughing. Humor is a well-known antidote to stress, sadness, illness, and boredom. Give yourself permission to chuckle at the absurdities you and your loved one experience, and surround yourself with laughter. Avoid heavy dramas at the video store and go for a hearty belly laugh. Your infectious good mood will replenish your inner resources and sooth your loved one.
Ask for help. For someone who is used to operating independently, the realities of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease can be a real eye-opener. Those with strong support systems, creative respite arrangements, and regular time away not only fare better, they also find more satisfaction in their caretaking roles. Join a support group, schedule frequent breaks, and seek professional help if you recognize yourself in the “warning signs of caregiver burnout.”
Reflecting and thinking clearly while someone you love slowly disappears is tough, but this emotionally charged experience also brings tremendous opportunity for growth, satisfaction, and love. By accepting each new reality and learning to hush your inner chatter, you can make conscious choices that promote happiness and improve quality of life.
The desire not to think about what you are facing is normal, but you can grow beyond it. One of the biggest challenges you face is to accept what is happening.
The process of this disease is predictable. Your loved one will lose functional ability and you will eventually have to make decisions on his or her behalf.
You, not he or she, will have to change. Your loved one’s ability to change will become extremely limited and will diminish as the disease progresses. You will have to learn to alter your expectations and reactions.
Habits of thought and perception can create endless mental dialogues of “what ifs,” “why nots,” and “how could shes!” Consider these four tips to silence negative voices and build reflective caregiving skills:
Keep a daily journal to record and reflect on your experiences. By journaling your thoughts, you can mourn losses, celebrate successes, and look for those thought patterns that keep you from acting in the present.
Count your blessings. A daily gratitude list can chase away the blues and let you focus on your loved one’s capabilities.
Practice mindfulness. Research shows meditation and mindfulness can calm, restore, and promote happiness. Look for one of many university studies testing the benefits of meditation and holistic healing, or check out a meditation tape from your local library.
Improve your emotional intelligence. Relieve stress, experience positive emotions and improve your relationships by strengthening your emotional intelligence skills. With practice, you can bring new peace and clarity to your caretaking role. Remaining engaged, focused, and calm in the midst of such tremendous responsibility can challenge even the most capable caregivers.
When you approach an Alzheimer’s patient with respect, forgive the past, and celebrate the present, positive encounters encourage you to continue. Although history may prevent you from connecting with a sense of love, exploring and encouraging genuine connections creates opportunities for untold joy.
In general, as interpersonal connections become more difficult and opportunities to interact are limited, difficult behaviors increase. These reminders will help you find common ground:
Connecting Through Change
Language skills are impacted early in this disease. Encouraging personal histories, prompting your loved one to share her moments of greatness, and speaking in a calm, loving, and simple (but adult) manner will facilitate your interactions during the early years.
Remember the adage “your actions speak louder than words?” In spoken communication, 93% of meaning comes from tone, gestures, and other forms of body language.
With Alzheimer’s disease, nonverbal skills become all important as words fade. Even in the late stages of the disease, patients communicate a great deal through eye contact, gestures, looks, body posture, nods, facial expression, and breathing patterns, and can still respond to others.
Building nonverbal skills can maintain your relationship, improve your interactions, and foster a sense of well-being for you and your loved one.
Creating an environment that is safe, soothing, and certain enables you to connect with your loved one. Following these tips can help you bridge a connection as your relationship evolves:
Limit surprises by maintaining routines. While an Alzheimer’s patient struggles to maintain a sense of self and meaning, establishing daily routines will provide needed reassurance. Include favorite activities each day and schedule more challenging tasks when your care recipient is at her peak.
Create a memory-rich environment. Surround your loved one with reminders of happy, successful moments. As the present recedes into the past, providing pictures from earlier years will stimulate conversation. Placing reminders from favorite activities will help both of you remember and celebrate capabilities.
Share enriching sensory experiences. Music, fragrance, texture, and taste can both calm and energize Alzheimer’s patients—some sensory input can also agitate patients. Watch for reactions and adapt the environment to maximize sensory pleasure.
When caregiving is difficult and over-whelming, you may feel totally alone. However, current counts suggest that as many as 10 million others are also providing care to someone with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia!
Maintaining social contacts, family connections, professional networks, and peer support is an important safeguard for your wellness and happiness. Sharing tasks, solving problems, and savoring the humor along your caretaking journey will let you return to a life filled with good health and cherished memories.