Nearly 50 million people worldwide live with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia—a number that is likely to reach 75 million by 2030. As the medical community commits greater attention to dementia’s diagnosis and treatment, the focus remains largely concentrated on patients. A recent study by researchers in Canada examines dementia’s effects on so-called “informal” caregivers—family members and friends who assist patients with daily activities, symptom management, and decision making. Their findings indicate that placing more emphasis on supporting informal caregivers would benefit everyone affected by dementia.
Most individuals with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia live in environments where they receive care from family or friends. Their caregivers not only provide physical support, they also share in making important decisions. Caregivers help those with dementia decide when it’s time to stop driving, which doctor-recommended treatment plans to try, and whether to continue living at home. Because of their personal relationships, caregivers typically involve patients in the decision-making process.
But it’s no surprise that informal caregivers often struggle with the burdens of their responsibilities. Frustration, exhaustion, social isolation, illness, and financial hardships are common complaints. And when caregivers are stressed or depressed, they become less likely to involve patients in making decisions that affect them.
Despite the important roles informal caregivers play in the lives of individuals with dementia, healthcare systems generally overlook the caregivers’ needs. Therefore, here are five things caregivers can do to help themselves handle the physical and emotional burdens of being a caregiver.
1. Stop ignoring your own needs
Caregivers tend to believe that their own needs are less important than those of the individuals in their care. Some caregivers feel selfish for considering their own needs; others consider it a sign of weakness. But seeking help when you need it is actually a sign of personal strength. So ask yourself: if you become incapacitated by stress, exhaustion, or depression, who’s going to take your place as a caregiver. Make your doctor aware of any personal warning signs such as irritability, sleeplessness, and forgetfulness.
2. Learn what community resources are available
Services such as in-home companions, visiting nurses, housekeeping assistance, and home-delivered meal programs can help reduce your caregiving burdens. Adult day programs, such as the Day Center at MemoryLane Care Services, provide caregivers a break from their day-to-day responsibilities—and the opportunity to take care of their own needs. Families can choose a respite schedule that best accommodates their needs—from daily visits to a few days a week.
3. Accept family and friends’ offers of help
It is important for caregivers to have good support networks. Family and friends are often eager to help, so be prepared with assignments for when someone offers. Getting a hand with grocery shopping, yard work, meal preparation, or errand running can relieve time pressures, and free your time for one-on-one caregiving. And sometimes simply being there to listen is the biggest help friends and family can provide.
For many caregivers, it’s hard to imagine making time to exercise. But physical exercise promotes better sleep, helps reduce stress, and increases energy and alertness. When you exercise, your body produces and releases endorphins, which helps positively boost your overall mood. And, perhaps most importantly, exercise helps you stay healthy enough to continue being a caregiver.
5. Take a deep breath
Deep breathing is a simple technique for calming your mind and body during stressful situations—times when our normal tendency is to over or under breathe. Breathe in slowly through your nose, and breathe out even more slowly through your mouth. By practicing deep breathing in non-stressful times, you’ll be prepared when caregiving causes your stress level to rise.