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Helpful tips for family caregivers
This month we focus on three areas where you can make changes to keep difficult problems at bay.
Burnout is more than stress. And it isn’t just undesirable. It’s a risky condition.
The consequences of burnout include emotional depletion, often leading to depression; reduced resistance to common illnesses, such as colds and flu; increased likelihood of a chronic disease, such as heart disease or diabetes; lack of energy to do what is necessary for your relative.
Some stress is inevitable when caring for a loved one. But unrelenting stress is bad for everyone. Think of a candle. If you leave it lit 24/7, it will quickly burn through. But if you let it rest between periods of use, it will last a long time. You are like that candle.
Use these strategies to avoid reaching the burnout zone:
- Accept the realities. Sometimes life is cruel and unfair. Acknowledge your grief. Acknowledge any frustration or resentment. At the same time, value the ways you are skillfully addressing life’s challenges.
- Get help. Develop a specific list of things others can do. And keep it up to date. Consider what tasks friends or family could take over. If there are no volunteers, hire help.
- Give yourself time away. You may need quiet time to replenish. Or conversation and social activity. Or both! Respite is essential. Aim for personal time on a regular basis. Even 15 minutes a day can do wonders.
- Care for your body. Sleep! Eat nourishing foods. Find a physical activity you can do at home (hula hoop anyone?). Keep up with dental and medical checkups.
- Maintain other interests. Don’t forsake your family, work, or hobbies. They help add meaning to your life.
- Cultivate gratitude. Take a step back and reflect on the ways that caregiving has helped you grow personally. Be sure to let those who are pitching in know how much their efforts mean to you.
- Find community. Identify at least one person you can comfortably talk with, perhaps a friend, pastor, or therapist. Join a caregiver support group.
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More than a home
Mom wants to stay at home. But you think she’d be safer and less isolated in assisted living.
On the surface, your loved one’s preference to stay home might seem a desire to stay among comforting knickknacks. But research with elders reveals that the actual house or physical surroundings have little to do with it. Most of the value of “aging in place” has to do with staying in one’s community.
Elders who remain living at home
- stay connected socially with friends and neighbors;
- remain involved in community organizations (church, exercise club, volunteer group, etc.);
- feel safer. Even in high-crime neighborhoods. They sense their community will provide help in a crisis;
- Enjoy continuity in healthcare by not having to change doctors;
- Retain self-esteem and feelings of competence. They know where to find what, and they know who is who in the community.
These are not benefits to throw away lightly: belonging and safety, connection and self-esteem. All have a large impact on physical and emotional health. Studies even show an impact on life expectancy. If a move takes your relative out of his or her historic community, you can expect big consequences.
- Before making a move: Consider if more can be done to support your family member in safely remaining at home. Would hired assistance make a difference? The extra effort or expense may be well worthwhile. Do the calculations carefully. Depending on what’s needed, periodic assistance at home may be less expensive in the long run.
- If a move is necessary: Try to stay close to the old neighborhood. Understand that no matter how attractive a new residence, a lot will be missing for your relative. To him or her, a reduction in fall risk is an idea. The loss of access to friends is a reality.
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Physical activity improves brain health
We all know that physical activity is good for the heart, good for the blood pressure, and good for the waistline. Now it appears that it is good for the brain, too.
Brain scans show that the parts of the brain essential to decision making and memory are larger among physically active older adults. These individuals also seem to think faster and remember better than seniors who do not exercise. The research suggests that
- regular physical activity may help ward off the changes associated with diseases that cause memory loss and dementia
- even frail adults can benefit from physical activity that is tailored to their needs
Researchers are not ready to firmly link any specific amount of physical activity to better memory in late life. But the evidence of benefit is growing. Maybe this is just the news to motivate Mom or Dad (or you!) to get into action.
What kind of activity is advised?
- Choose enjoyable activities that get the heart pumping. A walk with a friend. Dancing. Swimming. In other words, some moderate intensity activity that works up a bit of sweat. Use activities that are fun and build on previous interests.
- Start slow, with an eventual goal of 2-3 hours a week. Though the “perfect” amount is not yet known, 30 minutes a day, 5-6 days a week is the usual recommendation. Start with less time and less intensity. As stamina builds, add time and pick up the pace. Variety and enjoyment are important.
- Supervision for frail adults. If your relative is frail or has problems with getting around, start with an assessment by a physical therapist. He or she can suggest an appropriate program of activity and tell you how to build it up over time.
Frail or not, always check with the doctor before having your relative take on new physical activity.
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