May 24, 2013
Sometimes caregiving can feel like a tug-of-war. Your loved one’s needs may pull you away from fulfilling your own needs, but at some point you have to pull back to stay on your feet. You may relate to these caregivers of loved ones with Alzheimer’s or other dementias who feel that pull and are struggling:
“I used to go to yoga five times a week. Now my mom pleads with me to stay home. How can I make time for me and my own health when her demands are so great?”
“Everyone keeps asking me if I'm looking after myself and that's a very difficult challenge.”
“I am always so busy caring for my father that I never stop to take care of myself. I have developed poor eating habits and am starting to get concerned about my health.”
Given these caregiving challenges, it’s hardly surprising that Alzheimer’s caregivers may suffer negative health effects, which new research by the National Alliance for Caregiving confirms. While the findings may paint a grim picture for Alzheimer’s caregivers, take heart. Becoming aware of the health costs and taking advantage of resources designed to help you maintain your well-being will help to set you on a path toward healthier caregiving.
The High Cost of Caring
An 18-month study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving titled Declining Health in the Alzheimer’s Caregiver as Dementia Increases in the Care Recipient, compared the health status of non-caregivers to a diverse group of family caregivers across the country. Some of the significant findings:
- Emergency room use was twice as high for Alzheimer’s caregivers.
- Physician visits were nearly triple compared to non-caregivers.
- The average annual cost of healthcare for Alzheimer’s caregivers was $4,766 higher than for similar-aged non-caregivers. (US only)
As Dementia Progresses, Caregiver Health Declines
As the cognitive and physical abilities of dementia care recipients diminish, the health of those caring for them tends to decline also. According to the study, the caregivers’ own health declined steadily as their loved one’s need for assistance increased.
- Caregivers’ use of all types of medical services increased 25 percent over the 18-month study.
- Caregivers whose own health at the beginning of the study was only fair to poor were most vulnerable to the effects of increasing dependence of the care recipient.
How to Maintain Your Own Health
An important conclusion of the study suggests that caregiver assessments are important to identify those who may be at risk. Good places to start are the Family Caregiver Stress Assessment Scale, a helpful tool for evaluating your own situation and stress levels, and an annual visit to your physician. Then, follow these tips to help stay healthy and relieve stress.
- Keep moving! While 30 minutes of physical activity is recommended, going to the gym or getting away for a run isn’t always practical. Fit in what you can—ride a stationary bike, do an exercise video or stretch while your loved one naps—even if you only have 10 or 15 minutes.
- Eat better. You don’t have to undertake a major diet plan. Try small changes: don’t skip breakfast, drink plenty of water, have healthy snacks of fruits, vegetables and nuts on hand.
- Gather support. Even if you don’t have friends or family nearby, there are communities and online resources to help you understand dementia, find answers to your questions, share ideas and even talk with experts and other caregivers.
- Give yourself a break. Take time for yourself by looking into respite care. For short trips like shopping or getting a haircut, and longer ventures like a much-needed vacation, relaxation breaks are critical for your long-term well-being.
By paying close attention to your own fitness and state-of-mind, you can help maintain your health and feel better prepared to deal with the demanding challenges of caring for someone with memory loss.
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