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Alzheimer’s Caregiving: How to Help Prevent Your Loved One’s Needs from Adversely Affecting Your Own Health

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Last revised: May 24, 2013

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. May 5, 2015 at 12:40 pm | Posted by Sharon jordan

    When I was care giving / living w/ my parents .I found that after they went to bed .Was a good time to for me to watch a movie ,read or pray and read my bible . I also found a few minutes a day stretching to Mozart or classical music .helped stress. My most difficult part of taking care of my self was bathing if I wanted more than a 2min.rinse .So I started showering after they were in bed.


  2. June 20, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Posted by slg

    For those frustrated with the demanding needs of making meals, they may want to consider meals on wheels or red cross who have services to deliver hot meals at a reasonable cost. Cook extra when making supper and freeze individual portions in a microwavable dish with air-tight lid. Have a friend/relative sign up for 1 night a week sit with your loved one to eat with them. This could give you time to go for a walk and being outside and walking helps improve your mood and releases stress. I hope these suggestions help!


  3. June 19, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Posted by Kimberly Asbury

    Iam taking care of my mom at times she will asketimes me the same question over I try not to get up set with her but my patients gets short iam her main care giver she has fallen many times.


  4. June 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Posted by Patricia

    My husband has had dementia for roughly 5 years. Lately he has gotten mixed up on what time of day it is. Gets me up in the middle of the night, wandering what we are having for supper when it is still dark outside. Then he sleeps a lot during the day, thinks it is bed time. I got night lights for the bedroom and bathroom. Any helpful suggestions? Thanks.


    • June 20, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Posted by slg

      Suggest that he has a good snack prior to bedtime so he does not get up in the middle of the night feeling like he wants to eat. If he is sensitive to light, the nightlight may be keeping him awake. Try a walk after supper in the evening to help him sleep better and restrict the naps during the day if possible. Also Snoozelin techniques has cd's to help soothe or maybe those relaxation cd's with the sounds of water lapping on the shore, or anything with relaxing music that he enjoyed in his younger days. This may help him fall asleep and sleep better. Consider black-out blinds or lined curtains. Some people are bothered by any sort of light even with their eyes closed. Someone told me a story once about a nurse helping an Alzheimer's patient to settle down for the night: He was a farmer in his earlier years and so the nurse let him go to the window and pretended to call in the cows from the field for the night. Once the person was certain the cows had come home for the night he went to bed no problem. So always consider the person, their history and personhood. We need to remember how their routine was before they got Alzheimer's Disease and try to help them have as normal a routine as they once did. Their memories and thoughts often revert back to earlier times in their life. I hope this helps.


  5. June 14, 2013 at 11:00 am | Posted by Rudolph Abraham

    I am my wife's caregiver for the last 7 years. There is very strong reasons to believe that she has Alzheimer's but her shrink says that she has mild cognitive impairment. Yet, she abuses (verbal) me several times each day 24/7. She wants me to stay in the house and be at her side. Anything I do is never enough or done to her satisfaction. She believes that I am having an affair with another woman; even thinks that I have her hidden in a bedroom upstairs. Hallucinates; sees things that are not there to be seen and hears imaginary sounds during the night. I cannot get a full night's sleep because she keeps waking me up at all hours. She refuses to seek medical help and canceled all her appointments with the psychiatrist. I have no one to help me and she refuses outside help. What I have described here is only a small part of my troubles with her. She will not take her medications on time which is a major problem because she has CKD Stage III and several other medical conditions. Can someone help me?


    • June 20, 2013 at 11:17 am | Posted by Tina

      Hi Ruddy. My Father had Alzheimer's and passed away in 2012. Although he was never officially diagnosed with it, the caregiving remains the same either way. So if you believe that your wife has this disease, why are you expecting her to take her meds or make appointments to see her doctor. It's not going to happen. It's YOU who needs to administer her meds and it's YOU who has to take her to the doctor and if you cannot do it, get help from a caregiver. It doesn't need to be full time and I do know who expensive it is. You owe yourself this favor. It's totally worth it.


    • June 20, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Posted by slg

      It may be time for you to consider talking with a social worker or your doctor to see if they have any suggestions. From what I have learned it is best to go along with them and not to argue. Try changing the subject or redirect them to another activity. It is difficult to be creative, however try to think of things she enjoyed before the disease took over. Does she knit? Even if she cannot finish anything, just having something in her hands to keep her focused may help. It may be time to change doctors or get her into some sort of support group with others who have dementia or Alzheimer's. There should be an Alzheimer's Society in your area that can offer day care during the day so you can do your errands, etc. A warning about hallucinations, make sure there is not a urinary infection or bladder infection as this can cause delerium. Those experiencing delerium have hallucinations so have your primary health care provider check for any physical causes. I wish you well and hope that you reach out as there are services to help you cope and to offer suggestions.


      • June 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Posted by Melissa Lockemy

        I am sorry for your hardship. You should not be abused. It IS time for a new doctor ... one that will listen, support and medicate. You MUST take control of the meds ... even if you have to crush the meds in a favorite food or dessert. It does sound like your wife has Alzheimer's, and the adultery accusation is very common. Medications to help with this, her anger and the hallucinations are out there. A thorough check-up from a supportive internist is also necessary. Start with the doctor you work best with ... get recs for others and move forward. As you schedule those first appointments, tell them you need immediate help! Also, set up a caregiver that will give you a break a few times a week. Agencies are between $15-$20 an hour and non-agency are about $10 an hour. YOU NEED THE MENTAL BREAK TO REGROUP! If you have family members that can help ... ask them to help. Write a schedule and ask them to commit to a day a week or a couple of days a month. Good luck. Remember, there are a lot of us out there going through this WITH you!


  6. June 13, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Posted by Fran Vaccaro

    My mother-in-law loves a food item one day and won't touch it the next day. Though she will ALWAYS eat sweets. Sometimes she fails to recognize that it is a food she likes and just pushes it aside (saying I didn't know what it was). She also arranges and re-arranges her food which drives me nuts. I now prepare food I think she likes and she eats what she eats and I avoid watching her. The list of foods she will eat has decreased so much that I find it difficult to prepare a meal for her.


    • June 20, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Posted by slg

      Try having a friend or relative sit with her to eat and give you a break. Provide snacks throughout the day of fruit, veggies, and nuts or trail mix. Consider meals on wheels. good luck


  7. June 13, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Posted by Jeannette Robinson

    Freeze one or two servings in each package and LABEL IT!! Do not announce that this is a leftover. If you eat with the person at least part of the time it will help.


  8. June 13, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Posted by Deboah Schmitz

    I appreciate your articles and comments re: Alzheimers Disease. As a health professional I would like to see articles regarding other difficult {demands} for family members. My mothers sustained a stroke 3 months ago and I thought I knew it all. Family members change the focus and the stress is so very high. I would like to see suggestions regarding this subject and others. I see so many situations regarding the aging and family. It is one thing to deal with others but so much more difficult to deal with your own family member. It has been a realization to myself and I know I am not alone. The stress and demands are unbelievable; all situation are different. ds


    • June 20, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Posted by slg

      I agree with you that dealing with your own family has unique issues. The mother of a friend, she has dementia and called the police because her car was taken. The police contacted my friend to investigate. My friend referred the police to the social worker and ER dept. involved for documents and once they had that, it was a closed case. It is very difficult for one's parent to lose the use of a car and lose the independence. Also, don't take the arguments and comments personally, and that is difficult to do when you are so emotionally involved with a family member. Remember, it is not your loved one causing the problem, it is the disease. good luck!


  9. June 13, 2013 at 7:44 am | Posted by dj andrews

    There's little consistency to what he will eat and what he likes day to day. So, often, food will sit in fridge until it's not fit to eat. Then, he requests it shortly after it's been thrown out. I'm not very good at ''catering'' to his ever changing food requests (demands!). Any suggestions?


    • June 20, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Posted by slg

      Check out meals on wheels or reach out to family members and friends to help on 1 or 2 nights per week. They may be willing to put a plate aside for him. They don't know what you need so you have to communicate what help you need, reach out. good luck!


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