Caring for a person with dementia is a nonstop challenge. The intense stress and fatigue can cause a variety of serious health conditions, including depression, heart disease, and cancer. Based on her work with dementia caregivers, Dr. Elaine Eshbaugh shares 8 realistic habits that keep caregivers as physically and mentally healthy as possible. She explains why these habits work and shares practical ways to put them into use.
Sometimes I write for people with dementia. Sometimes I write for people who have no experience in Dementialand. But today…today I am writing for dementia caregivers. And, really, for all caregivers.
If you are a caregiver, things can get pretty rough. I can show you research studies on the rates of clinical depression among caregivers. Spoiler alert – they’re astronomical. (They’re high among caregivers and higher among caregivers of those with dementia.)
Your life has to be lived one day at a time…maybe even one minute at a time. You get angry. You want to say that you’re angry at the disease and not the person, but I know that sometimes it’s not always easy to separate a person and a disease when you’re living on a couple hours of sleep a night.
All caregivers struggle. Some struggle outwardly; others seems strong on the outside but bury their struggles inwardly. You are not alone in your struggle – but I know it seems that way sometimes. Maybe your family is supportive, but it’s likely some of them make your life more difficult rather than easier. I’m guessing some of them make you crazy. Maybe you’ve got some friends…but some of them probably just don’t get it, even if they try.
I’ve put together a list of habits that I typically see in caregivers that maintain their sanity. [And – let me state for the record – a caregiver that stays sane might sometimes feel like they are losing their mind.
They might cry. They might get angry. Maybe they sometimes make poor decisions. They mess up (we all do, right?). They could be on Lexapro or another anti-depressant. But they get through…day by day…minute by minute.]
Habits of Sane Caregivers
1. They sleep
Sure, maybe some nights are better than others. But they find a way to sleep. And, when they start getting an unacceptable amount of sleep each night on a regular basis, they find a solution.
Maybe this means having someone watch their loved one a few afternoons a week so they can take a nap. If anxiety keeps them from sleeping, they go to a doctor or a counselor. They understand that they can’t caregive without sleep.
2. They leave the house
I know a guy who cared for his grandma who had Alzheimer’s. At one point, he went over a week without leaving the house except to shovel and take the trash out. When other people heard about this, they thought of him as a hero.
Staying in the confines of your home doesn’t make you a hero. It sets you up for depression and stress – which sets you up for sub-par caregiving. Get the heck out of the house once in a while.
3. They understand that others can give care, too
A husband I once talked to loved his wife so much that he wouldn’t leave her side….24/7. He didn’t trust anyone else to take care of her.
He thought he was the only one capable. He had plenty of people volunteering to come over and stay with his wife for a bit, but he declined their help.
Let go of the idea that you are the only one that can provide care. Maybe someone else isn’t going to do things exactly the way you do them. That’s okay. Accept help.
4. They have a sense of humor
I don’t know what makes you laugh. Funny movies. Videos of cute cats on YouTube. Conversations with friends. Comic books. The Ellen Show. Sports bloopers. South Park.
Figure out what makes you laugh and actively seek that out. And don’t feel guilty for laughing.
5. They go to the doctor
The people who are the best about getting their loved one to the doctor when needed are often the worst at seeing the doctor themselves. And if you aren’t healthy, you can’t provide care.
So go to the doctor for small health issues…so you don’t end up with big ones. I talked to a guy once who had a sinus infection but wouldn’t go to the doctor because his wife was dying from cancer. His sinus infection didn’t seem important when he thought about what his wife was going through.
Ironically, it was his wife who finally told him that he needed to get his butt to the doctor to get some antibiotics – because he was getting increasingly irritable (or “pissy” as she said) since he didn’t feel well.
You do the people around you a favor when you take care of your health.
6. They don’t feel guilty
As a caregiver, you mess up. Maybe you thought your wife only needed one pain pill, but in retrospect you should have given her two. Perhaps you tried to make dinner and it was a flop. Or you messed up the time of your grandma’s appointment and she was 30 minutes late.
You gotta move on. Consider it a learning experience. Caregiving involves a set of practical skills, and we get better at those skills over time. When you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up.
Learn from it and move on. You have a limited amount of energy. Guilt is a complete waste of energy.
7. They understand that the goal is to have a good day
They understand that their loved one will not “get better.” They are realistic in understanding that decline is inevitable in the case of Alzheimer’s, Frontotemporal dementia, or a terminal cancer.
Yet they get that tomorrow can be a better day, even when their loved one isn’t improving.
8. They forget about people who aren’t supportive
They don’t continue to count on people who don’t come through. It doesn’t matter if those people are family or friends. It doesn’t matter if they have known them for decades.
They stop letting those people disappoint them. They find new people to support them.
Sane caregivers make a conscious effort to surround themselves with people who don’t screw them over time and time again. And when people do screw them over, they don’t spend a lot of time calling them out on it.
They don’t have the time to waste on that type of thing. In short, they don’t do drama.
And a few final notes
If you are a caregiver, listen to me here. It is okay to eat frozen pizza a couple nights a week. It is fine if sometimes you don’t return a phone call. Your neighbors will just have to deal with it if you don’t cut your lawn for ten days. Don’t be too hard on yourself if your flowers die because you forget to water them. (Tip: Buy hanging baskets of flowers. If they die, throw them away and buy new ones. It’s what I do.)
I once overheard two women who were caring for their husbands with Alzheimer’s having a conversation about the demands of their everyday lives.
“You know what we need to do?” one said to the other. “We need to stop feeling bad about all this stupid shit.”
Recommended for you:
- Fatigue in Dementialand (aka Why the Dementia Brain Is So Tired)
- 4 Ways to Overcome Caregiver Loneliness in Dementia Care
- How to Cope with Compassion Fatigue: 8 Tips for Caregivers
Guest contributor: Dr. Elaine Eshbaugh is the author of Welcome to Dementialand. She holds the Davis Professorship of Gerontology and chairs the Division of Family Services and Gerontology at the University of Northern Iowa. She’s on the executive board of the Northeast Iowa Agency on Aging and has collaborated with continuing care communities, adult day services, and hospices. Dr. Eshbaugh is also active in community outreach and does education on dementia for communities, families, and facilities. She often meets with families to provide support after a dementia diagnosis.
Image: Healthy Central Florida
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