Find a Support System
One of the first steps in accepting the journey ahead is to realize that there is a large community of other caregivers struggling with the same grief and stresses. In fact, there are about 15 million people in the United States who are caregivers specifically to someone with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and almost 40 million who are providing care to someone with illness or disability, according to the Family Caregiving Alliance.
Being a caregiver can feel isolating, as many become detached from their past lives, with numerous emotional and physical health consequences. While family and friends are the ideal first line of support, caregivers often need to go outside their normal network. Reaching out and connecting with other caregivers via online communities or local support groups can bring reassurance that there are options to help provide assistance when the responsibility is just too much for one person.
As everyone’s situation is unique, trying both virtual and in-person support groups can help, recommends HelpGuide from Harvard Health. With different kinds of peer networks in place, it is easier to ask for help, find respite care, seek referrals and recommendations on doctors and healthcare, plan for the future, and more. The Alzheimer's Association provides an online caregiver center, a great resource to locate support.
Prioritizing Your Own Health
Dealing with the daily challenges of Alzheimer's disease can be especially difficult and overwhelming, as caregivers must cope with continually changing levels of ability and new patterns of behavior, according to the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute, part of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
All of this stress can take a toll on the caregiver’s health, and it is critical to watch for signs of burnout, says the Mayo Clinic. While it may be impossible to control everything as it once was, make an effort to maintain activities that are still manageable.
Regular exercise is one especially important activity. Just 20 minutes of walking can help lower the risk of depression, reduce stress, and maintain a healthy weight, says WebMD. Setting personal health goals can help to stay on track, advises the Mayo Clinic, such as being active at least 5 days a week.
Diet is also another important element to health, but eating well is often replaced by convenient but unhealthy fast foods. According to one survey in partnership with the National Alliance for Caregiving, nearly 6 out of 10 caregivers attest that their eating habits have gotten worse. However, eating healthy even when pressed for time can be done, with many benefits for health. Whenever possible, prepare healthy meals that can be frozen for quick dinners throughout the week. Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (which require little to no prep work to eat) is highly recommended, as are whole grains, olive oil, and fish, according to WebMD.
Many caregivers fall into the trap of thinking they are never doing enough. Instead, try to focus on everything that is a positive accomplishment, like successful time management, one day at a time. It is normal to slip up and get angry, miss a workout or feel depressed sometimes. However, it is important to let go of the idea of being a “perfect” caregiver and instead be realistic, says the Mayo Clinic.
Find Ways to Relax
Even in the midst of a stressful day and caregiving duties, it is possible to find release. Experts from the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute recommend improving emotional awareness, a practice that helps relieve stress, promote calm, and raise positive emotions. Learning empathy is a huge part of this process, which can be especially helpful for Alzheimer’s caregivers, to better understand why the person they are caring for suddenly becomes confused, angry or difficult. Developing emotional intelligence takes time, and working with a trained professional can help, although there are many resources available online.
In addition, taking up one or more of the well-studied and proven methods of stress reduction can assist in promoting relaxation and everyday coping techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing, visualization, mindfulness, yoga and rhythmic exercise.