Caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s can be challenging in many ways, but also can be richly rewarding. It can deepen the bonds between spouse and caregiver, and open the door to new relationships through education and support groups. However, much may depend on the caregiver’s determination not to allow the new circumstances to compromise his or her own mental and physical well-being.
As the day-to-day demands on the caregiver and the emotional toll of watching a loved one impacted by the disease increase, it is vital to remain positive and take proactive steps that ease the burdens on the caregiver, for the sake of both caregiver and loved one. Here are some suggestions:
- Allow time for exercise. Set aside at least 30 minutes a day for exercise at home. It need not be 30 consecutive minutes necessarily. If your loved one needs attention unexpectedly, go back to the workout when he or she is at rest or napping. Be flexible about when you exercise, but be diligent about doing it. Exercise will help keep you fit, and may also help reduce some of your stress.
- Eat nutritiously. For maintaining your health under demanding conditions, such as caregiving to a spouse with Alzheimer’s, proper eating is as important as getting exercise. Give emphasis to whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and guard against fatigue-causing iron deficiency by eating good sources of iron, including various beans, leafy vegetables and nuts, to name just a few. For an extra treat, add a modest amount of dark chocolate to your diet – also a good source of iron.
- Go easy on yourself. Few things are more demanding than Alzheimer’s care, so avoid notions of inadequacy. As the Alzheimer’s Association says: “Give yourself credit, not guilt….You’re doing the best you can.” The Association also reminds caregivers to “focus on positive times as they arise, and enjoy good memories.”
- Join a support group. Support groups for Alzheimer’s caregivers provide a setting for expressing their feelings, sharing experiences, exchanging coping strategies and learning about new developments in Alzheimer’s care. They enable caregivers to better understand they are not alone, and often can be useful in alleviating stress.
- Let other family members provide relief. If other responsible members of your family offer to give you a short break now and then, perhaps so you can see a movie or attend a party, take them up on it. Again, there is no need to feel guilt.
- Consider respite care. Sometimes a caregiver must tend to other family affairs that require travel, or an extended visit away from home, or simply needs a break to recharge. For those times, there are senior care communities that will accept seniors with Alzheimer’s for a short stay. Plan in advance for using such a service, because you will want time to research the reputation and competence of the place you ultimately select.
- Explore relaxation techniques. Try relaxation techniques that can help relieve stress. These include visualization, meditation, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. Learn about relaxation techniques offered by the Mayo Clinic.
- Visit your doctor regularly. See your physician at least annually and pay attention to your body for signs of exhaustion, stress, sleeplessness or changes in appetite. Ignoring these symptoms may affect your physical and mental health.
- Go online for more help. The free online caregiver community ALZConnected, run by the Alzheimer’s Association, is a forum of support and encouragement. It offers the opportunity for caregivers to comment on message boards to share their experiences, thoughts, feelings and tips.
Above all, remember that to be the best caregiver you can be, it is absolutely vital to take good care of yourself as well as of your spouse.