If you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease, you could end up suffering from caregiver burnout if you're not vigilant. The prescription for this common ailment: Find ways to reduce your stress. "The strain of caregiving can sneak up on us," says Ruth Drew, director of family and information services at the Alzheimer's Association (www.alz.org). "When people offer to help, say 'Yes.'"
Retired cardiologist Michael McVay, 68, of Yankton, S.D., has figured out how to manage his stress while he cares for his wife, Ellen, 65. Ellen, a former therapist, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's four years ago.
McVay spends time away from Ellen every day. For now, she can stay alone for about three hours, or he'll invite a friend to visit while he takes time off. He meets with his own friends, plays golf once a week and exercises at a gym regularly. Those activities "give me distance from my worries," he says. A real stress buster for him is meditation, which "keeps me in the present moment," McVay says.
Caregivers of patients with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are particularly vulnerable to high levels of stress. Dealing with severe changes in a loved one's personality and behavior can be grueling for caregivers, especially when 24-hour attention is required.
Stressed-out caregivers may suffer from any number of symptoms, such as sleeplessness and anger. And burnout can lead to stress-related illnesses, including depression and heart ailments. "We see caregivers getting sick," Drew says.
One way to reduce stress is to take time off. "Take 45 minutes a week to connect with friends, or take a tai chi class," says Michelle Venegas, director of programs and services at the Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org). "You need to replenish yourself."
Of course, that means finding someone to care for your loved one. Depending on the severity of the illness, it may not be possible to ask a friend to spend a couple of hours caring for your loved one.
One option is to find a home health aide who can come in for several hours a day. An aide from a licensed agency costs between $21 and $30 an hour. Medicare does not cover these costs. Make sure the aide has experience caring for Alzheimer’s patients. You can find a home health service through your Area Agency on Aging. (Find your local agency at the Eldercare Locator at www.eldercare.gov.)
Another option is adult day care, which will supervise your loved one for four or five hours a day. The cost ranges from $55 to $100 a day. A facility could offer music, art, exercise and other activities. If your loved one needs personal care, such as help with using the bathroom, make sure the center provides it.
To find an adult day-care center near you, go to www.communityresourcefinder.org or use the Eldercare Locator. If your family member has a long-term-care insurance policy, it likely will cover part of the cost.
Maintain Healthy Habits
It's also essential for caregivers to stay in good health. “Lack of sleep is really pervasive," Venegas says. "We always talk about the importance of figuring out how to sleep—medication, talk therapy, a journal."
Don't put off seeing a doctor for your own health needs. Be sure to keep up an exercise regimen. If you don't have time to cook healthy meals, find a local service that will deliver nutritious dinners. And consider seeing a therapist to discuss depression, anger and other emotions associated with extreme caregiving. Also ask your physician or a therapist to teach you relaxation techniques.
Joining a caregiver support group—either online or in person—can be a big help. You can get emotional support and practical advice from people who are going through the same experiences.
You can find support groups in your area at the Web sites of the Alzheimer's Association and the Family Caregiver Alliance. The association also has a 24-hour helpline.
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