One of the most effective ways to help a loved one with Alzheimer’s is to care for your own mental and physical health. Just as the person you’re caring for needs a healthy diet, exercise, mental stimulation and social interaction, you need those same things in order to provide your loved one with the highest possible quality of care.
While caring for a person with Alzheimer’s can be deeply fulfilling and meaningful, it can also be exhausting. Caregiver burnout is a very real phenomenon — and you won’t be doing yourself, or your loved one, any favors by trying to ignore it. By taking care of yourself, and reaching out for help when you need it, you’ll be able to bring much more love and attention to the moments you spend with your loved one.
Here are five overall tips for caring for yourself as an Alzheimer’s caregiver, so you’ll be better equipped to help the people you love.
1. Eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water.
2. Schedule a few breaks into each day of caregiving.
3. Get some aerobic exercise every day – outdoors if possible.
4. Spend time with your own friends, hobbies and interests.
5. Ask for help from friends, family, and support group members.
Eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water.
Part of being a caregiver is making smart dietary choices for the person in your care — so make them for yourself, too. In fact, you might consider joining your loved one in following the MIND diet: plenty of leafy greens, nuts, and whole grains, along with fish and poultry. It’s also a good idea to limit your intake of red meat, fried foods, salt, refined sugar and alcohol, which can all contribute to serious health issues; especially in combination with stress.
Make sure you stay properly hydrated, too. Water is a lot better for you than packaged juices, which contain high levels of added sugar — although a juicing machine can help you create nutritious fruit and veggie beverages that you and your loved one will both enjoy. Try to stay away from caffeinated soda and energy drinks (even zero-calorie ones), as these can increase your blood pressure, raise levels of stress hormones, and lead to “crashes” later in the day. A cup of tea or coffee is a much healthier alternative.
Schedule a few breaks into each day of caregiving.
Whether you’re caring for a person with Alzheimer’s on a full-time basis, or just spending part of the day or week with them, remember to include some short breaks in your schedule. Breaks provide opportunities to catch your breath, collect your thoughts, and take care of your own basic needs. They’re also crucial for managing stress and preventing caregiver burnout.
Many caregivers schedule their breaks after breakfast, lunch, and dinner, when people with Alzheimer’s tend to be at their most relaxed and content. Once the person you’re caring for is absorbed in an engaging activity — like watching TV, listening to music, reading a book, or working on a puzzle or art project — step into a different room and just sit quietly for 15 to 20 minutes. If you want, set a quiet alarm and take a little nap. You’ll come back refreshed, focused, and better prepared to attend to your loved one’s needs.
Get some aerobic exercise every day – outdoors if possible.
Exercise is essential for your physical health, as well as for your mental well-being. Daily aerobic activity will help lower your blood pressure, strengthen your heart and lungs, keep your muscles flexible, and give you more energy throughout the day. What’s more, exercise boosts blood flow to your brain, giving you stronger focus and concentration. It’s also a powerful stress reliever and mood booster, and will help you get more restful sleep.
For best results, choose exercises that’ll keep your heart pumping hard for at least 20 minutes. Running, jogging, hiking and power-walking are all great aerobic workouts. So are bicycling, swimming, basketball, soccer, and dancing. Exercise outdoors as often as possible, since sunlight helps trigger the production of “happy chemicals” like endorphins. In fact, an outdoor walk can be a perfect activity to share with your loved one, if they’re up to it.
Spend time with your own friends, hobbies and interests.
Even when the person you’re caring for is your top priority, it’s essential to stay in touch with your own life, too. As in any relationship, you’ll have more of yourself to offer the other person when you take time to catch up with your friends, to pursue your own hobbies and interests — and sometimes, just to spend a quiet evening alone with a good book and a hot bath.
You can carve out time for yourself in a lot of different ways. For example, you might consider letting your loved one socialize at an adult day center or a community care program. If a family member (who’s a responsible adult) wants to visit the person you’re caring for, invite them to come over for a few hours while you get out of the house. Members of your Alzheimer’s support group will probably be happy to help, too. Or consider hiring a part-time home caregiver, even if it’s just for a few hours.
Ask for help from friends, family, and support group members.
It’s normal to feel a bit of guilt about requesting help from others. You may believe it’s selfish to ask for assistance, or that you’re falling short as a caregiver if you can’t provide for your loved one’s needs on your own. But in truth, asking for help is often the smartest decision for your loved one’s sake — and the most effective way to ensure they get the care they deserve.
Keep in mind that your friends and family may not know what kind of help you need; so it’s a good idea to provide specifics. Sometimes, the most helpful thing a friend or family member can do is run a few errands, or prepare a meal you don’t have time to cook. They may also be glad to pitch in with cleaning, housekeeping and other chores, or with “fix-it” jobs around the house. And when they come over for a social visit, let them organize an activity to enjoy with the person you’re caring for, while you take a break, catch up on sleep, or meet a friend for lunch.
Although it’s natural to hold yourself to a high standard as a caregiver, try not to be too hard on yourself. Some days will be filled with joy, while others may leave you feeling lonely, frustrated, discouraged and angry. That’s okay. You’re going to make mistakes, because you can’t control everything. What you can control, though, is the way you handle these feelings — so remember to take care of yourself, take breaks, and ask for help when you need it. And even on the hard days, remember to laugh. It may sound simple, but it works.