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How to Be a Healthy, Effective Dementia Caregiver

There are nearly 15 million Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers providing 17 billion hours of unpaid care valued at $202 billion. The Alzheimer’s Association 2011 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report released in March finds that caregivers not only suffer emotionally but also physically. Because of the toll of caregiving on their own health, Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers had $7.9 billion in additional health care costs in 2010. More than 60 percent of family caregivers report high levels of stress because of the prolonged duration of caregiving and 33 percent report symptoms of depression.

Caregivers don’t always have the time or energy to take care of themselves, but too much stress can be damaging to both a caregiver and the person with Alzheimer’s. If you experience some of these signs of stress on a regular basis, consult your doctor. Ignoring them can cause your physical and mental health to decline.

Symptoms of caregiver stress may include: denial, anger, social withdrawal, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, sleeplessness, irritability, lack of concentration, and health problems.

In order to provide the best care to your loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it is vital to be a healthy caregiver.  Taking care of yourself is one of the most important ways to get on that path. 

Know what resources are available. Adult day care, in-home assistance, visiting nurses and Meals-on-Wheels are just some of the services that can help you.

Become an educated caregiver. As the disease progresses, new caregiving skills are necessary. Find information on alz.org or contact your local Alzheimer’s Association.

Get help. You are not failing as a caregiver by asking others for assistance. Seek the support of family, friends and community resources. Alzheimer’s Association support group meetings are a good source of comfort and reassurance. Or you can join our online community.

Take care of yourself. Watch your diet, exercise and get plenty of rest. Make time for shopping, lunch with friends or even a golf outing. Take advantage of community services such as adult day care or in-home companion services to care for your loved one while you take a break.

Manage your stress level. Stress can cause physical problems and changes in behavior. If you experience symptoms of caregiver stress, use relaxation techniques that work for you, and consult your doctor.

Accept changes as they occur. People with Alzheimer’s change and so do their needs. They often require care beyond what you can provide on your own. Look into care services such as in-home caregiver services and residential care.

Do legal and financial planning. Consult an attorney to discuss legal, financial and care issues. If possible and appropriate, involve the person with Alzheimer’s and other family members.

Be realistic. Many of the behaviors that occur are beyond your control and the control of the person with Alzheimer’s. Grieve your losses, but also focus on the positive moments.

Give yourself credit, not guilt. You are doing the best you can. Don’t feel guilty because you can’t do more. Your loved one needs you, and you are there – that should make you feel proud.

Caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia will experience changes in relationships with their loved one with Alzheimer's, family members and friends.

You may find yourself taking on a new role in your relationship as your partner's memory declines. The person with Alzheimer’s disease may no longer be able to perform certain tasks, such as balancing the checkbook, doing the taxes, handling financial and legal matters and doing certain household chores. Making important decisions on your own may feel overwhelming.

To be prepared for this role reversal, it is important that you locate financial and legal documents, such as life insurance policies, property deeds and retirement accounts, soon after your loved one is diagnosed. You may need to turn to family, friends, professionals or community resources for assistance.

You may feel socially isolated because your family and friends may have pulled back from your relationship or you have little time to spend with them. Your family and friends may hesitate to spend time with you and the person with Alzheimer’s disease because they worry about not knowing what to do or say. They may also not understand the behavior changes caused by the disease or are not able to accept that the person has the disease.

Take the initiative to contact family and friends and explain that while Alzheimer’s disease has changed your lives in some ways, you value their friendship and support. Consider inviting a few friends or family members over. Let them know in advance of any physical or emotional changes in the person with dementia. Provide them suggestions about how to communicate with the person and what activities they might be able to do together.

Caregiving issues can often ignite or magnify family conflicts, especially when people cope differently when faced with caregiving responsibilities. Family members may deny what is happening or resent family members who live far away or are not helping enough. There may also be disagreement about financial and care decisions.

To minimize conflicts, try to acknowledge these feelings and work through them. Have a family meeting. Talking about caregiving roles and responsibilities, problems and feelings can help ease tensions. You may want help from a professional counselor or clergy.

Recognize differences. Some family members may be hands-on caregivers, responding immediately to issues and organizing resources. Others may be more comfortable with being told to complete specific tasks.

Share caregiving responsibilities. Make a list of tasks and include how much time, money and effort may be involved to complete them. Divide tasks according to the family member’s preferences and abilities.

Continue to communicate. Periodic family meetings or conference calls keep the family up-to-date and involved. Discuss how things are working, reassess the needs of both the person with Alzheimer’s and the caregiver, and decide if any changes in responsibilities are needed.

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