Caring for the Caregiver
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Many don’t realize the risk associated with caregiving. More often than not, caregivers have needs that are not met– leaving them in a struggle of their own.
“In my practice, I’ve come to know many care partners. I’ve seen them work tirelessly to help their friend, spouse, or family member. I’ve experienced their sense of loneliness and felt their frustration; watched them push through those feelings as they remember the person they love. I’ve also noticed that it can be a great challenge for them to take care of themselves. But for those that do find the time for self-care – who make a commitment to support their own health as well as their loved one’s health – I’ve witnessed firsthand that they suffer less and thrive in what can be a very difficult environment.” – Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D.
The abnormal brain changes caused by Alzheimer’s disease (AD) don’t just affect memory. They can eventually impair one’s ability to perform everyday living activities. Thus, many AD patients require daily assistance. Caregivers play a vital – yet often overlooked – role in helping those with memory loss remain as healthy as possible, as well as maintain their dignity and pride. And most do so unpaid, performing complex health care tasks without any clinical experience.
In 2015, AARP Public Policy Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving surveyed the unpaid family caregiving landscape. Their findings:
Perhaps surprisingly, nearly one in 10 caregivers is 75 or older themselves. This statistic underscores the importance of self care for caregivers: Not only will it help them with their family member suffering from memory loss, but it will help ensure that they strive daily for optimal brain health so they can continue to be there for their loved one.
Roughly a quarter of caregivers provide care for someone with a memory problem; however, many of them (37%) responded that they care for someone with more than one chronic condition or illness, of which memory loss is one likely candidate.
In particular, higher-hour care partners (those spending 21 or more hours a week on the task) are a vulnerable population: They are more likely to experience emotional stress and other negative impacts on their health or well-being—thereby increasing their own risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.
As previously mentioned, the majority of caregivers, half according to the report, had no choice about taking on their caregiving responsibilities, thus experiencing increased strain and stress– and the physical and mental health ramifications that come with these emotions.
Alzheimer’s and other chronic or long-term conditions are especially likely to trigger emotional stress in care partners.
Six in 10 care partners are also employed while caregiving, adding to the strain of the role.
So what can be done to lessen their load and improve care partners’ quality of life?
Stress reduction: Taking steps to reduce stress can give care partners, particularly those who had no choice but to assume the role, a sense of control. Simple activities such as taking a walk or gardening can help reduce stress levels. Research on the yoga-meditation practice called Kirtan Kriya (KK) found that dementia care partners who practiced KK for only 12 minutes per day experienced reduced inflammation for improved physical health and decreased depression and anxiety, along with better resilience for improved mental health.
Sleep: A lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep can lead to AD. Studies suggest that two-thirds of those caring for people with dementia experience some form of sleep disturbance during the course of their time in the role. Major contributors to this disturbance, researchers have found, include the burden of care-taking and resulting depression, as well as the caregiver’s physical health status. Once again, of particular impact here is KK: studies show that a KK practice improves sleep, along with the other health benefits.
Exercise: This is as close to a silver bullet as it gets when it comes to improving all facets of health. Research supports that exercise promotes better sleep, reduces stress and depression, and increases energy and alertness. In other words, it’s a win-win for care partners. Even short bouts of exercise confer such benefits, so care partners – particularly those balancing employment and a family - can still experience the boost to mind and body. Because care partners can feel isolated, group exercise such as yoga (or tai chi, qigong, etc.) may be especially beneficial.
Further help and support: Become aware of caregiver support groups, both online and in-person. Such support groups have been shown to lower care partner stress levels and provide some of the support they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
The demands of caregiving may have a profoundly negative impact upon the health of families, and increase the risk factors for mental illness and chronic disease for the care partners themselves. Taking steps to reduce stress, improve sleep hygiene, and getting proper exercise and social contact help care partners establish best practices to balance the demands of caregiving for their loved ones.
You can experience the Kirtan Kriya in the On-Demand Retreat, available for free now. And, more from ARPF on a healthy brain in our live from Santa Fe Instant Access Retreat, also available for free now.
AARP Public Policy Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving (2015, June). Research Report: Caregiving in the U.S. AARP.
The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation (ARPF) is the leading voice for the integrative medical approach to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. This blog post was submitted on behalf of ARPF by Chelsea Pyne.
ARPF provides an alternative to the conventional “magic bullet” drug approach. We believe that you can help yourself, right now, by using an integrative medical approach based on the lifestyle tools we advocate. Modern medical research reveals that all of the aspects of the ARPF’s Four Pillars of Prevention, including physical and mental exercise, especially when used together, help build a healthier and stronger brain and memory.