7 Tips for Adapting Your Life to Deal with Caregiving Stress
Over the holidays I had the opportunity to catch up some on my backlog of reading. One magazine, the October issue of body+soul, featured a story, Happiness in Hard Times. The article focused on adaptability, which involves moving through adversity in order to find a way toward reinvention. I thought this article would be of special interest to caregivers who have loved ones with Alzheimer's since we often reinvent our life throughout the time we spend caregiving and immediately after a loved one's death. For instance, I think about my friend Pam, in her 60s, is reinventing herself as a single person after her husband, who has early onset Alzheimer's, needed to be placed in an Alzheimer's facility.
"Successfully adapting to adversity means moving, when the time is right, from mourning and regretting to focusing on the options and opportunities opening up before us," wrote Frances Lefkowitz. The author noted that recent studies "suggest that the rewards of meeting challenges include an improved sense of personal strength, an increased appreciation for life, a sense of new possibilities, and improved relationships." She also noted that "change that knocks us down and beats us up" - which I would suggest encompasses the challenge of caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer's - can even lead to a silver lining, although finding that lining might take "some time, dedication and creativity."
Lefkowitz suggests seven says to rebound from a setback. These include:
1. Worry well. It's easy to fall into doomsday thinking, but instead, you can be proactive by challenging these worries with knowledge and perspective (and by writing them down). In my case, it was easy to fall into the depths of worry when Mom was suffering short-term memory loss and again when she was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's. In the former case, I visited a psychologist who helped me work past the worry that was stifling my life and creativity so I could take a proactive stance that helped me maintain balance. Once Mom was diagnosed with dementia, I had the opportunity to write regularly for this website, which turned out to be a way of journaling that helped me reflect on my worries and caregiving actions. By taking these types of actions, I could find my way out of the mental dungeon in which I found myself and could figure out how to put one foot in front of the other to move forward.
2. Practice expansion. Often we hunker down when faced with bad news. "Learning to stay expanded rather than contracted, in mind and body, allows us to better accept what's unfolding, pay attention to the sensations of the moment, and transform paralysis into productive action," Lefkowitz wrote. She suggested doing stretches that help you tune into your body and also expanding your thinking to see the multiple options that actually exist. In addition, identifying your blessings helps you focus and open up to a fuller experience. I have found that when I'm going through a tough period, I can end the day thinking about 20 things (people, animals, experiences, opportunities) that I've been thankful for during that particular day. This experience helps me keep an expanded point of view and a sense of mental equilibrium.
3. Look for the lesson. Finding a meaningful or useful lesson in a bad situation is important. You may want to ask hard questions about the life event. In caring for my mom, I found this to be particularly important. For instance, while growing up, Mom was determined to be independent and "not be a burden to my children"; in this way, she served as a role model for both me and my brother. When Mom started having memory loss and then dementia, she still tried to keep her independent stance. While she was living with me prior to diagnosis, I came to a different conclusion: learning to ask for help and letting others give it is the best way to let others show their love for you. Furthermore, letting someone help you during a time of need actually is one of the highest compliments that you can give to the family member or friend. Thus, I learned to let people support me, instead of always handling everything on my one.
4. Develop resilience. Emotional turmoil happens when you get stuck in endless anger and resentment about what has happened. "Additionally, lab studies show that anger triggers our fight-or-flight response, which can reduce our brain's ability to think clearly and creatively so we can find solutions," Lefkowitz wrote. One way to get past this is meditation, which creates mental resilience and clarity.
5. Take advantage of downtime. It's easy to get so focused on caregiving that you feel you can't have downtime, but it's important to grab that downtime when you can. Whether it's exercising, reading, gardening or trying a new restaurant with friends, taking this time will help you rebound mentally and emotionally from the challenges of caregiving.
6. Tap your resources. Outer resources - your friends and family members - are critical elements in maintaining your resilience. "In the best of times, a strong social life increases our health, happiness, and longevity; in the worst of times, that network acts as a crucial stress buster, helping us to process our emotions, get perspective, and have fun," Lefkowitz stressed. During Mom's battle with Alzheimer's, I found I tapped into friends who served as mentors for the caregiving process as well as friends who allowed me to escape mentally through laughter, conversation, or just enjoying a movie together. These resources, made up of the network of people you know, are priceless in helping you maintain your emotional balance.
7. Help someone else. Supporting someone else can help you move out of your mental dungeon. Even while serving as Mom's advocate during her battle with Alzheimer's, I found that helping others, especially by contributing to this website's community, helped me feel alive and needed. And immediately after Mom's death, I got involved in the Alzheimer's Association's Memory Walk, which again gave me a proactive outlet to move forward and to honor Mom's memory.
These seven steps can help you negotiate the challenges that you face in your life, especially while caregiving. It's important to figure out how to keep yourself level emotionally while you deal with the difficult changes that are happening daily, weekly and monthly. These tips can help you emerge from the caregiving journey a stronger, better person.