Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Three simple steps to optimal caregiving

With all the news about the increasing prevalence of families involved in caregiving activities you know one thing: You’re not alone.

That may not be much help to you at 3am, though!

One of the joys I’ve recently discovered is working with a local hospital’s Alzheimer’s family support group. I was a little concerned that it might feel like a long day at work, but I’ve discovered that it feels more like an evening shared with friends. We brought home-baked goodies, fresh fruit and simply talked about what was on our minds.

I had prepared a program on how to reduce the stress caregivers experience – stress that causes family caregivers to have significantly more illness and shorter life expectancy than their non-caregiving peers.

But the group had other questions, namely “How can I help my loved one best?”

Caregiving is difficult work. Knowing how to do it is even more difficult, especially when you’re feeling isolated, sleep-deprived, exhausted. While tons of caregiver training and support classes are available (including my own at www.caringformom.com) sometimes families just want to talk. They just want it simple, too – nothing too difficult to remember; no need to memorize stages, steps or techniques.

So we broke it down to three key things:

1) Accept. Accept that your loved one is doing the best that he or she can. Today. Right now. Even if he could do it better yesterday. With very few exceptions, people with memory loss ARE doing the best they can.

2) Reassure. Imagine feeling like a strange person in a very strange land. Nothing makes sense anymore – words don’t make sense, nothing is where it seems like it should be, even buttons refuse to cooperate. How would you feel? Angry? Frustrated? Depressed? Lonely? Frightened? A family’s job sometimes is simply to provide the tour-guide reassurance. “It’s OK to be afraid; this is tough stuff. We’ll figure it out together though. I’ll be right here to help if something doesn’t make sense. I’ll try to remember when you forget. I’m here for you.”

3) Maintain best function possible. You can’t turn back the clock. You can’t defeat an irreversible disease process – or conquer aging, for that matter. You can work to keep your loved one at his optimal level of functioning by making sure some basics are met:
  1. Nutritional needs. Live alone and start forgetting – nutritional impairment is right behind. Assuring that your loved one gets good, nutritionally balanced meals is key to optimal functioning.
  2. Medication. Most of us, even with good healthy memories, forget if we took that last pill. For elders, medication mis-management can result in frequent hospitalizations, with a little more slipping every time. Electronic reminders are available if the people-reminders aren’t!
  3. Exercise. Moving the blood through the body moves the blood through the brain, too. Walking or even chair movement can keep the person as alert and functional as possible. Sedentary days, evenings and nights can cause a rapid decline in all functioning.
  4. Social interaction. We’ve probably always know this, but lately we seem to have lost our connections. We humans are social creatures. We were made to live in close tribes – then neighborhoods – then families. We supported each other, but we also spent hours discussing the world events and arguing about Joe down the street. Today, we disconnect and sit in front of the TV and wonder why our minds fade, and we start to lose our will to live. We know now that staying socially engaged keeps us mentally engaged – and that keeps us vital and alive to the end.

These basic tips might be challenging to implement, but they’re essential to the well-being of the elder – and the caregiver.

They’re not impossible, but while you’re thinking how to best implement these with your loved one, you might just want to take a walk. It’s one of the best stress-relievers you’ll find, and it’s free!

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