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Caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s is unlike any other stressor. It has multiple layers, and they all must be dealt with at the same time.
It’s not like you can wait to deal with the physical strain while you’re taking care of the way it affects your employment and your ability to do good work.
Nor can you just hold off on looking at the financial end of things while you take care of your own mental health.
The result: the hidden crisis of depression among Alzheimer’s caregivers. By some estimates, nearly half of all people who care for someone with Alzheimer’s have experienced depressive symptoms.
Not only does this harm the caregiver, but it impairs their ability to care for their relative, making them feel even worse about themselves. And the cycle continues.
Support groups are out there, as are various methods for coping with the stress of having and caring for a loved one who is slowly fading from your life.
But one researcher felt that something was missing and developed a different approach…
More than just education
“Nationally we are having a huge increase in informal caregivers. People are living longer with… Alzheimer’s disease, and their long-term care is falling to family members and friends,” says Judith Moskowitz, professor or medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
For Moskowitz, there was a missing piece in the way this growing number of caregivers was being helped to cope and avoid depression.
Moskowitz’s approach doesn’t just focus on education around dementia, or on helping caregivers to problem-solve ways of dealing with challenging behaviors.
Her intervention focused on helping to reduce the stress and burden of caregiving by teaching eight skills that have been shown to increase positive emotions.
In six weekly sessions, 170 dementia caregivers were taught these eight skills and given practice assignments each day. For example, if the topic was acts of kindness (skill #7), they were required to go out and actually practice an act of kindness.
The program, known as LEAF (Life Enhancing Activities for Family Caregivers) was also delivered online, making it accessible to people in more rural areas.
LEAF participants had a seven percent greater drop in depression and a 9 percent greater drop in anxiety compared with the control group.
The eight skills
Here are the eight skills taught in the LEAF program. As you read through them, think about how you might apply each of them to your life as a caregiver.
- Recognizing a positive event each day. This, and some of the rest on this list, may seem simplistic. But that’s part of why they seem to work. It’s a matter of making a conscious decision about where to place your focus.
- Savoring and writing down the positive event. It’s not enough to just think of a positive event. You need to savor it. Tell someone about it. Write it down in a journal.
- Start a daily gratitude journal. Practicing gratitude has scientifically proven benefits, including better sleep, positive emotions, and greater resilience (the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and challenges).
- Listing a personal strength each day and noting how you used this strength recently. This helps you remember that you have met challenges before, and can meet them again, without falling victim to depressive feelings.
- Setting an attainable goal each day and noting your progress. This does not have to be related to caregiving. In fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t. Save some “bandwidth” for yourself and your own goals.
You might want to work on doing one small thing for yourself or your business, even in the midst of caretaking. When you attain this goal, again, don’t just let it go by. Share it with someone. Write it down so you can reflect on it when you’re having a rough day.
- Reporting a relatively minor stressor each day. Not a major challenge. Just something that caused you to feel stressed for a short time. Like being late for an appointment.
And, if there is a way that this minor stressor can be re-framed as a positive, take note of that. For example, being late may have meant that you had a bit more time with your loved one that day.
- Practicing a small act of kindness each day. Understand that small acts of kindness can have a bigger positive impact on you than on the recipient.
Harold Kushner, a rabbi and well-known author of books like Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life, has this to say:
“When you carry out acts of kindness you get a wonderful feeling inside. It is as though something inside your body responds and says, yes, this is how I ought to feel.”
- Practice 10 minutes of mindful breathing meditation daily. There’s no disputing the fact that meditation has positive effects on both mind and body. Here’s a guide for beginners from Dr. Isaac Eliaz.
- Teaching happiness to dementia caregivers reduces their depression, anxiety — Medical Xpress
- Caregiver Stress — Alzheimer’s Association
- Caregiver Depression — Alzheimer’s Association
- Caregiver Depression: A Silent Health Crisis — Family Caregiver Alliance