Is your care partner driving you nuts?

Stressed caregiver

It’s hard to maintain equanimity and patience when your care recipient is constantly repeating him/herself. Of is following you around the house like a puppy dog. Or is accusing you of “stealing” their wallet, or is getting up several times during the night so you’re unable to get the sleep you need for your own health and in order to take care of them without losing your cool.

When I couldn’t handle my husband’s early stage Alzheimer’s behavior, I’d simply leave the house and walk around the block. But as the disease progresses and it isn’t safe to leave your care partner alone in the house, that’s not always possible.

Here are 16 things that might help you keep your sanity, and your care partner’s too. 

  1.  Simplify communication by asking one question at a time. Break down complex ideas, and give only one choice, i.e. when helping your care partner get dressed simply ask “Do you want to wear the blue or green shirt?” Don’t ask open-ended questions. Ask questions with yes or no answers, if possible.
  2. Before speaking, make sure the television, radio, and music are turned off. Look directly in the eyes of your care partner. Use their name and maintain eye contact.
  3.  Provide a gentle physical touch. Just stroking someone’s arm, shoulders or head can reduce agitation.
  4. Put on soothing music. Or, if your care partner loves dance music (Big Band or Rock n/Roll, Latin), turn up the volume and dance!.
  5. Reduce or avoid use of caffeine, sugar, tobacco and alcohol.
  6. Reduce clutter, noise, and the number of visitors.
  7. Bring out the family photo albums to help the person reminisce about happier times. They may not remember what they ate 30 minutes ago, but chances are they will remember special events from the past.
  8. Go for a walk together, or drive to a park where you can sit together and watch children play, or the ducks swim in a pond.
  9. Schedule a relaxing massage for both of you. It will do you good!
  10. Ice cream works like magic. Go for a drive to your favorite ice cream shop.
  11. If your care partner accuses you of stealing their money, let them keep a small
    amount of money in a wallet. When they make an accusation, simply pull out the
    wallet to show them the money is still in there. In case they hide the wallet
    and you’re unable to find it, have a spare one on hand that looks identical to
    the original one.
  12.  If you need to bring your care partner to an appointment, leave plenty of
    extra time for getting dressed, eating, moving from the house to the car, etc.
    If you feel rushed and stressed, they will pick up on your feelings and start
    mirroring them.
  13. Use essential oils to immediately diffuse feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety, etc. Lavender oil is the most frequently used fragrance. You can also try bergamot, grapefruit,
    lemon, orange, clary sage, geranium, rose, and ylang ylang, frankincense, and myrrh. Put the oil in a diffuser or spray bottle to mist your collar or pillow. Find a fragrance that is pleasing to your care partner. It’ll help him/her also.
  14. It’s important to get at least 6 hours (preferably 7 or 8) of sleep every night. Of course, this isn’t always possible if you are caring for someone and need to get up at night, or are worried about paying the bills, taking care of the car, getting a new stove, etc. If you can’t get in the hours at night, put your feet up for 10 minutes during the day when your care partner naps. Or take a power nap. It really helps.
  15. Get help! Hire someone to come in a couple of times a week so you can get out of the house. If your budget doesn’t allow it, contact your county’s area agency on aging or senior care services agency for information about respite care.
  16.  When all else fails, maintain your sense of humor. Towards the end of my husband’s
    10-year Alzheimer’s journey, for some reason, we both shared a lot of
    meaningless laughs, probably because the whole damn journey was so exhausting
    for both us and what else was there to do? I had already shed more tears than I
    had in all the years leading up to the diagnosis.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

I’m a little worried about my memory

Woman forgot to pick her granddaughter up from preschool.

Yesterday I had my annual wellness exam. It was the first time that my doctor asked me if I had any memory concerns. It made me sit up straight and realize that I am definitely in the age group of people who start showing signs of mild cognitive impairment. I nodded or shook my head in response to her questions and then said, “When I walked into my bedroom the other door I completely forgot why I had gone in there. My little granddaughters were playing hide and seek and when I said, ‘I don’t know why I came in here,’ they looked up at me confused and wondered why I was acting a little strangely.'”

Was I concerned? Yes, a little. I’ve done that before, but this time I was frozen for a few seconds. And actually, lately I’ve noticed that my spelling isn’t as sharp as it used to be. Neither is my long-term memory.

I’m even more concerned because I took the MindCrowd test, a short memory test in which you need to read and memorize 12 pairs of words. https://mindcrowd.org/?gclid=CjwKCAjwo4mIBhBsEiwAKgzXOEWhBjIHYSm0c42NvHNYAb2HDr6sMLfSCYjOc-zYq4D7-5FkW6mSmBoC-OIQAvD_BwE You’re given one word and asked to complete the pair, before the screen moves rather quickly to the next pair. To be honest, I didn’t do very well, and I was a little nervous while I was taking the test. It was more difficult for me than the Mini Mental Exam, which is given to people who are evaluated for Alzheimer’s disease.

As I said to my doctor, I know I don’t have Alzheimer’s disease. I’m kind of an expert on the disease and symptoms because I cared for my husband who had younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease for 10 years. And I wrote a book about our journey. https://www.amazon.com/Calmer-Waters-Caregivers-Alzheimers-Dementia/dp/1681570149/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&gclid=CjwKCAjwo4mIBhBsEiwAKgzXOHgn8mAm0UZQiBHyTLv7S_v_CYHJ-ruG_G0MyWUNV9myn59vmJfbvxoCuFAQAvD_BwE&hvadid=241894911837&hvdev=c&hvlocphy=9028817&hvnetw=g&hvqmt=e&hvrand=18354321622967658254&hvtargid=kwd-23474874821&hydadcr=22532_10344436&keywords=calmer+waters&qid=1627596739&sr=8-2

But I, and lots of my girlfriends, are somewhat concerned that we’re developing mild cognitive impairment. Should we be worried?

Here’s what I know

Approximately 12-18% of people age 60 or older are living with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).

Researchers have found that more people with MCI than those without it go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. An estimated 10 to 20% of people age 65 or older with MCI develop dementia over a one-year period.

MCI is more common in men (19 percent) than in women (14 percent), according to a 2010 study in the Neurology. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/mild-cognitive-impairment-more-common-older-men-older-women

  • MCI prevalence was higher among people with the APOE e4 gene, a known risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer’s, a form of the disease that usually occurs at age 65 or older.
  • A greater number of years spent in school was significantly associated with decreased MCI prevalence, from 30 percent among participants with less than nine years of education to just 11 percent in those with more than 16 years of education.
  • MCI prevalence was higher in participants who never married, as opposed to those currently or previously married.

Signs of cognitive decline

  • Forgetting appointments and dates.
  • Forgetting recent conversations and events.
  • Feeling increasingly overwhelmed by making decisions and plans.
  • Having a hard time understanding directions or instructions.
  • Losing your sense of direction.
  • Losing the ability to organize tasks.
  • Becoming more impulsive.

I don’t forget appointments, but I do forget events that occurred in the past decade or so. But then again, I’m good at remembering details about many events that others don’t remember. I typically don’t get overwhelmed about making decisions and plans. But then again, I had tons of work this summer and did get a little overwhelmed. I don’t have a hard time understanding directions, unless it’s something like installing a toilet or putting together a new machine, which I will gladly leave for my handyman. I rarely lose my sense of direction, but then again, it’s not as acute as it once was and I do get turned around while hiking sometimes. I never have trouble organizing tasks. In fact, I often multi-task. I am not typically impulsive.

What happens physically to the normal aging brain?

The brain changes more than any other part of the body. Yes, even more than our complexion that withers and wrinkles. Physically, the frontal lobe and hippocampus, the areas involved in higher cognitive function and encoding new memories starts to shrink around age 60 to 70. Fewer synaptic connections are made, which may contribute to slower cognitive processing. White matter, consisting of myelinated nerve fibers that carry nerve signals between brain cells, shrinks, and neurotransmitters that play a role in cognition and memory deceases.

Normal brain aging

  • Difficulty learning something new: Committing new information to memory can take longer.
  • Multitasking: Slowed processing can make planning parallel tasks more difficult.
  • Recalling names and numbers: Strategic memory, which helps with remembering names and numbers, begins to decline at age 20.
  • Remembering appointments: Without cues to recall the information, the brain may put appointments into “storage” and not access them unless something jogs the person’s memory.

So what do I think? Am I developing MCI? I certainly hope not, and I really don’t think so. I spend a lot of time using my cognitive skills. I’m a writer, and am at my best while sitting at the computer writing words. But my memory is definitely not what it used to be, nor is it as good as my mother’s was when she was well into her 80s. But I take ginkgo, phosphatidylserine, B vitamins, and Lion’s mane mushroom, and I know they help because when I don’t take them, my mind is fuzzy. I’m not going to worry, because worrying does no good but add stress. But I will continue to eat a plant-based Mediterranean diet, which is proven to stave off premature aging, and try to get enough sleep and exercise

P.S. I repeated the MindCrowd test and scored really well!

P.P.S. No, I never forgot to pick up my granddaughter from preschool. 🙂

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Pets can provide people with Alzheimer’s and dementia companionship, comfort and joy

Man resting in garden with his dog

My next door neighbor got an adorable lap dog that loved him to pieces during his struggle with Alzheimer’s. Now that he has passed away, his wife has a loving companion that gets her outside several times a day for walks. And that animal gazes at her with the love that only a dog can give. This was a success story of dog companionship for an elderly couple immersed in navigating the dark Alzheimer’s journey.

Pets can provide loving companionship, emotional therapy, and an excuse for getting out of the house for a walk and chat with other people on the trail. But pets can also pose a hazard when they get in our way or pull hard on a leash.

I have a friend who tripped this winter while walking her dogs. She fell and broke her collarbone. Another friend tripped over her dog in the kitchen and instinctively put her hand out to brace a fall. Unfortunately, she put her hand on a very hot stovetop and got a second-degree burn.

Pets offer numerous benefits

When people interact with pets the physiological response is a lowering of blood pressure and an increase in the neurochemicals associated with relaxation and bonding. These effects can help ameliorate behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. Several small studies suggest that the presence of a dog reduces aggression and agitation, and promotes social behavior in people with dementia. One study showed that having aquariums in the dining rooms of memory care homes stimulates residents to eat more and to maintain a healthier weight.1

When a dog is brought to visit memory impaired individuals (either at home or a facility), unexpected and positive reactions occur. Some patients who have refused to speak will talk to the dog, and others who have refused to move might pet the dog.

My daughter often brought her Miniature Schnauzer, Paco, to the memory care home where my husband lived. Paco always brightened the day for Morris and the other residents. He would run around scrounging for crumbs and sniffing the residents’ feet. Some residents reached out to touch him. One lady liked to hold him like a baby. She’d place a napkin on his head, pretending it was a hat. Paco created a bit of a stir, but he brought a smile to everyone’s face, including mine.

The human-animal bond goes beyond the mind and is centered in the heart. It can nurture us in ways that nothing else can. Sometimes a person with memory loss won’t be able to recognize a spouse, but can recognize a beloved pet. Just three days before Morris died a friend visited him with his trained pet therapy dog. Morris was bedridden, dehydrated, and non-communicative, but he opened his eyes and reached out for the dog.

If your loved one is used to being around animals, has had a pet, or if there is an animal that he or she is familiar with, by all means encourage the interaction to continue. It’s an easy, wonderful way to promote ease and happiness among care partners.

If you’re considering getting an animal companion, consider the following pros and cons.

10 Ways an animal companion or pet can help a person with dementia

Pets can:

  • Offer people with dementia unconditional love
  • Help relieve stress and anxiety
  • Help build confidence
  • Encourage laughter
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Help the person reminisce and recall memories
  • Provide an opportunity to get outside and walk
  • Support social activities, i.e. talking about the animal with neighbors, grandchildren, etc.
  • Bring back a sense of fun
  • Provide an opportunity to care for a living being, which in turn promotes empathy.

Things to consider

  • Does the person have the mental capacity to take care of the animals’ needs?
  • If the person has a caregiver, is that caregiver willing to provide the care for animal, including visits to the veterinarian.
  • Not everyone wants to interact with animal. Make sure the person really wants a pet and/or visit from a therapy dog.
  • A stuffed animal, cuddly toy, or robotic toy animal might provide the comfort that the person would get from having a pet. This might be a good option to explore before making a commitment to getting animal.
  • What happens if the person dies? Consider who will take responsibility for the animal.

In the end, you may find that a lower maintenance animal is a better fit. A fish aquarium can provide gentle stimulation, and quiet, relaxing beauty and grace.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

14 ways that caregivers can achieve a healthier, more relaxed 2021

You’re tired, you’re stressed – You and 45 million or so American caregivers, including the 16 million adult family members caring for a someone with Alzheimer’s. So what are you going to do about it? Don’t say that “I don’t have time to take care of myself.” I’ve been there and done that. But I always promised myself that I was not going to be a martyr and sacrifice my health for my husband’s illness. Because if both of us were sick that wasn’t going to help anyone, least of all our children. They were barely adults when my husband was in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease. Our kids needed at least one healthy parent. And whether you are taking care of a spouse, parent or child, there are other people in your life who love and need you, not necessarily to take care of them, but to love and support them emotionally.

When you’re a caregiver, it’s hard to find the time to get the exercise you need or even take a shower, somedays. But it’s absolutely vital that you take care of yourself or you’ll end up getting sick and then who will take care of your loved one? Who will take care of YOU?

14 easy ways to take the edge off your stress and fatigue so you feel some relief.

  1. Say a positive affirmation before you get out of bed. “This day is going to be a good one.” “I am grateful for my friends and family.” “I am healthy and full of energy.” “I am strong and competent.” Say something positive to set the tone of the day.
  2. Before you reach for a cup of coffee, drink a glass of hot water with lemon. It hydrates your body and brain, the lemon helps to alkalize the system (yes, it’s counter intuitive), which is usually too acidic, and it helps with regularity.
  3. Ask for help! You don’t have to do it all by yourself. No one is going to think badly of you if you take some time for yourself. If your loved one resents your going out, it’s okay. Don’t become a slave to their wishes and rants. If you can’t leave your loved one alone, please ask a neighbor, friend or home care professional to help at least a couple hours a week. Some social service programs provide free respite care.
  4. Many cities throughout the U.S. offer volunteer snowbusters (volunteers who will shovel your walk and driveway), fix-it volunteers who will help with easy home repairs, and yard maintenance volunteers.
  5. Meet a friend for a chat over coffee. Having a good chat and/or laugh, either via telephone or in person does wonders.
  6. Find a walking partner in your neighborhood and try to walk at least once a week (preferably 3 times a week).
  7. Put on a CD, vinyl record or the radio and listen to your favorite music. If your care partner is mobile, ask him/her to dance. There is nothing like music or dance to uplift the spirit.
  8. Find a virtual class online. Yoga, Pilates, Barre fitness, Zumba, Les Mills Bodypump and more are offered through the YMCA for free if you have Silver Sneakers. There are hundreds of other classes available online.
  9. Use essential oils to immediately diffuse feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety, etc. Lavender oil is the most frequently used fragrance. You can also try bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, orange, clary sage, geranium, rose, and ylang ylang, frankincense, and myrrh. Put the oil in a diffuser or spray bottle to mist your collar or pillow. Find a fragrance that is pleasing to your care partner. It’ll help him/her also.
  10. Eat breakfast! It is the meal that you break your fast with. During the night our blood sugar levels drop, so it’s especially important to eat within one hour of arising and by 10am. Eating breakfast restores healthy blood sugar levels, but make sure your breakfast isn’t coffee and a doughnut. Have some protein and a healthy fat such as an omelet and avocado and a piece of whole grain or gluten-free toast. It’ll provide you with the energy you need to get through the morning while maintaining a sense of equilibrium.
  11. Take a multi-vitamin mineral supplement to support your overall health, well-being, and immunity.
  12. Include more fruits and veggies in your diet. Veggies are low in calories and high in fiber. Fruits are also high in fiber and like veggies, contain numerous vitamins and minerals. Just like people, fruits and vegetables come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. And it’s the colors that identify many of the bioactive substances called phytonutrients that give us antioxidant protection and other special health benefits.
  13. Avoid isolation. Staying connected, especially during the pandemic, is sooooo important! Join an online support group if you don’t have friends and family nearby to listen to your woes and help out. Here are two great ways to make meaningful connections online: https://wordpress.com/post/barbracohn.com/3517
  14. It’s important to get at least 6 hours (preferably 7 or 8) of sleep every night. Of course, this isn’t always possible if you are caring for someone and need to get up at night, or are worried about paying the bills, taking care of the car, getting a new stove, etc. If you can’t get in the hours at night, put your feet up for 10 minutes during the day when your care partner naps. Or take a power nap. It really helps.

Wishing you and your loved ones a healthy, happy New Year! And remember that “this too shall pass.”

image

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

32 Ways to Cope with Grief this Holiday Season

Lots of people are grieving for all kinds of reasons, but it all comes down to loss and loneliness. Loss of a loved one, loss of a friendship, loss of a job, and sheer loneliness as a result of being socially distanced.

Here are some ways to get through the darkest, most dismal holiday season most of us have had to endure.

  1. Take a drive on a country road. Park and out and walk.
  2. If you don’t have a dog, borrow a neighbor’s dog to take on a walk.
  3. Watch a recommended movie or t.v. series that you can get lost in.
  4. Bake cookies or quick breads and distribute them to your neighbors.
  5. If you’ve had a hard time discarding your loved one’s clothes, think about donating them to a homeless shelter, etc.
  6. Start journaling. It’s a wonderful way to express your feelings and get things off your chest.
  7. Write a letter to your loved one and express your love, your sadness, grief, guilt, etc.
  8. Place two chairs facing one another. Sit in one and speak out loud the words you would like to express to your loved one. Tell him or her how much you miss them, or express your anger and guilt, etc.
  9. Watch what you eat. You should definitely enjoy your favorite foods, but don’t use grief as an excuse to overindulge in foods that aren’t good for you.
  10. Splurge on a gift for yourself!
  11. Help out at a shelter or food bank, or make a donation in honor of your loved one.
  12. Don’t overcommit. And don’t over donate. This is so easy to do and lose track of just how much money you are sending an organization, especially if you do it online, which is so easy.
  13. It’s okay to be happy. It’s the holidays! Don’t feel guilty for enjoying yourself. It won’t diminish the love you have in your heart for your loved one.
  14. Read a book that will help identify your feelings and cope more easily with grief. I recommend these two: The Empty Chair: Handling Grief on Holidays and Special Occasions by Ed.D Zonnebelt-Smeenge, Susan J. R.N. and Robert C. De Vries | Sep 1, 2001. The Secret Life of Grief: A Memoir by Tanja Pajevic, 2016, 2016
  15. Give yourself a massage. Refer to the chapter “Self Massage” in my book “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia.”
  16. Use aromatherapy. Citrus oils are generally refreshing and uplifting for the mind and emotions, relieve stress and anxiety.  Consider: bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, and orange. Floral oils are often used as a personal fragrance and are useful to relieve anxiety, depression, and irritability. These oils are useful as an inhaler, in a body lotion, and for the bath. Consider: clary sage, geranium, lavender, rose, and ylang ylang.
  17. Get the sleep that you need.
  18. Make an appointment with a professional therapist if you need help. You can do it virtually from the comfort of your home.
  19. Eat a serving of high-quality protein with every meal and snack
  20. Focus on complex carbohydrates (whole grains, veggies and fruits), and eliminate junk foods (refined carbs).
  21. Enjoy unlimited amounts of fresh veggies.
  22. Eat a good breakfast!
  23. Eat 3 balanced meals and 1-2 snacks/day.
  24. Magnesium, B complex, fish-oil, walnuts, flax seeds, dark leafy greens, and high quality all help reduce stress and uplift mood.
  25. Meditate, light a candle, or find some quiet time for yourself.
  26. Take a multi-vitamin mineral supplement to support your overall health, well-being, and immunity.
  27. Exercise! At least take a short walk every day.
  28. Put on a CD, vinyl record or the radio and listen to your favorite music. Dancing as though no one is watching. There is nothing like music or dance to uplift the spirit.
  29. Put on a funny YouTube video and laugh.
  30. Sing your heart out while listening to your favorite showtunes.
  31. Meet a friend for a chat over coffee. Having a good chat and/or laugh, either via telephone or in person does wonders.
  32. Do the best you can. Try to relax and enjoy your family and friends, even if you can only meet over Zoom.

It’s easy to drown our troubles in alcohol or recreational drugs. Please be safe. Any of the above 32 ways to engage in self-care will do you a whole lot of good. Alcohol and drugs will not.

Be safe, be well, love yourself. Better times are ahead.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and online at Target and Walmart, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

15 Ways to Instantly Diffuse Anger

Young woman doing upward dog stretch, yoga.

Whether you’ve been caring for a loved one with dementia for a month or more than a decade, you’ve probably felt anger. Anger about having to listen to your care partner ask you for the hundredth time what’s for dinner, even though they have already eaten. Anger about having to downsize your world because you don’t have time to enjoy your previous social life. Anger about having to leave your career because you need to care for someone at home. The list goes on and on.Caregiving for someone with dementia is so hard. Some doctors think of caregivers as hidden patients because they are more likely to suffer from health problems stemming for stress, anxiety, anger, depression, and the inability to take good care of themselves.

It might be helpful to understand why you are feeling angry. You may not be aware of lingering feelings that fuel the fire. But there are ways to diffuse anger, which is one of the culprits that contribute to caregiver stress, depression, and poor health.

Are you resentful?

This is a common feeling that many caregivers share, especially if you are the eldest daughter and are caring for a parent. And it’s no wonder. Do your siblings step in to help with an ailing parent? Has your career advancement been put on hold? Is caring for a spouse destroying your dreams of travel or retirement.

I was only 48 when my husband was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. And damn right I was resentful. Our youngest was just starting college and we were empty nesters. It was the time in our life that we were supposed to have more freedom. My parents were getting older and had numerous health issues. I was part of a caregiver sandwich. Not the one where you care for a spouse and children at home simultaneously, I had to fly back and forth to tend to my parents’ while caring for my husband. It was hard and exhausting, and I was resentful. I complained to my best friend that my life wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Are you frustrated?

Have you tried various modalities to help your loved one “get better” and not seen any improvement?

Are you exhausted?

It’s no wonder. You need to take care of yourself. Exhaustion and burnout can bring feelings of anger to the surface. Please read: Preventing Caregiver Burnout with Good Nutrition and Foods that Support Neurotransmitters. https://wordpress.com/post/barbracohn.com/5204

Do you feel guilty?

It’s been years since my husband passed away. But I still feel guilty about the times I got angry or the times I went out to enjoy myself. My therapist used to say to me: “If someone told you the story you’re telling me now, what would you say to them?” I’d say, “You’re doing the best that you can.” That’s the right answer. You are doing the best that you can, and I have to remind myself, even now, that I did the best that I could. (Maybe I need more therapy to totally release those feelings of guilt.)

If you fly off the handle when your loved one annoys you or when you haven’t gotten enough sleep, try some of these anger diffusers for immediate relief.

  • Take a deep breath. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, and release for 4 counts. Repeat twice more.
  • Make sure your loved one is safe and take a brief walk outside. If the weather is bad, walk up and down the stairs. If you can go outside, engage your loved one in an activity or have them watch television. Or just walk away from the situation and go into another room.
  • Put on some uplifting music. “Happy” by Pharrell Williams will definitely make you happy, I guarantee!
  • Call your best friend to vent.
  • Keep a book of inspirational quotes on your night table. Grab it and read a page. Sit there a moment and breathe.
  • Do jumping jacks or a few yoga postures. Corpse pose, legs up the wall, down dog. It doesn’t matter. Choose a few and do them.
  • Don’t lash out at your care partner. Rather than regret hurtful words, respond with an “I” statement or divert his/her attention. “I know you’re upset. I feel frustrated, too, etc.”
  • Use humor. Make a joke, put on a funny YouTube video.
  • Take yourself, your care partner, and your dog (if you have one) for a walk.
  • The British custom of making a cup of tea really works. Make a cup of green tea for added relaxation.
  • Use lavender oil to calm you down. Either put it in a wall plug-in diffuser or spritz your collar or a tissue that you can put inside a shirt pocket.  For more information about the use of aromatherapy to reduce stress, improve immunity, reduce agitation, and to promote relaxation read chapter 18 “Aromatherapy” in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn.
  • Break open a dark chocolate bar and share it with your care partner. It reduces cortisol, the stress hormone that causes anxiety symptoms. Just a couple of pieces should do the trick.
  • Go into a quiet room and meditate.
  • Light a candle and put on some relaxing music.
  • Drink a tall glass of water, make an energy-boosting smoothie, or hot cocoa.

For more ways to destress, boost your energy and calm down, read “20 energy and stress fixes to use now!” https://wordpress.com/post/barbracohn.com/4998

If you continue to have anger issues, it might be good to speak to a therapist. It definitely helps to belong to a support group. To find an Alzheimer’s (and other dementias) support group in your area call 800-272-3900 or visit: https://www.alz.org/help-support/community/support-groups gclid=Cj0KCQiA7qP9BRCLARIsABDaZzhho3nQIye6hhfVM3umD7WeqWOeanDCfVcfmbF8Ld9MN5cGdPOAyCAaAjC7EALw_wcB

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

How to increase GABA, your brain’s calming chemical

Everyone is stressed out these days. But caregivers are dealing with pandemic stress on top of normal caregiving stress. And if you live in the West, you may be dealing with the stress of being evacuated because of wildfires, or smoke that is hampering your ability to breathe. Ask yourself this:

Are you feeling stressed and burned out?

Are you unable to relax or loosen up?

Do you feel stiff? Are your muscles tense?

Do you have a hard time falling asleep because your mind keeps racing?

If you answered yes, you could use of a boost of GABA.

What is GABA?

Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that is produced in the brain and acts as a neurotransmitter, communicating information throughout your brain and body. GABA inhibits nerve cells from firing, and helps us to feel balanced, calm and relaxed.

GABA also:

  • Reduces mental and physical stress
  • Reduces anxiety
  • Eases muscle tension
  • Creates a calm mood
  • Supports balanced blood pressure
  • Promotes restful sleep
  • Regulates muscle tone
  • Uplifts mood

What are neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout your brain and body. The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. They can also affect mood, sleep, concentration, weight, and can cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance. Neurotransmitter levels can be depleted many ways. It is estimated that 86% of Americans have suboptimal neurotransmitter levels. Stress, poor diet–protein deficiency, poor digestion, poor blood sugar control, drug (prescription and recreational), alcohol and caffeine can deplete them. (Emmons, The Chemistry of Joy, 2006).

What depletes GABA?

Too many carbs and refined foods, and certain drugs and medications deplete GABA. If you rely on tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, Valium, sweets or starch, you probably have a GABA imbalance

A GABA deficiency often results in:

  • High anxiety, panic, worry
  • “Monkey mind” or a racing mind.
  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep

5 Ways to Boost GABA

  1. Eat these foods

The best foods for helping your body produce GABA, according to a May 2018 review published in Nutrients, include:

  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts)
  • Soy beans
  • Adzuki beans
  • Mushrooms
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Buckwheat
  • Peas
  • Chestnuts
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Sprouted grains
  • Rice (specifically brown rice)
  • White tea

Fermented foods including kefir, yogurt, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles help increase GABA levels. These foods may also boost GABA: whole grains, fava beans, soy, lentils, and other beans; nuts including walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds; fish including shrimp and halibut; citrus, tomatoes, berries, potatoes, and cocoa.

2. Meditation and yoga have a positive effect on GABA levels.

3. Passion flower, lemon balm and valerian help support GABA, and help you fall asleep if your mind is on overdrive. Infuse them in hot water for a soothing herbal tea.

4. Nutritional supplements support GABA. Make sure you let your physician know which supplements you take, since some may interfere with medications.

L-theanine is a relaxing amino acid found in green tea. It’s available as a nutritional supplement, or get it by drinking green tea.

Magnesium is the most important mineral for the heart, It supports healthy blood pressure, decreases food cravings, balanced blood sugar, nourishes and calms the nervous system, and protects the body from damage of stress. Besides food, Epsom salt baths are another way of getting magnesium–absorbed through the skin. Magnesium is found in dark, leafy greens, dark chocolate, avocados, nuts, legumes, tofu, seeds, whole grains, bananas, and some fatty fish.

Taurine is an amino acid that activates GABA receptors and encourages the release of GABA. It is found in dairy food, shellfish, and the dark meat of turkey and chicken. It is also taken as a dietary supplement.

GABA is available in amino acid from as a dietary supplement. It is questionable, however, if it is able to cross the brain barrier.

5. Exercise, and being outdoors, paying attention to your personal needs are important.

How to boost all your neurotransmitters

  • Eat a serving of high-quality protein with every meal and snack. Focus on complex carbohydrates, and eliminate junk foods (refined carbs).
  • Enjoy unlimited amounts of fresh veggies.
  • Eat a good breakfast!
  • Eat 3 balanced meals and 1-2 healthy snacks per day.

Complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, brown rice or oatmeal, allow your brain to gradually process more serotonin, the neurotransmitter that keeps us happy. Eating protein and healthy omega-3 fats, found in fish, walnuts and flax, will also improve mood. B vitamins, which are abundant in fresh leafy greens and in chemical-free, pasture-raised meat, are another important factor because they’re needed for serotonin production.

For more information about how to prevent caregiver burnout and ways to boost your neurotransmitters, visit: https://barbracohn.com/2019/07/03/preventing-caregiver-burnout-with-good-nutrition-and-foods-that-support-neurotransmitters/

Recommended Reading

  1. The Mood Cure, Julia Ross, MA
  2. The Edge Effect: Achieve Total Health and Longevity with the Balanced Brain, Eric Braverman, MD
  3. The Chemistry of Joy, Henry Emmons, MD
Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Is your loved one in denial about their Alzheimer’s diagnosis?

After my husband had a heart attack in 1994, a friend told him that he appeared to have one foot in heaven. Morris was more focused on the celestial world and less engaged in his life on earth. He hibernated in his home office, and spent just a handful of hours at his business office each week. He watched too much television, and filled much of his day meditating. His greatest joy was participating in spiritual singing groups.

But I knew something was very wrong. I had an aunt who passed away from Alzheimer’s disease so I was familiar with the symptoms. When Morris started getting lost driving around town, when he departed for a road trip with our son and left behind his suitcase, and when he couldn’t give a friend’s son directions to the high school that Morris had graduated from, I suspected Alzheimer’s.

Morris thought I was ridiculous and refused to see a doctor. It took two more years before he finally agreed. After ruling out metabolic diseases, depression, nutritional deficiencies, and a brain tumor, the diagnosis was quick and clear. Yet, Morris continued to disbelieve that the doctor said he wouldn’t be able to drive in a couple of years.

There’s actually a term for denial of diagnosis. Anosonosia is the medical term for a person who lacks the insight of awareness to understand their own condition. A person with Alzheimer’s can refuse to believe that they have the disease because their brain isn’t fully capable of understanding the illness. Or the person might be in denial because of the stigma attached to having dementia or Alzheimer’s.

How can you help your loved one?

  1. Don’t keep reminding the person of their diagnosis. Instead, be supportive and allow him/her to do as much as they are capable of without taking over for them.
  2. They most likely feel depressed or bewildered or scared, or all of the above. Be a friend and let them know you are there for them.
  3. Listen to their rants, their feelings, their fears. And know that their outbursts of anger are not personal, although that’s difficult. Usually the person closest to the patient is the one that is subjected to the most anger and frustration. Your loved one is scared of how their world is falling apart. You are probably just as scared. Join a support group. The Alzheimer’s Association near you offers support groups for both the person with dementia and for family members. It is a god-send. https://www.alz.org/
  4. Encourage your loved one to do things that will reduce symptoms of the disease. Exercise, socialize (which may be difficult during the pandemic), listen to music, plant a garden, do art projects. There are dozens of ideas to reduce stress for both the patient and the caregiver in my book “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Dementia.” https://www.amazon.com/Calmer-Waters-Caregivers-Alzheimers-Dementia/dp/1681570149/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1543875890&sr=1-1&keywords=calmer+waters
  5. Pharmaceuticals for Alzheimer’s help to slow down the progression of the disease. Encourage your loved one to take what the doctor has prescribed.
  6. Although there is no magic bullet, natural supplements also help. Read: “5 Things that Help Dementia that your Doctor Probably Hasn’t Mentioned.” https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/barbracohn.com/5277
  7. Focus on eating a Mediterranean diet that includes fish, lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, nuts, and healthy fats—olive oil. https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/barbracohn.com/5170
  8. Help your loved one decrease use of cigarettes and alcohol.
  9. Emphasize a structured routine including getting to bed on time.
  10. Beautiful and simplify the environment with uplifting music and fresh flowers.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Activities for people who have Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias

sea stones painted by the children on the beach

During the early stages of Alzheimer’s, your loved one might continue to enjoy their favorite activities. But as the disease progresses, he or she will probably withdraw from activity.

If you’re a caregiver taking care of someone at home, this is when things become challenging. How do you keep your loved one engaged without getting stressed and frustrated?

I hired someone to take my husband out a couple times a week for a drive, walk, movie, ice cream, etc. If you can afford it, and can ensure safety measures during the pandemic, respite care can help ease the boredom of watching TV all day. And it can help you get out of the house to do errands, go to doctor appointments, or just take a walk.

Whether you’re a full-time caregiver or occasionally drop in to visit a friend or loved one with Alzheimer’s, here are some activities to try.

*Fold towels, washcloths and hand towels, socks.

*Sort coins.

*Paint with water.

*Make potholders with a child’s loom.

*Rake leaves.

*Weed flower beds.

*Sort through junk mail, open and tear it up.

*Play bingo.

*Go for a ride.

*Play with Play-Doh https://playdoh.hasbro.com/en-us, clay or Kinetic Sand. https://kineticsand.com/

*Dust and polish the furniture.

*Cut out photos from magazines and make a collage.

*Create an “art gallery” with photos, prints, or original artwork.

*Listen to audio books.

*Watch funny YouTube videos of babies, kittens, puppies, etc.

*Color in coloring books.

*Plant an inside herb garden.

*Lace cards.

*Set up a bird feeder outside the window.

*Set up an aquarium.

*Use rubber stamps to make cards for children in the hospital, etc.

*Look for rocks and then paint them.

*Collect seashells (if you live near a beach), and string them and/or paint them.

Art Therapy

Read about how one caregiver heped her mother make paper paper flowers and find a purpose: https://barbracohn.com/2017/09/26/need-something-to-help-your-loved-one-find-a-purpose-how-one-caregiver-discovered-that-art-therapy-can-be-rewarding-and-stress-reducing-for-herself-and-her-mom/

Here are a few things you can do by yourself and with your care partner.

“Art Exercises for Caregivers” by Meg Carlson, chapter 11 in my book Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

  1. Making an Inside/Outside Box

Materials:

  • Boxes-shoe box, tea box, metal tin, etc.
  • Mixed media-crayons, paint, markers, glue, feathers, felt, rocks,

Decorating a box allows the artist to reflect his/her persona or face that is shown to the outside world on the outside of the box. Decorating the inside of the box is an opportunity to express the internal feelings and conflicts that are private or feel too big to find words to express. Use whatever materials that are available to decorate the outside of the box, and then the inside of the box to express these feelings.

Outside Box: How do you experience being around others with your loved one? What do you share with the outside world about your process/how do you share?

Inside Box: What is really going on inside of you each day? What isn’t shared with others that have an impact on you?

What has this process, or your imagery expressed to you? What kinds of responses are you having?

  1. Daily or Weekly Mandalas

A mandala is a circular image. It begins with a circle drawn on a page. It can be any size and any media can be used.

Materials:

  • Paper: Bristol, Watercolor, or mixed media (6×6 is a great size)
  • It is small enough to be done in a brief sitting, and large enough to have room for several images or areas of focus.

Pencils, markers, watercolor, colored pencil, pastels, or crayons are all great.

A version of mandala exists in many spiritual traditions (rose windows in Cathedrals, Navajo and Tibetan sand paintings, Buddhist imagery, etc.) Mandalas can be used to support focusing attention, as a self check-in tool, to express emotions in a contained space (circle), for establishing a sacred space, and to aid in mindfulness and mediation. Carl Jung, through his own art process, came to realize that mandala paintings enabled him to identify dysfunctional emotional patterns and work towards integration and wholeness. 

  1. Color-Texture-Pattern Feelings Portrait

This process is about awareness of how much is going on in each of us at any given moment. It is an opportunity to just GET IT OUT through color, movement, and expression. The imagery is usually abstract. It is the process of expressing that is beneficial here, not the finished product. Feelings are difficult to have, and when they are expressed visually they can be difficult to look at. But that is okay. If you use this process, when you are finished, take a moment to witness it like a loving friend. Then just set it aside. If your image invites a redo or edit, you can come back to it and work with it, even tear it up and re-create it. If not, let it go. The materials will support you to express emotions and that is their purpose sometimes …. to help you create something that is not necessarily pretty, but honest. That is their gift to you.

Materials:

  • Small to medium paper, mixed media paper is sturdy. Taped to surface is best. When you prep ask yourself, What size is my expression today? That will tell you what paper size to use.
  • Pencils, markers, watercolor, colored pencil, pastels, or crayons are all great.
  • This can be done between 5 and 25 minutes. It is simply the process of choosing colors and making textures and patterns that express the layers of feeling present. Let the speed and movement be an extension of your expression. It will be unique every time.
  1. Two Inch Window Drawing

The goal is to work with detail and discernment to create a bird’s eye view. Another way to use this tool is one of magnification, to zoom in to one aspect of something larger; examples could be to feel a single sensation, filling a small (contained) space with just what is magnified. Used as a daily or coping practice it may serve to redirect concentration or focus energy and attention, provide containment while titrating an intense sensation. They take between 1-10 minutes to complete. Think Macro and Micro… what would be most helpful, to step back or lean in?

Materials:

  • Paper: Bristol, watercolor, or mixed media (2×2 or 4×4)
  • Card stock scraps come in several colors, and can usually be found at craft stores.
  • This drawing is small enough to be done in a brief sitting, and can even be a single set of colors.
  1. Process: Journey Drawing

Materials:

  • Paper: Bristol, watercolor, or mixed media (6×6 or larger)
  • Collage materials, or a material you enjoy (fabric, craft papers, natural materials, etc.)
  • Chalk/oil pastels, pencil, watercolor

Where are you in this journey? Emotionally … physically . . .personally . . . socially? Is there stuckness . . . is there movement? What colors, shapes, textures represent where you are right now? What colors feel supportive of your journey or give you strength? What emotions are present for you about your current life, about being a caregiver? Can you think of any supportive guides/helpers that you have met along the way? How has your identity or personality been challenged or changed in this process? Who in your life is accepting these changes, who in your life are having difficulty accepting the changes?

What has this process, or your imagery expressed to you? If you had a chance to respond to it, what kinds of responses are you having? Are you in a different place in your journey than you assumed/thought/hoped? What are the qualities of where you feel you are in your journey as a caregiver? As you have moved through different stages, what has each stage offered you?

Lastly, choose a color that feels strengthening, a color that will help you move into the next stage of your journey. Now create a final piece of you drawing that will offer you strength and power when you look at it.  Be one of the helpers for yourself in this moment of your journey.

6. Process: Breath Drawing

Materials:

  • Oil pastels or chalk pastels
  • Large paper
  • Your breath
    With one color in each hand, draw your breath. Notice the qualities of your in breath (short, stunted, deep, long, interrupted, fast, shallow) and allow your hands and the colors to express it. Same with the exhale. What are the qualities present in your out breath? Move each hand/arm in a circular motion with the expression, notice how the lines change over time. Notice similarities and any shifts. Follow your own breath with soft awareness.

What has this process, or your imagery expressed to you? What kinds of responses are you having?

For more information on activities for people living with Alzheimer’s visit the Alzheimer’s Association’s website: https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/daily-care/activities?gclid=CjwKCAjwzIH7BRAbEiwAoDxxTqQOIQhxq3c2b-k5u12ZU9oZixTf9PAfWpl3X-AGcE2eU9GKGRYxyxoCeRQQAvD_BwE

20 Natural Remedies for Depressed Caregivers (and everyone else)

Forest MeditationLots of us have experienced some form of depression during this pandemic. It may have been fleeting or may have set in for a longer period of time. If you’re a caregiver your “blues” may have cascaded into feelings of anger, resentment, anxiety, and or depression.

If you’re a caregiver you may not feel like it but remember that you are a hero/heroine. You are doing the best you can under duress, whether you’re caregiving during a pandemic or on just an ordinary day during a “normal” year.

Please, if you have suicidal thoughts or just can’t seem to shake the blues, get help.  Call the national suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.  The Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.

Have you considered getting professional help? Like so many things nowadays, you can even get online therapy sessions. Check out his website for in-depth reviews on the best online therapy. https://www.consumersadvocate.org/online-therapy

Here are 20+ ways to combat depression

Natural supplements for depression

  1. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a flowering plant which is used to make liquid extracts, nutritional supplements, and teas. 
  • It is a safe and effective way to treat mild to moderate depression over long periods of time
  • Is similarly effective as standard antidepressants
  • It has minimal side effects when compared to standard antidepressants
  • Understand that it can take 3-6 weeks until you feel the full benefits.
  • Please consult your health practitioner if you are taking an anti-depressant or other medications before taking St. John’s Wort.

One study done on laboratory animals found that St, John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has antidepressant properties similar to standard antidepressants. The antidepressant profile of H. perforatum is closely related to the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors class of antidepressants.

A Swiss study evaluated 440 patients suffering from mild to moderate depression and treated them with 500 mg. of St. John’s wort for up to one year. Although mild side effects such as upset stomach were reported—which may or may NOT have been related to the treatment—the researchers reported that is a safe and effective way to treat mild to moderate depression over long periods of time. They also found that it is especially suitable for preventing a relapse.

A meta-analysis at the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research, Technische Universitaet Muenchen, Munich, Germany analyzed 29 trials (which included 5,489 patients), comparing St. John’s wort with placebo or standard antidepressants. The evidence suggests that the hypericum extracts tested in the included trials a) are superior to placebo in patients with major depression; b) are similarly effective as standard antidepressants; c) and have fewer side effects than standard antidepressants.

2. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.

3. Nervines

According to David Hoffmann, a leading herbalist and spokesperson for a return to herbal medicines, a nervine is a plant remedy that has a beneficial effect upon the nervous system in some way.  Nervines are especially useful during times of stress because they have a strong relaxing and calming effect without producing a dulling, “hang-over” side effect.  They also tone and restore the nervous system to a more balanced state.  Some nervines are also anti-spasmodic, meaning they relax the peripheral nerves and the muscle tissue, which in turn has a relaxing effect on the whole system.

The main types of nervines are tonics, relaxants, and stimulants.

  • Nervine Tonics – are fundamental to any long-term change in the individual’s ability to cope with their lives and make changes to their health regimen and lifestyle. They are particularly helpful for strengthening the nervous system and restoring balance. In addition to having a relaxing effect, they appear to have a vaso-dilating action on the blood vessels of the brain.  This increases oxygen availability to brain cells and helps with mental agility and mood.
  • Nervine Relaxants – are especially beneficial for short-term use, for example in treating mild depression or acute anxiety. “This group of nervines are most important in times of stress and confusion, alleviating many of the accompanying symptoms. They should always be used in a broad holistic way, not simply to tranquilize.  Too much tranquilizing, even that achieved through herbal medication, can in time deplete and weigh heavily on the whole nervous system,” says Hoffman.
  • Nervine Stimulants– are used as a restorative “pick-me-up” when the individual needs an energetic boost without that revved up feeling produced by caffeine.

Recommended nervines:

  • Passion flower- is beneficial for anxiety, insomnia, tension headaches, muscle aches and spasms, pain, hyperactivity, epilepsy, and to alleviate anger and help lower blood pressure.
  • Skullcap – is antispasmodic and relaxing and is recommended to relieve headaches, mood swings, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, and nervous tension and exhaustion.
  • Blue Vervain – is a nervine herb that may help when you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed, and just want to relax. It promotes relaxation and calmness.
  • Hops – the female flower from the top of the humulus lupulus creeping vine, does a lot more than make your beer taste good! It may reduce occasional stress, nervousness and restlessness.
  • Valerian – is the most researched herb for sleep. Interestingly, the word valerian is derived from the Latin verb valere, which means to be strong or healthy. It may provide relief of occasional sleeplessness and promote relaxation.
  • Catnip is a milder nervine that may soothe and promote a calming feeling and reduce irritability.

4. Support serotonin levels. Omega 3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. Your brain is 60% fat and depends on the fat you ingest from food. Healthy fats found in cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and in olive oil, walnuts, flax and avocado will improve your mood. It is important to cook with a healthy fat such as olive oil, walnut or avocado in order to feed your brain! Canola oil, peanut oil, and safflower are not able to provide you with the fat your brain needs.

As a nutrition educator, I also like to recommend foods that increase the “happy” neurotransmitter serotonin. Whole grains, sweet potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, support your brain’s ability to process more serotonin.

5. Drink water. Your brain needs to stay hydrated. Make sure you drink at least six tall glasses of water every day. When my mom went into the hospital for severe dehydration, among other things, she began hallucinating. A psychiatrist called to tell me “your mom has full-blown dementia.” I said, “No she doesn’t,”  and refused to allow the doctor to prescribe an anti-psychotic prescription. Sure enough, several days later my mom sounded completely normal. Her body had been dehydrated, as well as her brain. The simple habit of drinking water is sometimes all we need to maintain mood and mental health.

6. The Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments published a report in the “Canadian Journal of Psychiatry” in 2016 with this conclusion: For the management of mild to moderate depression it says exercise, light therapy, St. John’s wort, omega-3 fatty acids, SAM-e, and yoga are recommended as first- or second-line treatments.

7. A recently published study in the “Journal of Clinical Medicine” concluded that individuals who engaged in a meditative movement practice of Tai Chi, Qigong, or Yoga showed significantly improved treatment remission rates. The researchers conclude that emphasizing the therapeutic effects of meditative movements for treating MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) is critical because it may provide a useful alternative to existing mainstream treatments (drug therapy and psychotherapy) for MDD. Given the fact that meditative movements are safe and easily accessible, clinicians may consider recommending meditative movements for symptomatic management in this population.

8. Music is the universal language as well as one of the most common ways to affect mood.  My husband was never without head phones as he listened to music and wandered through the halls of the memory care home where he lived the last two years of his life. Music made him happy. It makes toddlers spin until they’re dizzy, teens hand bang until their necks get sore, and adults drum their car’s steering wheel. Music also helps decrease anxiety and improves functioning of depressed individuals as found in a meta-analysis that concluded music therapy provides short-term beneficial effects for people with depression. 

9. Dance! I was feeling pretty low the other day. My body hurt and I was lonely. I made myself get off the couch and stream a zumba class on my desktop. Within 30 minutes I felt like a new person.

10. Create a calm environment. Light candles at dinner, play classical music, have a vase of fresh flowers on the table.

11. Take a walk in a green environment, if possible. Forest bathing provides physiological and psychological benefits and there’s plenty of research to back it up.

12. Use aromatherapy oils to immediately diffuse feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety, etc. Lavender oil is the most frequently used fragrance. You can also try bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, orange, clary sage, geranium, rose, and ylang ylang, frankincense, and myrrh. Put the oil in a diffuser or spray bottle to mist your collar or pillow. Check online for ways to order aromatherapy oils. For more information about the use of aromatherapy to reduce stress, improve immunity, reduce agitation, and to promote relaxation read chapter 18 “Aromatherapy” in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn.

13. Maintain your social connections. Loneliness can actually lead to health problems and mental decline. Join a group—any kind of group: worship,  hiking, scrabble, table tennis, knitting, discussion group or book club. Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or animal shelter. It’s important to stay connected and to feel as though you are a contributing member of society.

14. If you’re lucky to have a caring partner, give each other a massage. It’s a wonderful way to tune out the world and relax. Or do a self massage with warm oil. Olive or coconut works perfectly.

15. Avoid an excess of alcohol, caffeine and sugar. These will just make you feel more jittery in the long run, and add extra calories.

16. Avoid listening to the news before bed. When the coronavirus outbreak first occurred, I found myself glued to the news and I suffered the price. My sleep was restless and I had nightmares. Limit yourself to tuning in 2 or 3 times a day at most, for a limited period of time. Don’t keep the TV or radio on all day, and certainly not while you’re eating or before bed.

17. Limit your social media time, too. There are a lot of scary things on Facebook, etc. While it’s important to stay informed, too much information can overwhelm us and make us even more frightened.

18. Stay in close contact with family and friends. Reach out to those you haven’t been in touch with for a while. Laugh about old times.

19. Watch a comedy or funny You tube videos (cats, dogs, babies) that will make you laugh. Even when we’re depressed, we can laugh. And laughter is the very best medicine.

20. Sleep well by getting to bed before 11:00 pm, eating your last meal before 8pm, turning off your electronic devices, and eliminating light in your bedroom. If you have trouble sleeping consider using a lavender essential oil spray on your pillow or a sachet of lavender inserted into the pillowcase. There are lots of natural sleep aids available at your local health food store, such as melatonin, calcium/magnesium, valerian, hops, etc. Consult with a nutritional consultant about what might work best for you.

“Surround yourself with people who are only going to lift you higher.” anonymous


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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.