Aging and Memory Loss: What’s normal, what’s not, and how to seek help (this article appeared in the Daily Camera’s Aging at Altitude Special Section, spring 2022)

Most of us have had “senior moments” where we’ve run into a friend and momentarily forget their name. Or we search the house for eyeglasses that are perched on our head. Or we walk in circles trying to locate our car in the mall parking lot. Those forgetful moments are fairly typical of being a member of the 21st century with a headful of thoughts and responsibilities.

Putting the car keys in the refrigerator might be something you do if you’re distracted, but storing a dozen cans of pineapple in the dishwasher, or forgetting how to drive home are not normal memory slips. These types of forgetfulness could be a sign of cognitive impairment or a dementia. But the latest research is showing that if you treat early signs of mental decline, you can slow down and possibly reverse cognitive decline.

Ilene Naomi Rusk, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist, functional brain health coach, and director of The Healthy Brain Program at the Brain and Behavior Clinic (2523 Broadway #200, Boulder, CO, 303-938-9244). Dr. Rusk acts like a detective to fully understand the root causes of a person’s psychological and brain health issues. Then she works with the patient and a functional medicine team with personalized diagnostics, and treatment or interventions, from brain training to nutrition guidance.

“It’s good for everyone to have baseline neuropsychological testing in mid-life even if you have no memory issues,” says Rusk. Most people think cognition is memory, but it’s much more than that. It’s memory, learning, attention and focus, visual and spatial skills, and how we absorb information, retain it and then share it. Cognition is also how we process things visually, auditorily, and spatially.”

There are different categories of cognitive health versus cognitive impairment that can clue me into whether or not someone is headed towards dementia, says Rusk.

“Subjective Cognitive Impairment (SCI) is when you notice a change in your cognition and think ‘I’m a little different than I used to be’, but other people can’t tell and it wouldn’t show up on a memory test.

“The next category is Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). This is when you notice changes in your thinking and people around you may or may not notice changes. With MCI you might also have some challenges on neuropsychological tests that show empirical changes. This is a staging system,” says Rusk. “With MCI there’s a great opportunity to intervene, and we want to intervene as early as possible because once you have Mild Cognitive Impairment it’s easier to slip into dementia,” she adds.

The best thing is to tell your doctor if you have concerns and then go to see someone to get properly assessed.

“I recommend that people go directly to a neuropsychologist or neurologist after they’ve spoken to their family physician to look for root causes. There are so many prevention strategies and a new functional medicine methodology to approach cognitive decline. Functional Medicine practitioners look at blood sugar control, blood pressure, gut health, latent, mold, infections, inflammatory markers, stress, sleep patterns, chronic loneliness, and trauma. These are all important things when looking at modifiable root causes of cognitive impairment,” says Rusk.

“We no longer think that Alzheimer’s is only a disease of the brain. That’s definitely an endpoint,” she says. “Everything from dental health to herpes is being looked at, and the amyloid theory of Alzheimer’s is even being questioned by some people. I see trauma healing and stress reduction as important interventions. Chronic stress affects so much in our physiology and unhealed trauma leaves physiologic imprints.

 It’s also important to know,” she adds, “that 70% of dementias are of the Alzheimer’s type and 30% of dementias fall into other categories such as Frontal Temporal Dementia, Parkinson’s, Lewy Bodies, etc. getting properly diagnosed is very important.

The brain pathology of Alzheimer’s often starts 20 years before there are clinical signs. “A person goes from no dementia to SCI, MCI, early stages of dementia, mild, moderate, and severe stages,” says Rusk. “My goal is prevention, and my favorite thing to do is talk to young people about brain health. If we can intervene early, the decline can be delayed and even sometimes prevented.”

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: TheCaregiver’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.

Should you move your loved one to a memory care home?

Forgetful senior with dementia

Moving my husband to a memory care home was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I knew that if I didn’t, I’d pay dearly with my own deteriorating health. After caring for Morris for 8 years, I was stressed and diagnosed with a serious disease. When I asked my doctor what he would do in my situation, he paused before saying “You need to take care of yourself.”

Morris was mostly able to take care of his personal hygiene, with some help in the shower, etc. But he wasn’t able to drive, and he needed help getting dressed. He could feed himself if I put the food in front of him. He still enjoyed watching movies, although I’m sure he couldn’t follow the plot. He liked being taken out to lunch, but he couldn’t read a menu. In other words, he needed a lot of help. I didn’t feel that he was a danger to himself or to me, but I didn’t leave him alone in the house for more than a quick trip to the grocery store. However, I was burned out and had received a diagnosis that no one ever wants to hear — the kind that requires a lot of self-care, rest, and good nutrition.

So I was relieved to learn that our spot on the waiting list at my chosen memory care home was towards the top of the list. And I was especially glad, thanks to my therapist’s advice, that I had looked for a place the previous year so that in case of an emergency I didn’t have to frantically scramble to find a home for my husband . . . a place where I felt confident that the caregivers would treat him with kindness, compassion, and respect.

How do you know when it’s time to move someone to a long-term facility?

Of course, every situation is unique, especially since no two dementia patients or families are alike. Some families consist of an elderly couple who live by themselves with no family nearby. A person with dementia may live on their own. Or an older parent may be looked after by an adult child or grandchild who lives nearby or in another state. But in every case, it’s vital to have safety measures in place. That may involve moving the person with dementia into a family member’s home or into a long-term care facility. Families that have several siblings — adult children of the affected parent — share the caring responsibility by having the parent rotate throughout the year, staying with each child for a few months at a time.

Here are some indications of when it’s time to make that move

  • The caregiver is burned out and stress is affecting his/her mental, emotional, and physical health.
  • When it becomes obvious that the person being cared for is unable to take care of their basic needs.
  • S/he wanders off and doesn’t know how to get back home.
  • S/he is isolated, lonely, and depressed.
  • Your loved one is angry and verbally or physically abusive.
  • S/he has mobility issues and tends to fall.
  • The person with dementia has Sundowner’s syndrome and gets agitated at the end of the day. This is a sign that they are becoming unable to live alone.

Making the decision to move a loved one into a memory care home is one of the hardest decisions you will ever make. Just remember that when you’re a caregiver for someone with dementia, it’s important to take care of yourself, too. Because if you don’t and you get sick, then who will take care of you?

Take the advice of my therapist and start looking for a home where your loved one will be well cared for. Or have a family meeting and make a caregiving plan that suits everyone. Here are a couple of other blogs that may be helpful. https://barbracohn.com/2019/08/03/the-20-most-important-things-to-consider-when-looking-for-a-memory-care-home/

https://barbracohn.com/2013/04/03/is-it-is-it-time-to-move-your-loved-one-to-a-memory-care-home/

Please be gentle with yourself.

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: TheCaregiver’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.

The memory care home wants to evict my loved one! What should I do?

Caregiver yelling at man in wheel-chair

Sometimes a person with dementia will act out and strike the person who just happens to walk by, or the person who accidentally walks into their room. Or, the aggressor might bite another person. Aggressive behaviors aren’t that unusual, but sometimes they get out of control. If they continue, the director of the memory care home will give the family a warning, and if the behavior isn’t resolved, the patient may be asked to leave.

Before things get out of control, there are modalities that can be used to help calm things down. Please read Chapter 18 “Aromatherapy” in Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia by Barbra Cohn (see below) on how essential oils can immediately diffuse a tense situation. The book contains 19 other healing modalities that really do work.

In our case, the care facility wanted my husband to leave because he became too needy. Even though the director assured me that the facility would be able to take care of him to the end of his Alzheimer’s journey when I signed the contract for him to move in, that’s not what happened.

After Morris had surgery for a kidney stone, he was unable to walk or toilet by himself. He couldn’t do much of anything anymore. He stopped talking and couldn’t feed himself. The facility where he had been for two years refused to accept him back from the hospital. The hospital discharged him on a Friday afternoon and we had to scramble for a facility that would take him. It was stressful and the new facility was awful. I begged the home where he had been to take him back, and they agreed, but with a big caveat. I had to hire a care person to be with Morris one-on-one because the facility didn’t have the staff to give him the extra care that he needed.

We hired extra care, but the cost became prohibitive. I moved Morris for the third time in four weeks to a different facility that specialized in end-stage Alzheimer’s. It was the perfect decision. He died there two weeks later, after having compassionate end-of-life care.

If things hadn’t gotten so crazy, and my husband hadn’t deteriorated as quickly as he did, I would have called my ombudsman to help me communicate with the first memory care home’s director. Her refusal to take Morris back after his hospitalization was virtually the same as kicking him out, and it was contrary to what was promised when I signed the initial contract: that they’d care for him until the end.

Contact your ombudsman

If you have any similar issues, contact your ombudsman. An ombudsman is someone who advocates for the health, safety, and rights of individuals in long-term facilities (LTC), and ensures that the residents are protected by the standards required under the Nursing Home Reform Law of 1987. Under the federal Older Americans Act, every state is required to have an Ombudsman Program that addresses complaints and advocates for improvements in the long-term care system. 

Unlawful evictions are one of the major complaints that an ombudsman deals with. The ombudsman will

If you can’t resolve a conflict or your concerns with the director of the facility or are uncomfortable, you can contact your ombudsman to:

  • Investigate suspected abuse (mental, physical, and emotional) of your loved one
  • Review inadequate staffing or training that should meet the level of care expected and promised
  • Discuss and resolve grievances that you and the staff have
  • Learn about your options and legal rights

Who can use an Ombudsman?

  • Residents of any nursing home or board and care facility, including assisted living facilities
  • A family member or friend of a nursing home resident
  • A nursing home administrator or employee with a concern about a resident at their facility
  • Any individual or citizen’s group interested in the welfare of residents
  • Individuals and families who are considering long-term care placement

How do I contact my Ombudsman?

Residential care communities must post the area’s ombudsman program contact information and responsibilities. You can also search for your state’s ombudsman by visiting the Elder Care Locator website (eldercare.acl.gov) or contact the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America’s (AFA) Helpline – 866-232-8484.

What if my loved one is asked to leave because of aggressive behavior?

First, try to figure out why your loved one is acting out. Does s/he have a urinary tract infection? Is s/he in pain because of a tooth abscess? Have a physician do a complete physical exam to rule out pain. Your loved one may be unable to articulate what is bothering them.

Be on the lookout for bruises, bedsores, stomach upset, missing personal items such as eyeglasses, or anything else that may be the cause of a change in behavior. Is another resident walking into your loved one’s room accidentally? Is loud music being played in the dining room? What about community TV shows? Are they violent, disturbing, or too loud?

Sadly, residents who have behavior issues are often given medications to control their outbursts. Try everything you can before resorting to those. My husband was given a sedating drug at one point and he became catatonic. As soon as I ordered the doctor to take him off the drug, Morris quickly reverted to his usual, pleasant self. When he would start to show agitation, I’d plug in an aromatherapy diffuser with a blend of oils that immediately calmed him down.

Essential oils can 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 loved one’s collar or pillow. Find a fragrance that is pleasing to them.

It’s always in everyone’s best interest to try to solve things amicably. An attorney can help review your contract with the facility, especially when it comes to involuntary transfers and aggressive behavior. But hopefully, the situation won’t get to that point.

All the best to you in the new year,

Barbra

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 in the World Will I Pay for Long-term Caregiving?

Financial planning is an important factor in long-term caregiving.

Having a long-term caregiving plan is a must for family caregivers, especially if their loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or other chronic health conditions. In 2018, the Alzheimer’s Association estimated that the total lifetime cost of care for someone with dementia was  $341,840.

When we placed my husband in a memory care home in 2008, it cost roughly $6,000 a month, which covered a private room and extras like a weekly massage. Everything is more expensive today. The Alzheimer’s Association lists the following median costs for long-term care services in 2021. From what I’ve seen, the costs are typically higher on the East and West Coasts and lower in rural towns, and in the Midwest, the South, and western states.

  • Home care: A paid non-medical home health aide is $24 per hour and $960 per week (40 hours of care).
  • Adult day services: $74 per day.
  • Assisted living facilities: $4,300 per month or $51,600.
  • Private room in a nursing home: $290 per day or $105,850 per year.
  • Semi-private room in a nursing home: $225 per day or $93,075 per year. https://www.genworth.com/aging-and-you/finances/cost-of-care.html

What’s the difference between assisted living and a nursing home?

By the time a person with dementia is ready for a care facility, they need lots of assistance so it’s best to consider a home that offers memory care in a locked-down environment. Locked-down isn’t as bad as it sounds. It just means that the residents can’t leave the facility and wander off and get lost. The exterior doors are locked, but residents are usually free to roam the halls and go in and out of their rooms and living areas.

An assisted living home offers some care such as transportation to doctor appointments and help taking medications. And some offer designated living areas for people with dementia. But generally, residents in assisted living facilities are in fairly good health and are able to take care of their personal needs.

A nursing home provides medical care 24 hours a day. Meals are prepared by the staff, residents usually eat in a dining room, or in their own room, and care is provided ranging from help getting dressed and bathing, to rehabilitation from a fall or bone breakage.

People with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are usually placed in memory care homes that cater to their particular needs. Memory care homes aren’t exactly nursing homes because not everyone with dementia has another physical illness. But the cost is comparable to that of a nursing home because of the amount of hands-on care that is needed, which includes bathing, brushing teeth and getting dressed, toileting, etc.

Consider respite care

Respite care provides short-term relief for primary caregivers. It can be a life savior when you’re at your wit’s end and “just can’t take it anymore.” There’s no need to feel guilty. All caregivers need a break in order to recharge, destress, and take care of their own needs—which is crucial to staying healthy.

Respite care can be provided at home, in a healthcare facility, or at an adult day center. It can be arranged for a few hours or for several days or weeks. For more information about respite care: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-respite-care, https://archrespite.org/respitelocator

Financial help

As soon as you or a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or other dementia or chronic disease, make an appointment to see an elder attorney. They will inform you of your options and help with long-term planning.

For instance, in Colorado, in 2020, one month in a nursing home costs nearly $9,000. That’s more than $100,000 over the course of a year. Many elderly individuals spend down their life savings on nursing home costs so they can eventually qualify for financial assistance

If both spouses are living, and one of them is healthy, the healthy spouse can be left with little money on which to survive. An elder law attorney can help families avoid this unfortunate, but common, scenario.

The Community Spouse Resource Allowance is useful when there is concern the couple has too many assets to receive financial assistance from Medicaid to pay for long-term care. This particular allowance lets the healthy spouse keep a portion of the joint assets, up to $128,640 in 2020.

Another allowance, the Minimum Monthly Maintenance Needs Allowance, or MMMNA, lets a healthy spouse retain part of their ill spouse’s monthly income. ps://www.robinsonandhenry.com/colorado/estate-planning/medicaid-planning/?utm_term=&utm_campaign=&utm_source=adwords&utm_medium=ppc&hsa_tgt=&hsa_grp=&hsa_src=x&hsa_net=adwords&hsa_mt=&hsa_ver=3&hsa_ad=&hsa_acc=4376139444&hsa_kw=&hsa_cam=14487629423&gclid=Cj0KCQiAhMOMBhDhARIsAPVml-HXnbFv18MpGCumQd7lKb5xGoJ36cvPNwcdGqRFpgnWq63lYsSAYAkaAnCaEALw_wcB

If you plan to hire an elder attorney, please check reviews and ask for referrals for a competent elder attorney. Unfortunately, the elder attorney I hired made a mess of things for me and my family, and I had to hire an additional attorney to straighten things out.

Other options

• Call 800.827. 1000 or visit http://www.va.gov. In addition to Medicare, the person with dementia may qualify for a number of public programs. These programs provide income support or long-term care services to people who are eligible.

• Contact your local family and senior services office. They can provide you with information about help in the home, long-term care options, legal support, Medicare and Medicaid, public assistance benefits, services, and programs, guidance, and tips on accessing services, caregiver support training, and more.

• Contact your local Alzheimer’s Association for information about services and support groups. They offer classes for caregiving on everything ranging from financial planning to how to get your loved one to take a shower. https://www.alz.org/

Taking time for yourself

Caregivers get burned out if they don’t take some time off to recharge. And in the worst-case scenarios, caregivers end up being sick and having to be taken care of. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will take care of the person you were lovingly taking care of?

Here are links to a couple of articles I posted on this blog about ways that caregivers can achieve more peace and less stress. https://archrespite.org/respitelocator, https://barbracohn.com/2020/06/23/20-natural-remedies-for-depressed-caregivers-and-everyone-else/

Have a safe, satisfying, and stress-free (as much as possible) Thanksgiving. And please take a little respite time for yourself, even if that entails just walking around the block for 30 minutes.


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 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.

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.”

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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.

How to prevent and ease tension headaches without drugs

There’s been an increase in the incidence of stress headaches, no matter whether you’re a caregiver, someone who’s lost a job or a loved one, a parent juggling virtual school and a job, or dealing with loneliness and pandemic stress.

If you’re concerned that your headache may be a symptom of COVID-19, Dr. Emad Estemalik, director of the headache section at the Cleveland Clinic, said that although respiratory viruses often involve headaches, if a headache is your only symptom, it’s unlikely that it is related to COVID-19. https://www.news5cleveland.com/news/local-news/having-more-headaches-during-the-pandemic-its-not-just-you

On the other hand, “If you suddenly are short of breath or you have a fever out of the blue and you have an excruciating headache, that’s a different story,” he said.

What is a tension headache?

Tension headaches are typically caused by muscle contractions in the head and neck. They can be mild, moderate, or intense pain that you may feel in your head and neck or behind your eyes. Often they feel like a tight band around your head. They can be chronic or episodic, once or twice a month. Women are twice as likely as men to have tension headaches, and according to the Cleveland Clinic, chronic headaches affect approximately three percent of people in the U.S and can last more than 15 days a month.

Common causes of headache

  • Allergies and certain foods including MSG, artificial sweeteners, aged cheese, cured meats, salty foods, chocolate, pickled and fermented foods, frozen foods (i.e brain freeze)
  • Alcohol, caffeine, smoking
  • Depression, stress and anxiety
  • Dehydration
  • Eye strain and dry eyes
  • Emotional stress
  • Peri-menopause and pre-menstrual hormone fluctuations
  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor posture, especially looking down at our devices and at our computers for long stretches of time.
  • Cold, flu, or sinus infections
  • Vertebrae misalignment, especially of the atlas and axis
  • Over exercising
  • Hunger, not eating enough or on time
  • Air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, particulate matters from wildfires, and benzene from fracking
  • Change in the weather

Ways to prevent and ease a tension headache

According to the National center for Complementary and Integrative Health, these supplements may help prevent tension headaches:

  • Butterbur
  • Coenzyme CoQ10
  • Feverfew
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin B-12 (riboflavin)

Yoga postures help by increasing circulation to your head. Remember to breathe. For more information about deep breathing as a stress reliever, including two easy breathing exercises, visit: “Support your lungs with deep breathing exercises” https://barbracohn.com/2020/03/26/support-your-lungs-with-deep-breathing-exercises/

More ways to ease a tension headache

  • Dab some lavender essential oil on your temples. Some people report instant relief.
  • Drink at least 6-8 glasses of water each day.
  • Get plenty of sleep. If you have trouble sleeping read this: https://barbracohn.com/2017/10/25/16-ways-to-sleep-better-so-you-can-be-a-better-caregiver/
  • Exercise regularly and walk outside in fresh air.
  • Get an air purifier to clean the air in your house.
  • Set boundaries for yourself. Don’t take on more than you can handle.
  • Support your emotional well being. Avoid movies that elevate cortisol (stress hormone), avoid family arguments, engage socially on facetime or zoom to avoid loneliness. Take a walk with a neighbor with masks on, etc.
  • Get a massage or chiropractic adjustment.
  • Do something soothing for yourself at least once a day. Listen to some classical, religious or meditative music to uplift your spirit. Take an Epsom salt bath with lavender aromatherapy oil. Take time out to read a book. Keep a gratitude journal. Get a dog or cat.

Please make a telehealth appointment with your doctor if your headaches continue and to rule out other illness.

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.