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.

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.

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.

Why it’s important to get an early diagnosis when cognitive problems appear

Doctor talking with patient

There were several indications that something was wrong with my husband two years before he was diagnosed. This tall, good-looking man, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, was having trouble calculating how much tip to leave a waitress. When we went to Spain for our twenty-fifth anniversary, Morris couldn’t figure out how much money the hotel would cost in dollars. This man, who once memorized trains and airplane schedules without even trying, followed me around the city like a puppy dog as we boarded a subway or bus enroute to tourist attractions.

That following fall — our daughter’s last year in high school — Morris couldn’t give directions to a friend who was taking the SAT at the high school my husband had attended. I got out the map to help him, but he couldn’t read the map. That was the moment I knew something was very wrong. When he left for a road trip to California without our son and forgot his suitcase, I sat on the stairs and cried. I couldn’t deny it any longer. I had a strong suspicion that Morris had Alzheimer’s disease, and although I pleaded with him for two years to see a neurologist, he refused.

What if he had gotten an early diagnosis? Would it have helped?

There’s no way to know for sure, but probably it would have. Because as soon as he started taking Aricept he stopped getting lost driving around our small city. And I started giving him nutritional supplements, which also seemed to help. Read “5 Things that Help Dementia that your Doctor Probably Hasn’t Mentioned.” https://barbracohn.com/2019/09/25/5-things-that-help-dementia-that-your-doctor-probably-hasnt-mentioned/

Professionals, both researchers and physicians and the Alzheimer’s Association, recommend that an early, accurate diagnosis is the key to living a less stressful life for both the patient and the family.

Here’s why:

  1. Cognitive problems can be caused by a number of physical conditions other than Alzheimer’s disease, vascular cognitive impairment, Lewy Bodies dementia and Frontotemporal dementia (FTD). These include thyroid problems, hydrocephalus, a brain tumor, and even depression. When my mother was severely dehydrated and hospitalized with a urinary tract infection (UTI), a psychiatrist called to tell me that she had full-blown dementia. “No she doesn’t,” I said. And sure enough, after being put on an IV saline drip Mom regained her full mental capacity. Memory problems can result from dehydration, severe diabetes and some forms of Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, HIV, and Huntington’s disease.

Certain medications can affect mental clarity and balance. Be sure to ask your pharmacist about drug contraindications, and interactions with natural supplements. Alcohol abuse and binge drinking can destroy brain cells that are critical for memory, thinking, and decision making and mimic or lead to dementia.

2. Cognitive symptoms may be reversible. There are a number of holistic doctors who claim that their protocol can treat the root cause of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Please read my blog ” Significant study points to MIND diet for improving brain health and preventing Alzheimer’s disease.” https://barbracohn.com/2018/11/09/significant-study-points-to-mind-diet-for-improving-brain-health-and-preventing-alzheimers-disease/

Dale Bredesen, MD, a physician scientist in the Department of Pharmacology at UCLA who’s published more than 220 papers on Alzheimer’s, has spent 30 years looking at the root causes of the neurodegenerative phenomenon in hopes of eradicating it. In 2018, Bredesen published the case studies of more than 100 patients in cognitive decline in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Parkinsonism. https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/reversal-of-cognitive-decline-100-patients-2161-0460-1000450.pdf

In her editorial in the Lancet Neurology, published in May 2020, Joanna Hellmuth, MD, of the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, said the “Bredesen protocol” – named by neurologist Dale Bredesen, MD – has reeled in patients and their families seeking hope outside of the physician’s office for a disease that is currently incurable.

The Bredesen protocol is propounded in his 2017 bestseller The End of Alzheimer’s Program and can be accessed for $1,399, which includes protocol assessments, lab tests and contact with practitioners, who provide the regimen for additional fees. Online support and cognitive games are available for an additional monthly charge. This protocol is timely, costly and requires steadfastness. But if you have the time and means, it’s probably worth a try.

3. An early diagnosis is empowering. Before the disease has progressed to the point where decision making is difficult, the patient can be included in financial and estate planning, creating end-of-life wishes and durable power of attorney decisions, etc.

4. An early diagnosis is easier for the physician to make when the patient is able to answer questions. Later in the progression of the disease, the patient isn’t able to make observations or answer accurately.

5. Family and loved ones who might be confused by particular behaviors such as anger, depression, disinterest, can better understand why their parent or spouse or significant other is behaving the way they are. This helps to preserve the person’s dignity rather than have someone close to them yell at them, treat them poorly, or want to distance them self, etc.

6. Individuals diagnosed early can take advantage of support groups, and caregivers can learn ways to better manage medications, and learn strategies for coping with unexpected and unusual behaviors and the ordinary progression of the disease. The Alzheimer’s Association was a godsend for me. I was able to connect with other caregivers who knew exactly what I was going through. I could talk about what was happening all day with my best friend, but there was no way she would be able to fully understand the stress of caregiving and the grief of losing a partner to Alzheimer’s. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/research_progress/clinical-trials/about-clinical-trials

7. Getting an early diagnosis provides the opportunity to possibly enroll in a clinical trial. TrialMatch is a clinical trial matching service for Alzheimer’s and other dementias. It is a free, easy-to-use service that connects individuals living with AD, caregivers, and healthy volunteers with current research studies. Their continuously updated database of AD clinical studies includes hundreds of pharmacological and non-pharmacological studies being conducted at sites throughout the U.S. and online.

8. An early diagnosis allows the patient to prioritize what is important to them, whether it’s creating a masterpiece or traveling the world. There is still time at this point in the disease to enjoy a happy, satisfying life.

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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.

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.

Should you move a family member back home from a care facility?

I'll have to learn to walk againAccording to the New York Times (April 17, 2020), about a fifth of U.S. virus deaths are linked to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. That’s about 7,000 people.

It’s an extremely difficult time for families who have a loved one in a care facility. You’re not able to visit, and you and your loved one might be missing the physical touch that we as humans crave.  You might be too overwhelmed with caring for others at home to make the drive to the care facility, only to be allowed to peer through a window and touch hands separated by glass.

Two of my friends recently lost a parent who was in a nursing facility. Their parents didn’t die from Covid-19. One died from Alzheimer’s (yes, Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease) and the other had dementia and was recovering from a broken pelvis. Neither friend was able to get to the facility in time to say good-bye, partly because of the imposed lock-down on these facilities.

You might be worried that your loved one will contract Covid-19. What should you do?

Should you move your loved one home?

  • Consider why you moved your loved one to a care facility in the first place. Are you able to safely care for him/her at home?
  • How is your health? Have you been sick? Do you have a chronic condition that prevents you from taking on added stress?
  • Are you overwhelmed caring for children who are doing online schooling?
  • Are you working from home?
  • Is your loved one mobile? Continent? Can you bathe and dress him/her? Do they need a two-person transfer?
  • Can you hire in-home care? This option comes with the risk of having an outsider who has possibly been exposed to Covid-19 come into your home.
  • A person with dementia might have compounded anxiety during the pandemic. Anxiety increases when a person with dementia has their routine disrupted. The individual may not be able to understand what is going on, but pick up on the stress of those around him/her. Would you have the patience and time to devote to caring for such an individual?
  • Be honest with yourself, and consider your own health, psychology and emotional well-being.

If moving your loved one is out of the questions, consider these tips from The Alzheimer’s Association.

If your loved one is in a care facility:

By now, almost all care facilities are not allowing visitors through the door. 

  • Check with the facility regarding their procedures for managing COVID-19 risk. Ensure they have your emergency contact information and the information of another family member or friend as a backup.
  • Do not visit your family member if you have any signs or symptoms of illness.
  • Depending on the situation in your local area, facilities may limit or not allow visitors. This is to protect the residents but it can be difficult if you are unable to see your family member.
  • If visitation is not allowed, ask the facility how you can have contact with your family member. Options include telephone calls, video chats or even emails to check in.
  • If your family member is unable to engage in calls or video chats, ask the facility how you can keep in touch with facility staff in order to get updates.

What if the care facility has or had Covid-19 incidences?

  • Ask the facility about their quarantine procedures. What is your level of confidence that CDC guidelines are being followed?
  • How many people in the facility have been impacted by COVID-19? Are those affected staff, residents or both?
  • Is your family member able to follow social distancing procedures (with or without help)?
    • In some cases, the person may not be able to walk or move about on their own. This could help maintain social distancing.
  • Does the facility have and use personal protective equipment?
  • How many staff members interact with your family member on a regular basis? Is the facility able to limit the number of staff who work with your family member?
  • Is the facility adequately staffed to provide the level of care your family member requires?

The Centers for Disease Control has issued these guidelines for nursing home visitation in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak:

Limiting Visitation: For facilities that are in counties, or counties adjacent to other counties where a COVID-19 case has occurred, we recommend limiting visitation (except in certain situations as indicated above). For example, a daughter who visits her mother every Monday, would cease these visits, and limit her visits to only those situations when her mom has a significant issue. Also, during the visit, the daughter would limit her contact with her mother and only meet with her in her room or a place the facility has specifically dedicated for visits.

Facilities should actively screen and restrict visitation by those who meet the following criteria: 1. Signs or symptoms of a respiratory infection, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat. 2. In the last 14 days, has had contact with someone with a confirmed diagnosis of COVID19, or under investigation for COVID-19, or are ill with respiratory illness. 3. International travel within the last 14 days to countries with sustained community transmission. 4. Residing in a community where community-based spread of COVID-19 is occurring.

Be kind to yourself, and try not to feel guilty about not being able to visit your loved one. Caregiver guilt is complicated, but you are probably doing the best that you can.

This pandemic lock-down is unprecedented. Hopefully, the restrictions will lift soon and you’ll be able to be with your loved one again. Until then, take extra good care of yourself.


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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.

Gardening as therapy for caregivers and their care partners

Senior couple gardening in the garden

Clipping vegetables and watering flowers can do wonders for the soul and have a profound effect on a stressed physiology. Horticultural therapy is a health-care specialty that uses gardening to promote physical and emotional health by creating a peaceful oasis amid the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease, or any other caregiving situation.

Therapy gardens encourage memory-impaired people and their caregivers to take a moment to smell the roses and perform tasks that magically momentarily take away their cares and worries. You might already being working in the garden, which is a natural balm for these anxiety-filled days.

If you are caregiving for a loved one at home, gardening is a great opportunity for you and your care partner to spend time outdoors, connect through memories that might arise, and de-stress. You’ll also gain the satisfaction of accomplishing something that will, hopefully, provide you with beauty, sweet scents, and/or food!

Here are some ways to include your care partner so that you both benefit—from the “Horticulture Therapy by horticulurual therapist Pam Catlin, chapter 17 in my book “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia.


Throughout the ages people have connected over food and the garden setting provides an abundance of taste experiences through edible flowers, herbs, and vegetables.  Not all non-poisonous flowers are tasty or have a pleasing texture, however.  Some tried and true edible flowers are nasturtiums, lavender, day lilies, roses, tulips, pansies and violas.  The flowers can be used in salads, baking, decorating cakes and so much more. In caring for these flowers, chemical pesticides must be avoided.

Herbs and vegetables are a great addition to a garden and they provide another taste experience for the gardener.  Examples of easy to grow herbs are basil, chives, mint, oregano, parsley and rosemary.  Some are even perennials that will come back each year. These herbs might be enjoyed by being mixed into plain yogurt or softened cream cheese to create an easy dip to spread on a cracker.  When selecting vegetables, keep in mind that all of the solanaceous family (tomatoes and eggplant) have toxic foliage.  With close supervision, they can still be planted as most gardeners love a beautiful ripe tomato.

For those who have retained their olfactory senses, just running hands over herb plants provides a fragrance to inhale and enjoy.  Scented geraniums, grown for their foliage and not their bloom, date back to Victorian times and are now available in most nurseries in a variety of fragrances including but not limited to citrus, chocolate and rose. Particularly fragrant flowers to include in your garden are sweet alyssum, heliotrope, pansies and cosmos.

When selecting plants to stimulate the visual senses, it is important to remember that bright colors such as reds, pinks and yellows are more easily seen by older eyes than subtle, pastel colors or white.   Don’t forget interesting leaf patterns when looking for visual stimuli.  Unusual leaf patterns and colors can be found in coleus, Rex begonias and some grasses, such as zebra grass.

Consider adding some auditory elements to the garden.  Wind chimes near the patio door can assist in orienting an individual to the door’s location.  Grasses, trees, plants with seed pods, water features and bird feeders can all add a variety of pleasant sounds to the garden.

As the other senses fade, tactile stimulation becomes an important part of the gardening experience.  Selections that are surprisingly soft to the touch are dusty miller, African fountain grass and lamb’s ears.  Smooth skinned succulents provide tactile interest and can be grown indoors and (weather permitting) outdoors.  Placing plants with texture near the edges of containers or beds is an invitation to garden visitors to touch and feel as they move through the outdoor space.  If the gardener with cognitive issues is not responsive to the stimuli when touching with their fingers try running a fuzzy leaf across the cheek.  The apple of the cheek is filled with tiny nerve endings that will often be more receptive than the nerve endings in older fingers.

What you need to set up a therapy garden in your yard or porch

As the person with memory loss advances in his or her disease process, physical balance tends to become a challenge. an effective way to create a safe gardening experience is to elevate the growing areas either through raised beds or large ports. For those able to stand for short periods of time, a variety of planter heights would be ideal to support gardening while standing or sitting. rEcommended dimensions for planter height is 2′ – 2 1/2′ for sitting or 3′ – 3 1/2′ for standing. Acceptable dimensions for widths are 2′ if accessible from only one side or 4/ if accessible from all sides.

If the gardener has limited reach, avoid building materials such as bricks or block as it would be difficult to reach the soil to plant. It’s a good idea to measure what would be comfortable for the user before constructing the garden. Growing in pots or raised beds requires good planting mixes (combination of peat moss, topsoil and sand or perlite or a good quality soilless mix), regular fertilizing and plants that are no taller than 3′.

These days, many large pots are lightweight and easy to move andn place prior to filling with soil mix. Pots can be placed on rolling saucers, provided the wheels have brakes, or on pavers to help raise

Successful Plants

There are a number of tried and true plants that are safe for the garden.  For cool weather gardening, calendulas, pansies/violas, and stock add bright color.  Cool season vegetables are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, peas, radishes and spinach. Suggested plants for the warm season shade garden are coleus, impatiens, begonias and mint.  Good plants for warm season sunny locations would be alyssum, dusty miller, geraniums, marigolds, purple cup flower, petunias, portulaca, snapdragons, zinnias, most herbs other than mint and most vegetables other than those mentioned for cool season planting.   Bush varieties of squashes and cucumbers are best suited for raised beds and pots, as are some varieties of tomatoes.

A piece of advice when creating a garden space is to start small.  The primary purpose of this growing area is to provide peace of mind and an avenue of connection for the person with memory loss and those providing care, not food production.  A garden that provides a balance of physical activity and just being in nature is a perfect addition.


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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.