When surgery is recommended for a person with Alzheimer’s

Caregiver holding elderly patient’s hand in hospital bed

Surgery is scary for everyone. But when the patient has Alzheimer’s it can be traumatic. Someone with Alzheimer’s may feel frightened and confused by a new environment and by people they don’t know. They may not understand what is happening to them. Their normal routine will inevitably change, as well as their diet. The list goes on and on.

If your loved one’s doctor is recommending surgery, you’ll want to ask a lot of questions because being in a strange environment will likely cause anxiety (although some patients with dementia might enjoy the special attention). And getting general anesthesia can cause dementia to worsen.

A study published on the Fishman Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation’s website found that about half of the patients undergoing surgery at the Marques de Valdecilla-IDAL University Hospital in Spain showed declines in cognitive skills after their hospital stays. https://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad191229 But those who had high levels of beta-amyloid, consistent with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, fared the worst on measures of memory. All the patients were older than 65, and none had dementia before their surgery. https://www.alzinfo.org/articles/prevention/major-surgery-may-accelerate-the-slide-into-alzheimers-disease/

However, Duke University researchers recently found that “in over 100 patients undergoing a wide variety of major surgery types under general anesthesia, we found no correlation between post-operative changes in thinking/memory and in Alzheimer’s disease-related biomarkers in the fluid surrounding the brain and spine . . . This should be a reassuring message to anesthesiologists, surgeons, older surgical patients and their family members,” said lead author of the study Miles Berger, M.D. https://corporate.dukehealth.org/news/no-link-between-cognitive-changes-alzheimers-markers-after-major-surgery

Things to consider

  • Plan a consultation with the doctor to discuss the specifics, and have an honest discussion. Is the surgery absolutely necessary? What might happen if your loved one does not undergo surgery? Will the surgery provide a better quality of life, i.e. reduce pain and increase mobility? Prolong the person’s life? What is the worst-case scenario if they do not undergo surgery? Is there an alternative solution to the problem, i.e. complementary medicines and/or modalities such as acupuncture or biofeedback? Ask if you can record the discussion in order to review it later. Consider getting a second opinion.
  • If your family member plans to go ahead with the surgery, look for a hospital that has adopted the ACS Geriatric Surgery Verification Program. The medical community is starting to recognize that a routine surgery for an adult may be very different for an older patient, especially one who has dementia. The Geriatric Surgery Verification (GSV) Program has 32 surgical standards (two of which are optional) designed to improve surgical care and outcomes for older adults. Optimizing surgical care for older adults is critical, as patients 65 years and older account for more than 40% of all inpatient operations (and increasing).https://www.facs.org/quality-programs/accreditation-and-verification/geriatric-surgery-verification/
  • Before surgery make sure all the legal papers are signed and in order such as a DNR (do not resuscitate), POA (power of attorney), etc., and that you hand over the appropriate signed documents to the medical facility or doctor.
  • If your loved one falls and breaks a hip, or is injured in an accident, you will have to make swift decisions. Keep a copy of the important documents mentioned above in your glove compartment. Be prepared for the patient to experience “delirium” afterward. This is common among people with Alzheimer’s who need general anesthesia. Stay calm. There’s a good chance the patient will recover and revert back to their usual state. However, as mentioned above, 50% of older patients who undergo surgery show cognitive decline afterward.
  • If the surgery is pre-scheduled do everything you can to make the hospital experience as easy as possible. Bring favorite “toys”, music, clothing, foods, etc. Have someone who is comfortable with the patient, and whom the patient is comfortable with, stay overnight, if possible.

Patient delirium

Delirium after surgery is common for older people and those with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a byproduct of anesthesia and the stress of being in an unfamiliar environment where there’s a steady flow of nurses and care providers coming in and out of the room. Remind the nurses to introduce themselves when they come in to care for your loved one. This will help make the experience less stressful.

Your loved one may not remember that they had surgery. Let them know what it was for and that they’ll get better. Tell them where they are, who will visit or already visited, and how long they will be in the hospital.

Try to distract your loved one if they don’t understand what is going on, and if they try to get out of bed. If they normally watch TV, watch it together. Put on their favorite music, or read to them. Aromatherapy essential oils are wonderful for calming down someone with anxiety and agitation.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy can be a resource of comfort to you and your care partner by providing an easy, natural way to reduce stress and anxiety and uplift mood. To make sure you are buying a pure essential oil and not synthetic fragrance oil, look for the botanical name of the plant and the phrase “pure essential oil” on the label. Essential oils can be used in a wide variety of ways, but the most common methods are by inhalation or topical use, such as lotion, body oil, or in a bath. My favorite method which I used for my husband is an electric micro-mist diffuser, and available by mail order or at health food stores. These disperse essential oils into the air in a cool mist or can be gently warmed in a candle-heated aroma lamp that releases the aroma into the air. Another easy way is to add 30-40 drops of essential oils to a 4-ounce water spritz bottle. Favorite oils for reducing stress and anxiety include: lavender, Holy basil, clary sage, geranium, rose, and ylang ylang. Citrus oils uplift the mind and emotions, relieve stress and anxiety, and are useful for appetite support: bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, and orange.

Aromatherapy is also great for caregivers!

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.

10 ways for caregivers to reduce holiday stress

Happy holidays! Thanksgiving is almost here! It’s almost inevitable that most of us feel more stressed during the holiday season. There’s always so much to do if you’re planning to get together with friends and family. And for those who are grieving or alone, the stress can be debilitating. If you’re a caregiver, you’re undoubtedly even more stressed.

The most important thing is to take care of YOU. If you get stressed and exhibit anxiety, those around you are going to feel it. It becomes a vicious cycle. You get stressed, and then the person you care for may get irritable, nervous, or anxious.

Make this your mantra: eat healthily, drink water, take a daily walk, and sleep well. It sounds easy, but how do you do that when your time is limited and you feel stretched in every which way.

Or how do you take care of yourself when you’re so depressed it’s hard to get out of bed? (This is a huge topic that I won’t address here, but you might want to read: Have you tried any of these natural ways to combat depression? https://barbracohn.2018/10/03/have-you-tried-any-of-these-natural-ways-to-combat-depression/

  1. Make a pot of soup that will last several days. Lentil, split pea, vegetable, chicken, butternut squash, and tomato soups are chockful of goodness. See below for a yummy recipe.
  2. Do you really need to drink 8 glasses of water each day? According to an article that recently appeared in the New York Times, the answer is no. It depends on a lot of things: how big you are, how active you are, and how much liquid you’re getting through foods and other drinks such as tea and coffee. I had always thought that caffeinated tea and coffee dehydrate you. But according to this article they don’t. Juicy fruits such as oranges, melons, and pears (not to mention summer fruits), contribute water to your total intake. Just make sure that you’re drinking enough so that you don’t get to the point where you feel thirsty or where your lips feel dry.
  3. Exercise is vital to overall health and stress reduction. Whether you live in a cold or hot climate, dress appropriately and find at least 15 minutes a day to get outside and walk.
  4. Show your care partner (the person you care for) a bit of extra attention if you’re able to. Take them for a drive to see holiday lights. Have an afternoon tea in a charming café. Visit your care partner’s best friend, or have them come for a visit. Buy a new CD of their favorite music and play it for them. Light candles at dinnertime. Have them help you with decorations, if possible.
  5. Plan a visit from a music therapist or animal-assisted (AAT)therapist, or find out where you might find them visiting facilities.
  6. Aromatherapy can be a resource of comfort to you and your care partner by providing an easy, natural way to reduce stress and anxiety and uplift mood. To make sure you are buying a pure essential oil and not synthetic fragrance oil, look for the botanical name of the plant and the phrase “pure essential oil” on the label. Essential oils can be used in a wide variety of ways, but the most common methods are by inhalation or topical use, such as lotion, body oil, or in a bath. My favorite method which I used for my husband is an electric micro-mist diffuser, and available by mail order or at health food stores. These disperse essential oils into the air in a cool mist or can be gently warmed in a candle-heated aroma lamp that releases the aroma into the air. Another easy way is to add 30-40 drops of essential oils to a 4-ounce water spritz bottle. Favorite oils for reducing stress and anxiety include: lavender, Holy basil, clary sage, geranium, rose, and ylang ylang. Citrus oils uplift the mind and emotions, relieve stress and anxiety, and are useful for appetite support: bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, and orange.
  7. Making art can help you regain a sense of balance. If you’re feeling out of control, and are inclined to create art, set aside a table just for art and make it sacred. Gather your materials and have them easily accessible so that the space is prepared for you to focus on the “now” without a lot of distraction. It’s amazing how making art can melt stress once you get into the creative zone. The same goes for playing an instrument. It doesn’t matter what is going on in the world or how I feel, when I sit down at the piano, everything becomes part of the past and I’m able to enjoy the moment. It actually becomes a meditation.
  8. Speaking of meditation, the buzzword these days is “mindfulness.” There are numerous apps and classes that can teach you how to stay present and act with kindness and compassion. You can also take a meditation class such as Transcendental Meditation, where you learn how to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes. TM has been proven to reduce blood pressure, and help the body recharge by reducing stress. It’s easy and anyone who can think a thought can do it.
  9. Keep it simple. You don’t have to make an elaborate feast (unless you’re a cook and love to do that) to make the holidays special. If you want to make it really easy on yourself, order a meal for the number of people at your table. Grocery stores like Whole Foods provide dinners that are yummy and healthy (and yes, a little expensive). Or make the essentials and buy a pie.
  10. This holiday season stop and smell the flavors and enjoy the little things: a walk in the woods, a new baby’s smile, a toddler’s romp, a new sweater, or a pair of socks. Get out the photo albums and reminisce. Watch funny YouTube videos of animals and children. Watch a comedy together. Borrow your neighbor’s dog to take on a walk. Walk in the snow (please wear treaded boots so you don’t fall). Enjoy the moment because time passes quickly and what’s here this year may not be here next year.

While most families are hoping to get together for the first time in a couple of years due to COVID, it’s important to keep abreast of the latest health and safety directives in your area. The number of COVID cases is on the rise again. Please wear a mask when flying, traveling by train or bus, and when you’re in crowded places such as a grocery store. Get a COVID booster and seasonal flu shot. If you feel sick, please stay home! There’s nothing like exposing your loved ones to an illness and having them get sick to make you feel guilty and everyone stressed.

One of my favorite soup recipes to enjoy throughout the winter

Pasta y Fagioli—a one-pot meal, 4 servings

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 carrots cut into 1/4 inch pieces
  • 2 stalks of celery, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1 leek, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces (discard the top, tough stalk or keep to use when making vegetable broth)
  • 1 zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1 yellow squash, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • Herbs of your choice: basil or thyme
  • 1 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 quart of stock –vegetable or chicken. Add water if needed to cover the veggies
  • 2 cans of white beans (navy, butter, or cannellini)
  • 8 oz of pasta of your choice
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Grated parmesan cheese

Heat the oil in a soup pot on medium. Add the onion and cook for about 5 mins., occasionally stirring. Add the other vegetables, until they begin to soften, about 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the broth and tomatoes and their juice.

Separately, cook the amount of pasta you want to put in the soup. Keep the pasta separate or it will turn to mush. Add a serving of pasta to the soup and top with grated cheese. Serve with bread and salad. Delicious!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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.

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.

Easy art projects to do with your care partner when you’re both going nuts

Brush point in watercolor paint closeup

If you’re a caregiver taking care of someone at home, you probably feel like pulling your hair out. It’s tough, especially if you or your care partner, or both of you are experiencing anxiety or stress.

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

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

  1. Making an Inside/Outside Box

Materials:

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Daily or Weekly Mandalas

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

Materials:

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

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

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

  1. Color-Texture-Pattern Feelings Portrait

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

Materials:

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

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

Materials:

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

Materials:

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

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

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

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

6. Process: Breath Drawing

Materials:

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

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


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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.

16 ways to help you get through the anxiety and fear of the pandemic

Empire of the sunWe’re all experiencing some level of anxiety during this crazy time. And if you’re a caregiver, you’re dealing with your own stress and the anxiety of the person you are caring for. Watch for a blog next week about calming the person that you care for. Or, search through the archives on this site.

Here are some practical things that really work to help create order and calm.

  1. First thing in the morning when you wake up say an affirmation or prayer. “This will be a beautiful day,” “I will do the best I can,” I am strong and healthy,” ” I can get through this.” “I am strong and confident.”
  2. Create a schedule and try to stick to it. For example:
  • Shower
  • Make breakfast
  • Do an online yoga or cardio class
  • Wash clothes, clean house
  • Clean your office
  • Work on a creative project, i.e. write, knit, paint, etc.
  • Have lunch
  • Walk outside, if the weather permits
  • Etc.

It seems very simplistic, but it helps. And when you check each item off the list it adds to a sense of accomplishment.

3. Include a self-care ritual in your day. Take a bath, call a friend, do a manicure. Wash and style your hair. Whatever makes you feel good.

4. When the negative thoughts start flowing, stop them in their tracks. I heard about this technique recently from a friend, who got it from her therapist. Change the mental dialogue in your head by replacing the worst case scenario you imagine with a best case scenario. Instead of dwelling on doom and gloom, think hopeful thoughts. Of course, this technique only goes so far. If the person you are caring for has mid- to late -stage Alzheimer’s, for instance, hoping for a total recovery isn’t very likely. But you can still think positive thoughts that focus on what you cherish about the person instead of  what you dislike about his or her behavior. Or when you start to panic about what will happen to your loved one if you get sick, replace that thought with a visualization of being strong and healthy.

5. Watch a funny movie or YouTube video. There are tons of movies online, and as of today, March 20, Hulu is currently offering a free 30-day trial. The Metropolitan Opera is offering Free Live Audio Streams. Vocal artists are offering online concerts while you’re stuck at home.

6. You can work out in your living room thanks to fitness studios that are live-streaming workout classes for yoga, meditation, cardio, etc. free during the coronavirus outbreak.

7. Create a ritual of lighting a candle and playing classical music at dinnertime.

8. Use aromatherapy to calm the nerves and uplift the mood. 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. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

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

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. Do some volunteer work, unless you are a caregiver. Your spiritual/religious community has things you can do to help others like calling congregants to check-in and see if they need anything. Or donate money to a food bank or emergency assistance organization. It’ll make you feel good.

16. It’s officially spring! Get outside and do some yard work. Plant some seeds for a spring garden and watch as the seeds sprout into nature’s gift of flowers and greens.

Stay positive and healthy. We will get through this together.


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.

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10 New Year Resolutions for Caregivers

2020 New year concept. Goals list in stationery, blank clipboard, smartphone, pot plant on pink pastel color with copy spaceYou’re tired, you’re stressed–You and 45 million or so American caregivers. 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 went done that wasn’t going to serve any purpose, least of all our children. They were barely adults when my husband was in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease. They 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 are a caregiver, it’s hard to find the time to go to the gym or even take a shower, somedays. But it’s absolutely vital that you take care of yourself or you will end up getting sick and then who will take care of your loved one? Who will take care of YOU?

Here are 10 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. 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.
  9. Take a multi-vitamin mineral supplement to support your overall health, well-being, and immunity.
  10. 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.

30 Tips for Coping with Holiday Grief

candle lightThe holidays can bring up all sorts of emotions: joy, anxiety, depression and grief, especially if you’re missing a loved one, or if a loved one is a shadow of their former self.

You are entitled to feel any and all emotions as they arise. If you’re at a holiday party and the tears well up, simply excuse yourself until you’re ready to rejoin the group. If you’re overcome with fatigue and grief and simply can’t make it to a party, it’s okay. Make yourself a bowl of popcorn and watch a movie or read a book. But keep in mind that socializing might do you a world of good. The most important thing is that you do what’s best for YOU. So whatever you need to do in order to get through the holiday season, do it in a healthy way. Please don’t rely on alcohol or drugs to numb your feelings.

Here are some suggestions for feeling your emotions and feeling your best, while remembering your loved ones during the holidays and beyond.

  1. Be honest with yourself and with others. Tell them what you’d like to do and what you’d prefer not to do.
  2. Create a new tradition in honor of your loved one, i.e. if you typically hosted a dinner, set a place setting and serve your loved one’s favorite dish.
  3. Decide where you want to spend the holidays. Maybe go to a new place or take a trip with another widow or widower whom you met in a support group.
  4. If you’ve had a hard time discarding your loved one’s clothes, think about donating them to a homeless shelter, etc.
  5. Start journaling. It’s a wonderful way to express your feelings and get things off your chest.
  6. Write a letter to your loved one and express your love, your sadness, grief, guilt, etc.
  7. Place two chairs facing one another. Sit in one and speak out loud the words you would like to express to your loved one. Tell him or her how much you miss them, or express your anger and guilt, etc.
  8. Watch what you eat. You should definitely enjoy your favorite foods, but don’t use grief as an excuse to overindulge in foods that aren’t good for you.
  9. Splurge on a gift for yourself!
  10. Help out at a shelter or food bank, or make a donation in honor of your loved one.
  11. Don’t overcommit. You don’t need to make the holiday meal, if you’re not up to it.
  12. It’s okay to be happy. It’s the holidays! Don’t feel guilty for enjoying yourself. It won’t diminish the love you have in your heart for your loved one.
  13. Read a book that will help identify your feelings and cope more easily with grief. I recommend these two: The Empty Chair: Handling Grief on Holidays and Special Occasions by Ed.D Zonnebelt-Smeenge, Susan J. R.N. and Robert C. De Vries | Sep 1, 2001. The Secret Life of Grief: A Memoir by Tanja Pajevic, 2016, 2016
  14. Get a massage.
  15. Use aromatherapy. Citrus oils are generally refreshing and uplifting for the mind and emotions, relieve stress and anxiety.  Consider: bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, and orange. Floral oils are often used as a personal fragrance and are useful to relieve anxiety, depression, and irritability. These oils are useful as an inhaler, in a body lotion, and for the bath. Consider: clary sage, geranium, lavender, rose, and ylang ylang.
  16. Get the sleep that you need.
  17. Make an appointment with a professional therapist if you need help.
  18. Eat a serving of high-quality protein with every meal and snack
  19. Focus on complex carbohydrates (whole grains, veggies and fruits), and eliminate junk foods (refined carbs).
  20. Enjoy unlimited amounts of fresh veggies.
  21. Eat a good breakfast!
  22. Eat 3 balanced meals and 1-2 snacks/day.
  23. Magnesium, B complex, fish-oil, walnuts, flax seeds, dark leafy greens, and high quality all help reduce stress and uplift mood.
  24. Meditate, light a candle, or find some quiet time for yourself.
  25. Take a multi-vitamin mineral supplement to support your overall health, well-being, and immunity.
  26. Exercise! At least take a short walk every day.
  27. Put on a CD, vinyl record or the radio and listen to your favorite music. Dancing as though no one is watching. There is nothing like music or dance to uplift the spirit.
  28. Put on a funny YouTube video and laugh.
  29. Meet a friend for a chat over coffee. Having a good chat and/or laugh, either via telephone or in person does wonders.
  30. Do the best you can. Try to relax and enjoy your family and friends.

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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.

What if your dementia patient becomes abusive, aggressive or violent?

Angry, enraged senior woman yelling at a landline office phone, unhappy with customer service provided by the agent on the other side, giving off steam and smokeMy husband Morris was a gentle man. But occasionally, if things didn’t go his way, he would get nasty. Once Alzheimer’s took his brain hostage, he exhibited a darker side. But only when he was frustrated or confused.

Morris spent the last two years of his life in a memory care home. He was popular among the staff because he liked to goof around. When he walked the halls listening to music on his Walkman, he’d have a smile on his face and swagger to the rhythm. But if another resident got in his way, watch out. If it was crowded in the dining room and someone accidentally bumped him, he’d swing his arm out to shoo that person away. When one of his neighbors walked into Morris’s room mistaking it for his own, the two got into a rumble on the bed and fought like school boys. After this happened a couple more times, the neighbor was moved to the opposite side of the facility.

When Morris hit a resident in the dining room, the on-call physician prescribed a depressant to “calm him down.” Morris reacted to the drug by transforming into a zombie who slumped in his chair and slept too many hours during the day. I insisted that he get off the drug and Morris returned to his mostly cheerful self.

I once had a next door neighbor whose wife had Alzheimer’s. She threatened to kill her husband with a knife and then went on to slash a painting hanging in their living room. Was she or Morris responsible for their actions? No. A person with dementia is not responsible for acts of violence because as the disease progresses, neurons in the cortex that are responsible for language, reasoning and social behavior are destroyed. This leads to some Alzheimer’s patients engaging in aggressive or violent behavior such as biting, kicking, spitting, slapping, punching, and/or using foul language.

Research from the National Institutes of Health indicates that up to 96 percent of patients with dementia who were studied over a 10-year-period exhibited aggressive behavior at one time or other. In 2011, CNN Health reported that 5 to 10 percent of Alzheimer’s patients exhibit violent behavior at some point during the course of the disease.

There is usually a reason for aggressive behavior.

What to watch out for

  • Urinary tract infection
  • Pain or stress
  • Loneliness, depression
  • Too much noise or stimulation
  • Boredom
  • Constipation
  • Soiled diaper or underwear
  • Uncomfortable room temperature
  • Physical discomfort (stomach ache, etc)
  • Confusion
  • Anger about loss of freedom (to drive, living independently)
  • Drug reaction or contra-indication
  • Resistance against being told what to do such as bathing
  • Sudden change in routine, environment or caregiver
  • Communication problems
  • Hunger or not liking the food
  • Dehydration

What to do

  1. If your life or the life of the person you care for is in danger, get help immediately!
  2. The Alzheimer’s Association has a 24-hour helpline at 800-272-3900.
  3. Rule out UTIs, pain, discomfort, etc.
  4. Use an essential oil to help calm the person down. When my husband got agitated I’d put a few drops of oil on a cotton pad inside a diffuser and plug it into the wall. He usually calmed down immediately.  The following oils can be used in a diffuser, or put in a bath or fragrance free moisturizer. They can also be sprayed on a pillow or handkerchief. Citrus oils are generally refreshing and uplifting for the mind and emotions, relieve stress and anxiety, and are useful for odor management and appetite support. Consider: bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, and orange. Floral oils are often used as a personal fragrance and are useful to relieve anxiety, depression, and irritability. These oils are useful as an inhaler, in a body lotion, and for the bath. Consider: clary sage, geranium, lavender, rose, and ylang ylang. Tree oils are revitalizing with immune boosting properties, ease respiratory congestion, and are supportive to breathing ease. They are useful for pain relief, skin infections, and odor management, and can relieve nervous exhaustion and depression. Consider: eucalyptus (Eucalytpus citriodora or globulus), pine needle, sandalwood, or Tea Tree.
  5. Reassure your patient by speaking gently and calmly.
  6. Play calming music, i.e. Mozart
  7. Try to distract the person with a TV show, favorite snack (ice cream almost always works), or a walk outside.
  8. Maintain a regular routine.
  9. Make sure the lighting is suitable in the home or facility.
  10. Help the person to maintain as much dignity and independence as possible.
  11. Make sure the person is eating a nutritious low-sugar, low-salt diet, with no or very limited amounts of alcohol and caffeine.

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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.