5 Ways to get into the Zen of Caregiving

purity of the zen massageI have caregiver burnout. I cared for my husband, who had Alzheimer’s disease, for 10 years. Before that I flew back and forth from Colorado to Florida whenever one of my parents had a health crisis (which was frequent). My daughter just had a baby, and I’d love to be there for her, but my mother has pneumonia and congestive heart failure. I am torn between helping my daughter and her beautiful, young family, and my elderly failing mother. I am flying to Florida for a few days and then back to Colorado. And I will probably be doing this again in the coming month. I tell myself, “you need to take care of yourself. You need to keep your head above water.” Easier said than done. But I learned a lot during the course of my husband’s illness. I know how important it is to meditate, do yoga, dance and eat and sleep well.

Caregiving is a huge challenge, and it’s very easy to let the responsibility of caring for an ill friend or relative become a yoke around one’s neck. But with practice and mindfulness it can turn into a spiritual practice. How?

  1. When you wake up in the morning let your first thought be, “I’m going to have a great day. It will be filled with joy and laughter, and I will maintain equanimity.” Be grateful for your ability to see, hear, walk, and serve your loved one. Other affirmations that you might like: I will remain calm and present throughout the day. I welcome peace, trust, and acceptance into my life. I’m feeling strong and healthy today. I am a kind, compassionate caregiver.
  2. Instead of reacting with anxiety or impatience to a stressful situation or annoying behavior such as constant complaining, asking the same question repeatedly, pacing up and down the hall, stop and breathe. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Do it again, and again. Now stop and ask yourself how you feel? Not too bad. Stretch your arms straight up towards the ceiling. Lower them and do it again, one at a time. Roll your head gently to the right and then to the left, and then slowly in a circle. Look to your right, center and then to the left. Take another deep breath and let it out slowly. Feel your body relax.
  3. Focus on the present. Instead of worrying about taking your loved one to a doctor’s appointment and anticipating how he or she will react or what news you will hear, put your attention on something beautiful—inside your home or out the window. If the sky is blue, appreciate its beauty. Listen to the birds singing and appreciate the miracle of their song. Look at a painting on the wall and really look at the colors, the brush strokes, and the image. Imagine the spark that inspired the artist during the creative process, and let it inspire you to get through the day while maintaining a positive outlook.
  4. Light a candle and have your care partner sit down next to you. Enjoy the glow, letting it calm your nerves. Match your breathing to your care partner’s and find your peace.
  5. Keep a journal. It’s a wonderful, easy way to get your concerns, fears, hopes, and dreams out without relying on your therapist or best friend. Use a writing prompt to get you going such as “I never thought. . . . It’s so hard to . .. “I’ll always remember . . .

These are just a few things that can ease the stress of caregiving. Have courage; find strength from the simple things.

The loneliness of caregiving: How to stay socially connected

Closeup of old woman hands holding mobile phone

Woman with mobile phone

My husband had younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The hardest thing for me during the duration of his illness was that I lost my companion. He was the person I made important decisions with. The person I went to movies with, ate dinner with, had interesting conversations with, traveled with, and shared delight with over the accomplishments of our children. He was the one I could complain to if I had a headache, stomach ache, or sore throat, without worrying about being called a hypochondriac or a baby. He was also the person who always cheered me on when I succeeded in achieving my goals.

When it came time to make the decision to move him to a memory care home, I especially missed having him help me decide on which room he’d live in, what type of furniture to buy, and the mattress he would sleep on. When it came time to bury him, it was agonizing for me to choose the plot of land where he would be laid to rest, and where I will be eventually interred.

During my many years of caregiving, I would often hide behind a mask of cheerfulness. It helped. I didn’t feel like a prisoner because I hired people to take my husband out to see a movie. Several of his friends kindly took him to lunch on a regular basis. It takes an effort to maintain friends and to stay socially involved, especially if you no longer work outside the home.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t let my husband’s disease ruin my life. I kept an active calendar filled with dance classes, lunches with friends, and even pursued a certificate in nutrition–all the while he was ill.

But it took planning and some might think I was a bit selfish. But when you look at the grand picture of caregiving, taking care of your personal needs is anything but being selfish. Studies show that 40 to 70 percent of family caregivers experience symptoms of clinical depression. One of the reasons, besides the daily stress, is isolation and loneliness.

Now for the lecture part: If you are a caregiver it is vital that you maintain a social network. Here are some ideas:

  • Stay connected with friends and family either through Facebook or another social media outlet, or by telephone or email, etc.
  • Make a lunch date with a friend at least once a week.
  • Many places of worship offer support for caregivers and families, including social events.
  • Go to a class—any kind of class: knitting, dance, weight training.
  • Join a support group—The Alzheimer’s Association offers classes and workshops for caregivers and for the person with memory loss.
  • Ask your friends and family for respite care. Have someone come over for a couple of hours a week so you can at least get out for a walk or go grocery shopping.
  • Go to the movies with a friend. It’s a great way to escape into another world for a few hours.
  • Call a best friend who is happy to talk; call someone who makes you laugh–laughter is truly the best medicine.
  • Bring your loved one to a Memory Cafe/Alzheimer’s Cafe. The challenges of living with memory loss can sever social connection at a time when it is needed most. Throughout the US and Europe, this casual social meeting is for caregivers and their care partner (the person they are caring for). Memory Cafes offer a way to socialize, explore art, music, poetry and listen to discussions and presentations. A Dutch psychologist opened the firs Memory Cafe in Holland. today there are about 200 Memory Cafes in the U.S.
  • Chat online with other caregivers. The Alzheimer’s Association offers chat rooms and so does the American Cancer Society. Check Elder Care Online for chat room and caregiver forum links. ElderCare Online’s Caregiver Support Network brings together online resources, groups and experts to create a virtual community dedicated to improving quality of life for you and your loved ones.

The 5 Most Important Antidotes to Premature Aging

My friend works in a high-stress environment and has to deal with dozens of people of all ages and backgrounds on a daily basis. She is surprised how much older her clients look than their chronological age. There are several possible reasons for this but stress is the number ONE factor responsible for premature aging.

The particular population my friend works with has all kinds of problems, some of which could have been avoided, and some of which are due to bad choices they’ve made. Some of their problems are due to no fault of their own. But the bottom line is they are under considerable stress and stress takes a toll on all aspects of your life including sleep, immunity, and mental health and happiness.

Here are the 5 most important things you can do to relieve stress and prevent premature aging.

1. Meditate. Transcendental Meditation, in particular, calms the mind, reduces oxygen consumption, and allows the body to deeply relax, so that you’re able to face the challenges of the day with a clear mind and more flexibility. Instead of cursing the driver who cuts you off, a regular mediation practice can help you deal with everyday challenges without getting stressed out. Mediators often comment that stress rolls off them like water off a duck’s back.

2. Exercise as a stress reliever has been highly documented in scientific studies. It gets your heart pumping, supports healthy muscles, bones, and flexibility, helps release stress and tension in the body, and makes you feel good because it releases endorphins. Exercise also supports overall health and immunity.

3. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetable. Premature aging results from not getting the recommended daily intake of antioxidants. And I don’t mean in the form of nutritional supplements. If you regularly do not eat the 5-7 recommended servings of fruits and vegetables you will notice the effects, some of which are visible on your face. Brown spots, lines and wrinkles appear prematurely when our cells are being damaged by free radicals produced by the sun, polluted air, chemical laden water, fruits and vegetables, and cigarette smoke. Even worse, free radicals are the culprits in most modern-day diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, many cancers, heart disease and some eye conditions, such as cataracts and macular degeneration.

The good news is there is something you can do to slow down the aging process. Eat your fruits and vegetables because they are a rich source of the antioxidants you need to protect your cells from free radical damage. Go for color and variety.

4. Do not smokeNot only does cigarette smoking take its toll on your lungs, but also it shows up as lines and wrinkles on your face. Those premature wrinkles show up other places, as well, like on your inner arms. The nicotine in cigarettes causes the narrowing of the blood vessels in the outermost layers of your skin. Blood flow is restricted, which means your skin doesn’t get the oxygen and other nutrients it needs to stay supple and healthy. There are more than 4,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke that hinder collagen and elastin production. These are the fibers that make your skin smooth and supple. Additionally, smokers usually purse their lips when inhaling and squint their eyes to avoid smoke getting in their eyes. Both of these habits contribute to premature wrinkling, and all of the above contribute to sagging skin. The remedy? Don’t smoke!

5. Sleep tight. There is no substitute for a good nights’ sleep. Most of us require 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night to perform our best. Adequate sleep repairs your body, sharpens your mind and stabilizes emotions. Lack of sleep triggers the body to increase production of cortisol, which makes it harder to fall asleep and stay in a deep sleep because on some level your body and brain think they need to stay alert for danger. Added to that, increased cortiosol production leads to weight gain.

The adrenals increase gluconeogenesis, which provides the body with glucose from protein, rather than carbohydrates.  This decreases serotonin and melatonin, which results in poor sleep and leads to food cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods in order to uplift mood, which releases more serotonin and insulin. This leads to more stress and insulin production to regulate glucose, which may lead to fat storage, weight gain and insulin resistance. It becomes a vicious cycle. (Raäikkonen, 2007)

Insufficient sleep is also associated with lower levels of leptin, a hormone that alerts the brain that it has enough food, as well as higher levels of ghrelin, a biochemical that stimulates appetite. Consequently, poor sleep may result in food cravings. (Healthy Sleep, http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/consequences/sleep-and-disease-risk)

So if you want to slow down your aging, and look younger than you are, include the following in your daily health regimen:

1)    Exercise

2)    Meditation

3)    Antioxidants

4)    Regular, restful sleep

5)    And Don’t Smoke!

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