“Caregivers need to know there is help for them, not just for the memory-impaired patients for whom they are responsible,” says Dr. Jordan Balencic, primary care physician and CEO of ERApeutics®.
It’s hard to smile when those you love no longer remember you. More than 16 million people in the United States alone care for someone with Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia.
Research about these cognitive disorders is increasing, but what about support for caregivers . . . the people dealing day-to-day with the impacts of Alzheimer’s and dementia?
“Scientific studies focused on hope and help for caregivers are taking place. Some of the best work centers around the effects of Life Enhancing Activities for Family Caregivers (LEAF),” says Jordan Balencic, DO, a primary care physician and CEO of ERApeutics®.
Learning is the First Step to Coping
While life as a caregiver can be rewarding, it’s no secret that it can also be overwhelming and painful, says Dr. Balencic.
“As the disease progresses, many caregivers may become frustrated by their loved one’s inability to communicate their thoughts and saddened by their inability to remember people’s names,” he says. “The disease eventually takes away independence so that caregivers become fully immersed in the care of their loved one struggling with dementia.”
Dr. Balencic’s grandfather has dementia, and his Uncle has been his primary caregiver.
“When my grandfather struggles for words, he will occasionally say very unkind things to those around him. That’s very out of character for him because he was never someone who would say anything mean or hurtful. I’ve seen how much his words can hurt my Uncle’s feelings. I see a lot of caregivers struggle through this.
“It’s important to remember that the person you are caring for is still the same person you love living behind the disease. The best thing anyone can do is become educated about the disease and learn about the progress of dementia so you can better empathize and understand your loved one,” he says.
Because most caregiver support is based on surviving, not thriving, the results of a Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine LEAF study are exciting.
8 Ways to Get Your Happy Back
Using online learning, Northwestern researchers taught caregivers eight ways to cope with daily stress, focusing on getting their “happy” back. Happily, people who practiced the eight positive steps had a seven percent drop in depression and a nine percent decrease in anxiety compared to the control group.
Even better news?
Everyone can follow the skills taught to participants in the six-week study:
- Recognizing a positive event each day
- Savoring that positive event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it
- Starting a daily gratitude journal
- Listing a personal strength each day and noting how you used this strength recently
- Setting an attainable goal each day and noting your progress
- Reporting a relatively minor stressor each day, then listing ways in which the event can be positively reappraised or reframed
- Understanding small acts of kindness can have a big impact on positive emotion and practicing a small act of kindness each day
- Practicing mindfulness through paying attention to daily experiences and doing a daily 10-minute breathing exercise.
Judith Moskowitz, professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, lead study author, said she wasn’t sure how many caregivers would be able to complete the program because “they are such a stressed, burdened group. But they were engaged and committed, which speaks to how much they need programs like this.”
According to a 2018 report by the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.7 million Americans were estimated to have Alzheimer’s disease. Approximately 14 percent of people 71 and older have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, the report said.
“Caregivers’ needs are increasing in proportion to the increases in those diagnosed with cognitive disorders,” said Dr. Balencic, “and we have to do a better job providing emotional as well as physical assistance. I’m glad to see that online learning is working so that people can pick up new ideas from the comfort of their homes.”