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Giving Thanks Series: Caregivers Need Care, Too

caregiver helping her client

Many people with disabilities rely on the help of dedicated caregivers to lead an active and healthy life. Being a caregiver is rewarding, but the hours can be long and draining. That’s why, as part of our Giving Thanks series, we wanted to dedicate this post to caregivers. Also, we wanted to provide them with some helpful resources. With all that caregivers do for their clients, we wanted to take the opportunity to thank them and encourage them to take care of themselves, too!

There are some basic self-care strategies that caregivers can use to prevent burnout and stress. Further, there are also organizations dedicated to supporting caregivers.

Self-Care for Caregivers

For caregivers, it can sometimes feel like there’s no time for their own self-care, or that they shouldn’t take time away from their client or loved one to attend to their own needs. Instead, taking some time for self-care can help caregivers do a better job of caring for others. Ignoring your own needs can lead to burnout and chronic stress.

Having trouble thinking of ways you can take care of yourself as a caregiver? Here are some tips to get started:

  • Get enough rest. You need good quality sleep to keep up with your daily responsibilities.
  • Stay hydrated and nourished with quality food. Carry a big water bottle to make sure you’re hydrating during the day, and pack a healthy lunch when you can. Try not to skip breakfast.
  • Try meditation and coping mechanisms for stress. You could try a morning meditation practice before your day begins. Alternatively, you could learn some short mantras that you can repeat in stressful moments. For example, “Let it go” or “This will pass” could work.
  • Find a hobby and do something you enjoy on a regular basis. Making time for your own interests can help you avoid caregiver burnout.
  • Ask for help. You can’t do it all alone, whether you need someone to fill in for you so you can get a break, or you just need a supportive friend to listen–it’s not easy to ask for help, but it’s worth it.

Resources for Caregivers

When you need more than basic self-care, there are organizations that are there to help. These groups can provide valuable advice and support, facilitate connections with other caregivers, and help caregivers stay up-to-date on new policies and resources. Thus, here are some of the organizations that caregivers can reach out to for assistance:

National Center on Caregiving: This group can help you with policy issues, caregiver education, and information about the latest research.

Caregiver Action Network: CAN fosters community among caregivers and provides resources tailored to caring for specific types of patients.

National Family Caregiver Support Program: This federal program provides caregivers with access to services, training, and respite care.

Support for ALS Caregivers: The ALS Association provides connections to respite care, an online calendar to help families coordinate care, and educational information specific to ALS caregivers.

National Organization for Rare Disorders Caregiver Resource Center: Caring for someone with a rare disease can feel isolating. Thus, NORD provides resources including educational videos and webinars, connections to resources for specific conditions, and financial support.

Well Spouse Association: This organization supports spousal caregivers by facilitating in-person and online support groups, providing connections to respite care, and hosting conferences and special events.

Taking Care of Yourself

It’s natural for caregivers to feel hesitant or guilty about asking for help. However, we want you to know that taking care of yourself makes you a more effective caregiver. We hope that you find the resources you need to support your own health, happiness, and motivation. Thank you for all that you do! Contact us to learn more.

Meditation’s Proven Benefits for Caregivers and Older Adults

Gyms and spas have been boasting the benefits of meditation and yoga for quite some time, and many people find it to be a great outlet for reducing stress. Two recent studies–one focusing on senior adults and the other focusing on caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients–show that meditation does indeed reduce stress and loneliness.

The first study was conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s J. David Creswell and provides the first evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces loneliness in older adults. Loneliness has been proven to be a major risk factor for health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s, and death in our senior population. Attempts at community based programs such as community centers and senior socialization programs have been largely ineffective, so the idea that meditation could be a fix for the problem is encouraging.

“We always tell people to quit smoking for health reasons, but rarely do we think about loneliness in the same way,” said Creswell, assistant professor of psychology within CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems and mortality in older adults. This research suggests that mindfulness meditation training is a promising intervention for improving the health of older adults.”

In the study, researchers studied 40 healthy adults ranging in age from 55-85 who had an interest in learning about mindfulness meditation techniques. Each was assessed at the beginning of the study, and again at the end, using an established loneliness scale. Blood samples were also collected. Half of the participants received the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. They spent two hours each week learning body awareness techniques, which they practiced 30 minutes each day. They also attended a day long retreat.

The results were interesting. In addition to reporting decreased loneliness, the group that participated in the MBSR program also had lower levels of pro-inflammatory gene expression in their immune cells than they did at the beginning of the program.

“Reductions in the expression of inflammation-related genes were particularly significant because inflammation contributes to a wide variety of the health threats including cancer, cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative diseases,” said study collaborator Steven Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine. “These results provide some of the first indications that immune cell gene expression profiles can be modulated by a psychological intervention.”

Mindfulness Meditation for Caregivers

The second study took place at UCLA and was led by Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a senior author, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and director of the UCLA’s Late-Life Depression, Stress, and Wellness Research Program. The study looked at the stress levels in family caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients and the benefits of yoga for their day-to-day life.

“We know that chronic stress places caregivers at a higher risk for developing depression,” she said “On average, the incidence and prevalence of clinical depression in family dementia caregivers approaches 50 percent. Caregivers are also twice as likely to report high levels of emotional distress.”

The study participants were randomly placed in two groups. One group was taught the 12-minute yoga practice, which included Kirtan Kriya Meditation (KKM). The yoga practice was done each day at the same time for eight weeks. The second group listened to instrumental music on a relaxation CD for 12 minutes each day, also at the same time each day. Blood samples were taken at the beginning and end of the study. The results showed that 68 genes responded differently after the KKM practice, which resulted in a lower immune system inflammation response. When inflammation is continually activated, it contributes to many problems.

“The goal of the study was to determine if meditation might alter the activity of inflammatory and antiviral proteins that shape immune cell gene expression,” said Lavretsky. “Our analysis showed a reduced activity of those proteins linked directly to increased inflammation. This is encouraging news. Caregivers often don’t have the time, energy, or contacts that could bring them a little relief from the stress of taking care of a loved one with dementia, so practicing a brief form of yogic meditation, which is easy to learn, is a useful too.”

Mindfulness and yogic chanting–our view of health and medicine keeps getting broader and more all-encompassing every day!


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How to Recognize When When Disability Care-Giving Becomes Stressful

How to Approach Additional Stress Associated with Being a Caregiver

Most people deal with stress that stems from their jobs and daily routine responsibilities. The days can be especially stressful for people who are caretakers of relatives with disabilities or illness, and it can often become overwhelming. Just ask Crystal Lake, Illinois resident Chris Stephan. In 2007, Stephan was coping with her rocky marriage, and she was in the process of switching jobs. To compound matters, her elderly father suffered a brain jury after an accidental fall.

“I spent November and December of 2007 and January and February of 2008 with dad at the hospital and rehab center,” she said. “Then I brought him back to his town house and realized he couldn’t navigate stairs.”

It eventually became too much for Stephan. “It was chaos,” she said. “You tend to go through a lot of depression with stuff like this because you see yourself as failing. You set ridiculously high standards, so when you can’t do it, it triggers that depression. You get into this tunnel thinking. And it drags you down physically, as well. In my case, I suffered a lot of anxiety. Sure, there’s Valium or Xanax, but I’d rather not go through life that way.”

Head-on Approach to Handling Stress from Personal Life or Caregiving

Stephen reached out to Blair Counseling for help, where she worked with founder and licensed clinical professional counselor Dan Blair and fellow counselor Eric Bruemmer to learn how to manage her stress. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, residents in U.S metropolitan areas rated their stress level as a 5.2 on a scale from one to 10, with their ideal stress level being a 3.6. Family issues, money, and concerns about the economy were the primary sources of stress for the survey participants. Regardless of the trigger or degree of stress, many of the ways to deal with it are the same, although it does depend on a person’s response to stress.

“It’s always good to recognize what is in your control and what is not,” Blair said. “Taking action when action is required, and recognizing when to let go is crucial. Define your desired outcomes, and list behaviors and thoughts that lead to that outcome. Then practice acceptance of those events and thoughts which are out of your control.”

“Two sides of managing both major and minor stressful events is taking action and practicing acceptance,” Blair continued. “Acceptance often cannot occur without a grieving process.”

Blair’s advice applies to all of the stressors in your life. Whether you’re stressed from juggling a busy schedule or from dealing with a health crisis, you must take measures to ensure you’re prepared for stress when it hits. If you don’t, your physical and mental health will pay the price.

Recognize the Symptoms of Stress and Seek Counseling

“There are two reasons stress affects us physically,” Blair said. “One is that the fight-or-flight system is meant to be short term. Chronic engagement of this leads to excess adrenaline and cortisol and other hormones secreted, meaning the body is under stress. The heart rate is increased, it affects all major organs, and the body is just not built to sustain this long term. So over time, chronic stress can lead to disease and also increase the chance of accidents.”

According to Mary Krueger, a licensed clinical professional, there are outward signs that indicate when stress is taking a physical and mental toll.

“Some people might find that they can no longer function optimally,” Krueger said. “Friends and family members may notice the changes before you do. Listen to them and take a personal inventory of how you’re functioning. When you’re walking around in a dialed-up, anxious state, stress is a problem.”

Recognize and Reduce Stress by Healthy Manner like Exercise or Activities

Recognizing the effects of your stress is first important step, according to Krueger. The next step is finding healthy ways to manage your stress, such as exercise, relaxation techniques, eating healthier, seeking a support system or professional help. What you don’t want to do is resort to unhealthy methods of stress-reduction such as procrastinating, overeating, drinking or smoking excessively, becoming irritable, and shutting out loved ones.

Through counseling, Stephan learned how to achieve balance in her life. She even managed to carve out time for an eight-week Spanish course for fun. Seeking counseling and making some adjustments helped her become a more relaxed person.

“When you’re in the middle of crisis mode, everything is overwhelming, everything is a priority,” she said. “In reality, no one can do everything and not everything is an ‘A’ priority. Not everything is life and death. So it helps you to look back and say, ‘What’s an absolute must?’ In my case, my dad was an ‘A’ priority, but I can offload running to the grocery. That’s why you have support systems.”

And when things got really tough, Stephan liked to remember one of her favorite prayers. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”


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