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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Alzheimer's: Balancing needs of caregiver and loved one

Special to

As an Alzheimer's caregiver, you may feel as if you're riding a roller coaster — never sure of what the next curve may bring. It's incredibly stressful; yet it can also be rewarding.

Rocked by this dizzying mix of emotions, you walk a tightrope, balancing your own needs against those of your loved one. Learning to recognize and defuse stress can make it easier to keep your balance. Focusing on the rewards from your efforts also helps.

The rewards of caregiving

"Two of the main things I hear people talk about are feelings of satisfaction in making good on a commitment and in paying back loved ones," says Glenn Smith, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Mayo Clinic,Rochester, Minn.

Another reward Dr. Smith notes is a sense of accomplishment. "People often express that they realize they are stronger than they ever thought they could be," he says.

The benefits of caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease won't always be obvious to you. That's normal.

"It's important that people don't try to deny the grief that they may feel," says Dr. Smith. "To work through that grief is part of the growth a person can experience."

According to Dr. Smith, some of the ways in which you can address your grief — and still reap rewards — include:

* Accept your grief and understand it as a normal process.
* Set realistic goals and recognize that at some point you may not be able to continue to provide total care.
* Take stock of what you have accomplished and the goals you have met.

Are you a 'hidden patient'?

Caring for someone with Alzheimer's can be all-consuming. The stress of caregiving makes you more likely to become ill or depressed. This is especially true if you're older or if you don't get enough help. Even in situations when friends and family are able to help, many caregivers insist on doing everything themselves. Doctors often think of such caregivers as hidden patients.

Common signs of caregiver stress include:

* Depressed mood
* Frequent crying
* Decrease in energy
* Sleeping too little or too much
* Unintended weight gain or loss
* Increased irritability and anger

Taking care of yourself

If you're like a lot of people, you probably take better care of your car than you do yourself. Eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep and staying in touch with friends are just routine maintenance for the average person.

When you're stressed, you need to take even better care of yourself. Schedule times when you can take regular breaks. Maybe a friend can spend time with your loved one, reading a book aloud or watching a movie together, while you get out of the house. Or you might place your loved one in elder care two or three days a week.

Where can you find help?

The National Eldercare Locator can link you to local organizations that provide services to seniors. This site is especially useful for family members who may live some distance from the person with Alzheimer's. All you need is a ZIP code to find the services for that region.

A service of the Administration on Aging, the Eldercare Locator can be accessed via the Internet or by phone. The toll-free number, (800) 677-1116, has operators available Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern time.

Area Agency on Aging (AAA) offices can be found through the Eldercare Locator or in the phone book, under "Aging" or "Social Services."

In addition to senior centers, subsidized housing and adult day care services, AAAs also offer a wealth of in-home services, including:

* Meals-On-Wheels
* Homemakers, who help with such tasks as grocery shopping and housekeeping
* Chore Services, which include minor home repairs and yardwork
* Personal Care Services, which assist with bathing and feeding
* Respite Care, to provide a short break for caregivers

The Alzheimer's Association offers a wide variety of programs, educational materials and support services. Most communities have a regional chapter of the organization, which sponsors local support group meetings.

The Alzheimer's Association also provides:

* A 24-hour, toll-free Contact Center (800) 272-3900 that links callers to information about the disease, treatments, care strategies and community programs.
* The nation's largest Alzheimer's library, containing more than 5,000 books, journals, audiocassettes, videotapes and CD-ROMs. After browsing the online catalog, you can arrange for interlibrary loans through your local library.
* The Safe Return program, which helps families locate loved ones who have wandered off. More than 100,000 individuals with Alzheimer's have been registered in the program nationwide.

A heartbreaking journey

Watching a loved one travel through the stages of Alzheimer's is heartbreaking. Caring for them during this time is one of the hardest jobs imaginable. It requires an abundance of physical and emotional energy. Accepting help and taking care of yourself are crucial to success.

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