Dementia caregivers are often solo caregivers of a Person with Dementia (PWD) for ten or more years before reaching out for help from skilled nursing facilities or assisted living and memory care communities. The stress, exhaustion, and intense level of care involved means dementia caregivers are placing their own health and in many cases their own lives at risk.
But being a dementia caregiver means you may not have the time or energy or financial means to take a vacation, go shopping, go to dinner or the movies, or go anywhere else, especially in these coming days and months.
The following are a variety of stress and mindfulness tools to use as you navigate your caregiver journey. These should only take seconds to a few minutes to complete and hopefully give you a moment’s respite during care.
1. Greenstone’s Awesome Ice Breaker
You know that day when everything has gone wrong? Could even be today and right now. You head is spinning, your brain can’t stop spinning, you are overwhelmed and unable to focus. Your heartbeat has intensified, your blood pressure is rising and you can’t think about facing one moment more. When that happens, and it could happen because of caregiving, the virus, finances, family issues, etc., stop everything you are doing.
- Go to the freezer.
- Pick up one or two pieces of ice.
- Go to the sink and hold the ice in one hand over the sink so as not to drip on your floor.
- Wrap your fingers tightly around the ice.
- Shut your eyes.
- Stop talking.
- Breathe only through your nose.
*Your brain’s primary function is to monitor, order, and oversee the body, and emotions, and the body comes first in priority. Instinctive behavior overrules learned behavior here.
*Your brain will immediately stop spinning. It will rapidly close down all the processes that are making you feel overwhelmed.
*The ice in your hand, remember one hand only, forces the brain back to its primary function of monitoring the body.
*You are tricking your brain because the ice cube sensation in your hand is both extremely cold and also causing a burning sensation.
*You will be calmer within four breaths.
Perform this throughout the day as needed.
2. Cooling off quickly.
Stress can be so overwhelming and so can anger, frustration, exhaustion, both physical and mental. Blood pressure rises and suddenly you may feel overwhelmed and even faint. Wet a cloth in cold water, wring it out, and place the cloth against your carotid arteries on both sides of your neck. Immediate relief should be followed by you sitting down in a chair, shutting your eyes, and taking ten slow deep breaths in and out through your nose.
3. Ask For Help
Your children are still afraid of you; they don’t always understand that you need help. Too many times family caregivers have an appearance of having everything under control. The reality may be just the opposite. Give your family and friends, neighbors, church and synagogue family things to do. People want to help but they are scared and don’t know what to do.
*Children live in another state? Maybe they can pay for a professional caregiver to come for a day each month, so you can nap or do whatever you need to do.
*Ask someone to mow your yard.
*Ask for a house cleaning.
*Organize a couple of weekly “visitors” for coffee (decaf of course) or a ride or a walk.
*Ask a church member to assist getting your loved one ready and to church on Sundays.
*Someone you know is wanting to make you a cake or pie.
Keep track of your journey. We know writing about your pain, your fears, and your hopes, makes us feel better. It grounds us and keeps us connected to ourselves.
*Make one area in your book just for the funny stuff that gets said or happens. It will bring you great solace and joy as time passes.
*Daily or weekly, just do it!
*When you start thinking you didn’t do enough, go read your journal and remember you did the best you could every day.
5. Meditation Things
Meditation helps our bodies, blood pressure, heart, emotions, and fires up our brain’s plasticity, connections and wiring. Meditation has a host of benefits for our brains and our stress levels. Your brain naturally produces stress hormones when you become overwhelmed or anxious. The normal stress response is intended to be short term as a safety reaction to danger. But your stress levels go on and on. Meditation helps and it can be done in many forms.
The purpose of meditation is to focus and slow the brain, to allow it to be only involved with a few things going on around you and in your body. It is literally exercise for your brain. Meditation is not going to have the same results for your loved one, because their brain is dying. But the benefits for you are extraordinary. Meditation allows us to find perspective, relaxation, and peace. Did I mention your brain loves to do these things?
Here are a few more ways to relax and take a break:
- Meditation with an Adult Coloring Book – These detailed pictures cause your brain to slow down and focus. They are available in every imaginable form, from flowers to animals to mandalas. The detail is what slows your brain down. Also note that since so many of us no longer write with a pen or pencil, liquid water brush pens may cause less hand and finger cramping. The books are available online, at bookstores, and at some family chain restaurants. Enjoy!
- Spiritual reading
- Daily devotional or humorous reading
- A few moments outside in sunshine
- A walk to the mailbox
- Cooking (for some people this is very relaxing)
- Sitting quietly outside
6. Breathe Four Times
When we become too stressed, our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is overwhelmed. The ANS oversees the heart, blood pressure, upper and lower digestion, to name a few of its functions. We all need and want it working correctly.
In order to realign your ANS, just try four breaths. You will breathe in through your nose to the count of seven and blow out through your mouth to the count of four. Counting helps you to help your brain slow down. Repeat this breathing four times to start and gradually over a week or so, work up to ten breaths. As you do this exercise remember to sit down, shut your eyes, keep your hands on your lap, and keep your feet flat on the floor.
Because you are a caregiver though, your ANS may need multiple daily adjusting moments. Try this breathing technique throughout each day.
*If your loved one is in a community, breathe four times in your car before you step inside of the building. When you end your visit, breath four times before you start for home. When you get to your home, breathe four times again.
*Breathe before you watch the news.
*Breathe before you start your day.
*Listen to your body telling you when stress gets high and stop and breathe.
*Breathe before you start care.
*Step away and breathe when you feel yourself being overwhelmed.
*You can even think “Breathe in peace” as you inhale and “Breath out pain” as you exhale.
7. Laugh for Pete’s Sake
What you are doing is hard! Cut yourself a break and watch comedy shows, listen to comedy radio or podcasts. Laughter attacks stress hormones, laughter makes the heart feel lighter, laughter gets us through dark times.
Avoid heavy dramas or horror or tear jerkers (unless it really is your genre of movie) and laugh out loud.
You can also use Google or YouTube to find a daily joke or funny story.
8. Grief Tears
Often, dementia caregivers will remark that they realize they want to cry and maybe even “need” to cry but they stop themselves from doing so. A common explanation is that “If I start crying, I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop.” That is a very normal way to feel, especially when you are emotionally and physically exhausted. The chemicals produced and kept in our brains as we grieve loss are referred to as “toxic.” And these toxins are removed through “grief tears.”
Grief tears are different than I stubbed my toe tears. These tears cleanse us, allow us to move forward in our grief. The act of shedding these tears cleans our brain of the toxin, allowing us to take a deep breath and start again, oddly renewed. You will stop crying. It may take a lot of tissue, but you will run out of tears.
Remember when you finish crying to do something nice for yourself and of course chocolate always helps! (Hot chocolate is a serious stress and grief reliever!)
9. Scream About It!
Okay this stress relief technique can scare you. It will certainly scare your dog or cat. And if the neighbors hear you, well then expect a call from the local law enforcement.
Caregivers can be carrying a great deal of anger inside. Anger at the doctors. Anger at the disease. Anger that you didn’t get better information. Anger at your loved one. Anger at retirement. Fear and anger about the financial cost of care. Anger that no one is helping you. Anger at what the disease is doing to your loved one.
All of your anger emotions are completely normal things to feel. But anger eats at us, it erodes us, it makes us behave in ways we may not be proud of. So let’s get the anger out.
You will need a shower, radio, TV, and a kitchen towel.
- Turn on the shower.
- Then turn on the radio and TV and turn them up really loud.
- Place the dog or cat in another room so they cannot hear what you are doing.
- I am assuming you are in your bathroom with the shower turned on, radio and TV blasting.
- Take a moment to breathe and prepare yourself for the scream and sound you are about to make. It may frighten you due to the sound and emotion of the scream.
- Twist the kitchen towel tightly, bite the center of the towel and scream as hard and as loud as you can.
- Try not to cry. The purpose is to tap into the anger and let it out, so try to scream for as long as you have energy. Scream out the anger before letting the tears come.
- You may need to scream several times. Each time focus on removing the anger.
- You may feel exhausted when you finish this. Your throat will feel sore for a few minutes or hours. You may nap or sleep afterwards.
- Turn off the shower, radio, and TV before going to bed.
10. Reality Stomp
Sometimes as caregivers we are so overwhelmed, we begin to live in the “What If” time zone. What if this or that happens? What if my loved one dies? What if my loved one doesn’t die? What if I run out of money? What if?
None of us can tell the future, but all of us can handle right now. When your thinking begins to spiral out of control with the future and what if thinking, just stop.
- Stand up.
- Raise your leg and foot and stomp back down. Remind yourself all you have is what is right here, right now.
- Raise your right leg and foot and stomp down. Remind yourself all you have control over is right now.
- Repeat and breathe.
Our bodies naturally store stress in the muscles of our necks, shoulders, and upper arms. So stretch the stress out. Stretch in the morning before you get out of bed. Stretch when you stand. Stretch in the afternoon. Stretch before bed. And breathe.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation consists of techniques where we are breathing in and out through the nose at a slower pace. And as we breathe, beginning either at the head or at the toes, we move through the body to tighten and relax each set of muscles.
Tensing and tightening the muscle tissue forces oxygenated blood out of the cells. When we relax the muscles, oxygenated blood floods the tissue, giving us a relaxed state in those muscles.
Use this technique before bed or if you wake up and can’t go back to sleep. If you are doing this during the day, make sure your eyes are closed, you are sitting in a comfortable chair, your feet are flat on the floor, and your hands are in your lap.
- Start breathing in and out through your nose.
- Curl your toes and tighten your feet and continue to breathe through your nose for five breaths.
- Relax your toes and feet. Tighten your legs and calves. Really tight, clinch hard for the legs. Continue to breathe easy and slow for five breaths.
- Relax your legs and calves. Tighten your buttocks so tight you raise up a couple of inches in your chair or bed. Keep breathing slowly for five breaths.
- Relax your buttocks and keep breathing. Tighten your back, pull your shoulder blades together, flex your arms and biceps like Superman, and make fists. Tighten your back, shoulders, arms and fists as tight as you can and breathe five times slowly in and out through your nose.
- Relax your back, shoulders, arms and hands. Wrinkle your forehead, tighten your cheek bones, clench your jaw, and breathe five times.
- Relax your face. Breathe.
These are two books about normal aging and I encourage you to read them:
- The Mature Mind by Dr. Gene Cohen
- The Creative Age by Dr. Gene Cohen
Visit Dr. Kristin Neff’s website. She studies how kind we are to ourselves. Take her five minute test on www.self-compassion.org and feel better.
Dr. Tam Cummings