Caring for someone with dementia? Don’t forget to look after yourself

Whether you are the main carer or you have a careworker coming in, it’s unrealistic to expect to cope with all the emotional and physical demands of caring for the person alone. As the dementia progresses, the person’s needs will increase and you may find the situation emotionally more challenging.

Taking care of your own health can often take a back seat. As you focus your energy on making sure your parent is safe and well, your stress levels may increase. And you won’t be alone. According to Alzheimer’s Society, nine in ten carers for people with dementia experience stress or anxiety several times a week.

Don’t neglect your own physical and mental well-being. Having some time to yourself, even if it’s just once or twice a week, will make a huge difference to your mental state. If you are no longer mentally and physically healthy, you won’t be able to care for your parent.

Regular exercise can make a huge difference to your physical well-being and mental health. The mental health charity Mind recommends regular exercise for reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression, and the chemicals released during exercise are known to generate a feeling of well-being. A brisk walk or a run offers you a chance to switch off. Or it might be an opportunity to clear your head or solve problems. I found that running really helped with my mental well-being and went on to run a marathon and raise funds for Alzheimer’s Society. I felt I was doing some good and taking back control. Without exercise, I honestly don’t think I would have coped with taking care of Mum.

 Long-term benefits

Experts also believe that regular cardiovascular exercise, like running, cycling, swimming or anything that gets you moderately out of breath, will help to reduce your own risk of developing dementia. According to Alzheimer’s Society, of all the lifestyle changes that have been studied, taking regular physical exercise appears to be one of the best things that you can do to reduce your risk of getting dementia. Several prospective studies have looked at middle-aged people and the effects of physical exercise on their thinking in memory and later life. Combining the results of 11 studies shows that regular exercise can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia by about 30 per cent. For Alzheimer’s disease specifically, the risk was reduced by 45 per cent. Regular exercise, three to four times per week, will boost your mood and make you healthier. You’ll also sleep better.

Ginny’s story

The tiredness and constant anxiety I felt when looking after my mum were significant, but running has always helped me on many levels. It obviously helps keep me fit and slim but it has always been my way to cope with stress and depression. It was a great outlet when I was caring for my mother.

Keep talking

On an emotional level, it’s important to find someone to talk to when you need to unload. Find a friend or relative who understands what you are going through. And if no one understands, then talk to Alzheimer’s Society or Age UK’s helpline team.

Caring for a parent or loved one with dementia takes great strength and courage. You will need to make decisions on his behalf, and you may be grieving for the person he used to be. It’s hugely important to deal with any emotional issues you may be facing. If you feel overwhelmed or depressed, don’t bottle things up. Talk to your GP and ask to be referred for counselling if you feel it would help.

Encourage your parent to talk about how he is feeling too. While you may be experiencing feelings of grief, he may also be mourning the loss of his independence. It’s easy to focus on providing care, but give the person a chance to talk to you. He may also need counselling. Talk to his GP if you suspect this is the case.

9781847093998This is an extract from Dementia Care: A guide by Christina Macdonald

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