Reflections on Self-Care From a Former Alzheimer's Caregiver
Written by Lauren Dykovitz
My Alzheimer's Story
In July 2010, two monumental things occurred in my life—one being one of the best things to ever happen to me and the other being one of the worst. I got engaged to my now-husband and my mom was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s disease. I was just 25 years old and my mom was only 62.
Over the next few years, I got married, bought my first house, and quit my full-time job to become a caregiver for my mom. I was her caregiver off and on for a few years until my dad hired in-home care so that I could focus on being a daughter again. My mom passed away in April 2020 after battling Alzheimer’s for ten years. Since she died, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on our journey, my experience as a caregiver, and all the lessons I have learned along the way.
Putting Life on Hold to Care for Someone with Alzheimer's
Until recently, I never realized how much of my life I had put on hold while my mom was living with Alzheimer’s. I quit my job, stopped socializing with friends, and put off making any big vacation plans. I also didn’t make my own health a priority. I stopped scheduling routine appointments like check-ups, dental cleanings, and eye exams because I felt like it wasn’t that important. I never paid attention to my own nutrition and typically ate whatever was the quickest or most convenient. My mom’s health and her care were the priority and I didn’t give my own health the same attention.
Although I did not face any real health challenges as a result, I know that many other caregivers are not so fortunate. Caregivers face a higher risk of developing several health problems as a result of the stress of caring for a loved one and putting off their own health needs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40.7% of caregivers report having two or more chronic diseases as a result of putting off their own health needs to care for a loved one. Caregivers also report higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression which can lead to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, or coronary heart disease.1
My dad, who was my mom’s full-time caregiver, put off a hip replacement for over a year because he didn’t feel as though he could take the time to have it done while also caring for my mom. By the time he scheduled the surgery, he was in such severe pain that he could barely walk. My dad also put off a heart procedure for the same reasons. He had both procedures done shortly after my mom passed, but I think about how lucky we are that nothing more severe happened as a result of him putting it off for so long.
Self-Care Doesn't Have to be Overwhelming
The idea of self-care can be incredibly overwhelming for caregivers. It is hard to balance taking care of yourself with the many daily needs of your loved one. It is understandable why so many caregivers let their needs go and I don’t think anyone should beat themselves up over it. But it’s important to note that self-care doesn’t necessarily mean massages and bubble baths or going out to a three-hour lunch with friends. Sure, self-care can look like that, but it doesn’t have to look like that.
Self-care can be as simple as choosing a glass of water over a can of soda or choosing an apple over a bag of chips for a snack. It can also be exercising for twenty minutes or taking a walk around your neighborhood. Self-care doesn’t have to be meditating and journaling for hours a day, but it can be meditating for five to ten minutes in the morning and writing down three things you are grateful for. It can also be calling a friend to check in, listening to your favorite podcast, watching your favorite show, or reading a book. My favorite self-care practices are ones that make me feel more like myself and allow me to spend time outside, like going for a run or taking my dogs for a walk. Any little thing that brings me joy or makes me feel good. I also try to focus more on my nutrition and making healthy choices. While I don’t follow the MIND or Mediterranean diets exactly, I do try to incorporate foods from them because I know it is essential for good brain health.
Caregivers often don’t realize that self-care also means making that doctor’s appointment for your annual check-up, health screening, or dental cleaning. It means eating a healthy diet to lower your blood pressure or seeing a therapist to help manage your stress. It means asking a friend, family member, or neighbor for help. It means giving yourself a break and time to recharge. These things often fall to the way side when you’re overwhelmed with your loved one’s care. It can be easy to forget about your own health or put it off because you feel as though your health doesn’t matter as much as your loved one’s. But who is going to take care of your loved one if you end up sick in the hospital? Who is going to care for your loved one if you have a heart attack or stroke from the stress? Your health matters because it has to. You can’t take care of your loved one if you’re not healthy enough to do so.
Life After Caregiving
Another important thing to consider is your life after caregiving. As difficult as it is to face, your loved one is not going to live forever. There will come a day when your role as a caregiver will end. What kind of life do you want to have when this journey is over? You deserve to make the most out of the time you have left once your loved one is gone. You deserve to have fun, go on vacations, and visit places you’ve never been. You deserve to go back to work and pursue your career goals. You deserve to develop new hobbies and spend time with friends. But you won’t be able to do any of that if you don’t start taking care of your health today. You could end up needing care yourself once your loved one is gone. Your loved one could even end up out-living you if you don’t start making your health a priority. After everything you have been through, you deserve to enjoy the rest of your life.
So, if you have been putting it off, let this serve as your friendly reminder. Call your doctor. Schedule that appointment. Put down the bag of chips. Go outside for a walk. Take five-minute breaks throughout the day to clear your head. Ask for help. Make your health a priority while you still have the chance. You deserve the same love, care, and attention that you give your loved one. You are worth it.
Lauren's Recommended Resources for Caregivers
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Caregiving for Family and Friends — A Public Health Issue. CDC website: Alzheimer’s Disease and Healthy Aging (2019). Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/aging/caregiving/caregiver-brief.html. (Accessed: 19th July 2021)