Dr. Anthony Fauci recently recommended that Americans should plan to “hunker down” for the winter months to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19. But Alzheimer’s caregivers are at increased risk of depression, isolation and caregiver burnout.
Time with family and friends outdoors has been a vital coping strategy for many caregivers since the early spring when pandemic restrictions were put in place around the country. In addition, the decrease in sunlight (and vitamin D) during winter months can contribute to decreased energy, difficulty sleeping, and seasonal mood disorders.
To counteract these effects, families can begin planning and discussing now for activities and habits to help prevent caregiver burnout. The symptoms of caregiver burnout include feelings of denial and/or anger, decreased interest in things you normally enjoy, unexplained weight changes, irritability, increased health issues, fatigue and/or difficulty concentrating. Caregivers who are experiencing any combination of these risk factors should talk with their physician and/or support network
Recommended strategies to prevent caregiver burnout:
1. Plan for respite — Coordinate with at least one or two friends or family members as part of a “safe pod” who are available to give you breaks and spend time with your loved one in whatever ways you feel comfortable. If that requires wearing masks while in the house or keeping windows open for an hour a day to allow increased airflow during visits, this may be worthwhile.
2. Protect your routines — Create a natural rhythm for how your day flows to help reduce power struggles and decision making throughout the course of the day. Routines do not have to be strict; they can be flexible and should allow for activities your loved one can do independently.
3. Breathe — Practice daily mediation or set a timer to remind you to stop throughout the day and take ten deep breaths. This practice is proven to reduce our body’s natural stress hormone, cortisol, and it will also lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
4. Find a support network — Whether it’s a daily phone call with a friend, an online dementia community, or a formal support group, it helps to have a connection to other people who can relate and listen to your challenges and feelings without judgement. Visit our online resource directory for a list of support programs.
5. Avoid over committing — Especially during the holidays, our efforts to keep things the way they have always been can lead to increased stress with the added responsibilities of caregiving. In COVID times, we might be drawn to try to create elaborate ways to overcompensate for the lack of normality. If you do decide to try to get together with family members, keep your plans simple. Small groups are often easier for a person with dementia to navigate.
6. Take care of your own health — Sadly, Alzheimer’s and other dementia caregivers are notorious for letting their own health slide while they care for others. This often results in chronic health issues and undiagnosed conditions, which can add to the stress of caregiving. When you contemplate canceling your own annual check-up or skipping that mammogram, remember that you can’t take care of a loved one without taking care of yourself first.