Alzheimer's caregiving is a tough job, and it's too much for one person to handle alone. No one is equipped to care for another person 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you're caring for a loved one who has Alzheimer's disease, understand the stress you're facing — and know how to ask for help.
At first, you may be able to meet your loved one's needs yourself. This may last months or even years, depending on how quickly the disease progresses and your own mental and physical health. Eventually, however, your loved one will need more help with everyday tasks such as eating, bathing and toileting. And just as the physical demands of Alzheimer's caregiving increase, so can the emotional toll. Challenging dementia-related behaviors can strain the coping skills of even the most patient and understanding Alzheimer's caregiver.
In addition, the sustained stress of Alzheimer's caregiving can affect your own health. The physical and emotional demands of caregiving may weaken your immune system, leaving you more likely to get sick and stay sick longer. You may sleep poorly and have trouble setting aside time for yourself. Alzheimer's caregiving may also increase your risk of depression. Before you know it, you may drift away from your family and friends — at a time when you need them the most.
How to share the load
Alzheimer's is a progressive disease with symptoms that get worse over time. Shouldering the load yourself can diminish the quality of the care you provide. To prevent caregiver burnout, it's essential to reach out for support. Here's help getting started:
- Be realistic. Alzheimer's caregiving is demanding. There's only so much you can do on your own. Remember that asking for help doesn't make you inadequate or selfish.
- Spread it out. You may worry that no one will be willing to help you, but you won't know until you ask. Although some people may indeed say no, remember that most of your friends and loved ones probably want to help but simply don't know how.
- Suggest specific tasks. Perhaps a neighbor could do some yardwork or pick up your groceries. A relative could sort bills or fill out insurance papers. A friend might take your loved one for a daily walk.
- Consider abilities and interests. If a loved one enjoys cooking, ask him or her to help with meal preparation. A neighbor who likes to drive might be able to provide transportation to doctor appointments. A friend who enjoys books might read aloud to your loved one.
- Be prepared with specific tasks. The next time someone says, "Let me know what I can do to help," offer a few concrete suggestions — or let the helper choose from a list of things that need to be done. That way, the task may be more suited to his or her interests and time constraints.
When to seek outside help
If you can't get enough help from your friends and relatives, take advantage of community resources. You might enroll your loved one in an adult day program, both for the social interaction the program will provide your loved one and the caregiving respite it'll provide you. You might also consider working with an agency that provides household help or assistance with daily tasks. Counseling services and support groups also can help you cope with your caregiving duties.
Remember, Alzheimer's caregiving may continue for years. Think of the process as a marathon, not a sprint. Marshal your resources and find every bit of assistance available so that you can conserve your strength for the journey. In the long run, you'll be helping your loved one as well as yourself.