In New York, there are more than half a million people providing unpaid care to a loved one with dementia. National Family Caregivers Month is the perfect time to get educated about dementia caregiving and ways to help.
Caring for someone with dementia is demanding: these caregivers on average provide more care for a longer period of time than other caregivers. A report released by the Alzheimer’s Association earlier this year found that New York’s dementia caregivers provided 884 million hours of care, valued at more than $19 billion. And with a looming shortage in the healthcare workforce and more people expected to develop dementia in coming years, the burdens facing dementia caregivers are growing.
Dementia caregivers often take on these responsibilities while balancing careers and children. It’s not surprising that they find their own physical and mental health worsening due to stress.
Dementia caregivers report higher rates of chronic conditions, including stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer than other people. In New York, 59% of caregivers reported at least one chronic health condition.
Dementia caregivers report higher rates of depression than caregivers for people with other medical conditions. In New York, 24.7% of dementia caregivers reported having depression.
Amara May, director of program outreach at the Western New York Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, says, “Caring for someone with dementia is uniquely challenging. The caregiving tasks are intense and you’re doing them while watching your loved one gradually lose memory and function.” She continues, “Our goal at the Alzheimer’s Association is to help reduce sources of caregiver stress and help them find self-care strategies that work.”
Debbie Gangemi of Hamburg assists her father, Richard, in caring for her mother, Donna Brese, who has Alzheimer’s. “It can get frustrating and stressful because of the unexpected,” she says. “Mom has a number of good days, but you just can’t anticipate when a bad day will happen.”
There are a range of self-care strategies caregivers can try to reduce stress. No single approach will work for everyone so it’s important to find what works for you. Options include:
• Talk to someone you trust. This could be a friend, family member, clergy or counselor. The Alzheimer’s Association provides a 24/7 Helpline with dementia experts available anytime.
• Get outside. Even just a few minutes outdoors can improve your mood, especially on sunny days.
• Exercise. Movement is a proven approach to improve mental and physical health. Try a walk around the neighborhood or a local fitness class, which has the added benefit of being social.
• Try a mindfulness technique. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and journaling are all options for mindfulness, which can reduce anxiety and depression and may even help reduce blood pressure and improve sleep quality.
Gangemi says she relies on her faith and family to help deal with stress, in addition to finding a healthy outlet by volunteering for the WNY Chapter. “When I do community outreach on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Association, I get to hear about other peoples’ struggles and learn how they cope with them,” she says. “I know not to take anything for granted.”
The Alzheimer’s Association Western New York Chapter offers free caregiver education, support groups, and care planning meetings. You can access these resources by calling 800-272-3900 or visiting alz.org/wny.