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What can be done about the stress and burnout that so often comes with dementia caregiving? How can people become better equipped to handle being a caregiver? The trait of resilience is recognized as being a necessary skill and coping strategy. It helps caregivers handle the rigors of their job and reduce stress.

Top Sources of Stress for Dementia Caregivers

Caregivers report high levels of stress from two separate sources:

  1. Watching their loved one decline. Thirty-eight percent of individuals we surveyed reported that as their loved one declines, it causes high levels of stress. Dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease, causes a long, slow deterioration of mental and physical capacity. Watching this is painful and dealing with grief as dementia caregivers can take an enormous toll.
  2. Juggling work and caregiving responsibilities. Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents also said that stress from juggling work and caregiving responsibilities is a heavy burden. Caregiving responsibilities can interrupt work on a daily basis, cause caregivers to miss work, or lead lost promotions and wages.

Resilience: What is it?

Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, or toughness.” Being resilient means you can adapt to stress, adversity or trauma. Resiliency doesn’t mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or emotional stress. It means that a person can practice coping strategies that will make them more tolerant to these stressors.

For many caregivers, this may seem like a contradiction. Shouldn’t a caregiver be focusing on the person they are caring for? Well, yes, but in order to be a good and healthy care provider, you have to take care of yourself as well. Resilience helps you manage stress more positively and can be learned with some guidance and practice.

10 Ways to Build Resilience as Dementia Caregivers

Let’s get started with some tried and true ways to build resilience as suggested by psychologists and other health professionals:

1. Make connections.

Very few problems are solved well in a vacuum. Seek out ways to connect with other people both socially and for support. Being with other people means having access to resources that can help you with your caregiving struggles. Most importantly, you won’t feel alone. Whether this is a caregiving support group, church group or book club, enlist the expertise of your community. If you're looking for suggestions on support groups, call your Area Agency on Aging.

2. Take care of yourself.

Caregiver burnout leads to health problems, so taking time for yourself is critical to your health and well-being. Whether you arrange for respite care or ask a family member to pitch in, you need regular breaks. Respite can take the form of short stays in assisted living, adult day programs or hiring a professional caregiver. Taking care of yourself also means establishing and adhering to healthy habits. This includes exercising, eating plenty of vegetables and fruit, and getting enough sleep.

3. Keep things in perspective and don’t view crises as insurmountable problems.

You can’t change the fact that caregiving involves stress but you can change how you react to stressful or traumatic events. Remember that this too shall pass. Some relaxation techniques include:

4. Have confidence in your decision making.

Avoiding making decisions just adds to your stress. There is often no perfect solution to every problem. That being said, make decisions based on your values and input from others. In the end, you are the one who has the final say. Have confidence in your abilities and if you're having trouble, remember previous successes.

5. Develop a sense of optimism and humor.

Being able to laugh or find humor in the complex world of caregiving can bring enormous relief. It is ok to laugh at certain situations. A positive attitude can improve your lifespan and outlook on your everyday activities. Be optimistic about the future by planning ahead. Determine what resources you are likely to need in the future and identify those. Keep a journal with companies, agencies and other caregiving and health resources. A crisis or sudden decline may necessitate quick decision making and knowing you have done your homework will instill a sense of confidence and optimism.

woman smiling at mother

6. Engage in meaningful activities.

Notice what kind of activities bring you joy or a feeling of calmness. Whenever possible, stay engaged in activities where you lose track of time and feel present in the moment. Seek out activities that reflect your values and passions.

7. Practice compassion.

The power of compassion can help caregivers to be persistent in their care and can give them the strength to move through difficult moments. When the going gets tough, feeling compassion for the loved one in your care has the power to replace resentment and anger. Compassion fosters understanding. Educating yourself on what to expect in each stage of dementia can help so you’ll know how to relate to and be compassionate with your loved one throughout the journey.

8. React less to change.

Of course, it is important to respond immediately to health crises and changes that warrant immediate action. However, in the daily life of a caregiver for a loved one with dementia, there can be a roller coaster of changes. Caring for the physical and emotional needs of your loved one brings with it constant change and unpredictability.

The behavior of your loved one is mostly out of your control. Reacting less to these constant changes will help you to be more flexible. Not everything requires a response. If you can flow with change instead of becoming anxious and resisting it, you will be more resilient in the end.

9. Give yourself positive messages.

Some days will be better than others. One day you may be proud that you were able to take the kids to school, get to work and then make dinner for your loved one. Another day it may be enough that you were able to visit your loved one for a half-hour. Whatever you do as a caregiver, accept that it is supportive and helpful for your loved one and be sure to give yourself credit.

Practice positive self-talk by saying things like:

  • “I am a good caregiver who is competent and confident.”
  • “I don’t have to be perfect.”
  • "I am doing the best I can to support my loved one."
  • "I'm proud of myself for caring for my parent/spouse."

10. Remember that this time is a gift.

As a caregiver, you are the one who has the gift of spending time with your loved one. It may not seem like that in the rush and noise of a packed daily schedule. However, you are the one who will have memories of this time spent together like the small, funny things your loved one says and the positive emotion you feel. Caregiving is trying and exhausting. Remember that you can still be with your loved one and that you have the benefit of spending time with him or her can help you to build resilience.

Making the effort to strengthen your resilience will lead to better health, better caregiving and a better you!

About the Author(s)

Amanda Lambert is the owner and president of Lambert Care Management, LLC which provides care management for older and disabled adults. She is the co-author of Choose Your Place: Rethinking Home as You Age (November 2020) and of Aging with Care: Your Guide to Hiring and Managing Caregivers at Home (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). She has worked for over 20 years in the senior-related industry including mental health, marketing and guardianship. She has a passion for topics related to health, wellness and resilience as we age.

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