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Posted: June 23, 2005

Spousal Caregiving

How to Maintain Your Memory Skills

Bill Andrew

As the 24/7 caregiver for my wife of nearly 54 years who has late-stage Alzheimer's disease, I am intimately acquainted with what happens when one's cognitive and memory skills start to deteriorate.  I feel strongly that I must take extra good care of my own personal cognitive and memory skills so I can continue to provide the kind of quality patient care that she requires and deserves from me.  Therefore, I constantly look for ways and means of maintaining my mental, physical, and spiritual health. 

One thing for sure -- as we get older, we all have occasional lapses of memory.  Does "senior moments" ring a bell for you?  There are many reasons for cognitive failure and memory loss.  Most of the time when seniors are concerned about their apparent "memory loss," they are not actually having memory loss but are suffering from reversible physical problems such as anxiety, stress, lack of sleep, overwork, and depression. 

According to neurologists, if you can make the connection between memory loss and Alzheimer's disease, you can be sure that you don't have the latter.  However, if folks around you start to comment on your poor memory, perhaps you have another problem.  The bottom line: if you think that you are having a memory problem, odds are good that you are not.  For example, have you ever misplaced your keys and forgot where you last left them -- and then remembered later?  If you really were having a memory problem, you wouldn't have remembered that you had forgotten! 

As spousal caregivers, it behooves us to maintain our own personal health in order to provide that quality care for our loved ones.  Maintaining our personal memory skills is just as important as maintaining our physical health and skills.  Here are 10 steps we can take to help keep our brains in "memorable condition." 

Exercise your mind.  Consider the following as starters:

  • Read
  • Learn to play a musical instrument (yes, even at our age)
  • Work crossword puzzles
  • Socialize
  • Switch careers or start a new one
  • Start a new hobby such as crafts, painting, biking, bird-watching, etc.
  • Learn a foreign language
  • Volunteer at a hospital, nursing home, or hospice
  • Stay informed about world affairs 

Exercising your mind, with daily activities such as those described above, will help to keep your mind focused and sharp.  Personally, I do a lot of reading and research on the Internet. 

Stay physically active.  Consider the following as starters:

  • Daily walking
  • Daily aerobic activity and related exercise
  • Daily stretching
  • Alternate days of strength training (weightlifting) 

Physical activity will keep you more alert and quicker on the "mental draw."  Also, if you exercise physically on a regular basis, chances are that you will also sleep better and be more mentally alert for your caregiving activities.  While I don't exercise as I should, I do get a lot of strength workout lifting my 150-pound wife 20-30 times each day. 

Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.  Fruits and vegetables naturally contain antioxidants -- substances that protect and nourish brain cells.  Since dehydration can make it harder to concentrate, be sure to drink plenty of water.  To make sure that I ingest adequate fruits and vegetables, I take a supplement (Phyt-Aloe) that gives me the equivalent of 10 helpings of fruits and vegetables each day. 

Develop a system of cues and reminders.  If you have trouble remembering things during the day, write it down.  This is really my "life preserver" -- I use lists, calendars, and a journal of activity for each day.  As I have said once before, develop a routine -- a daily activity schedule -- and stick with it.  By storing easy-to-lose items in the same place every time, you will know where to find them.  Try to complete your caregiving tasks in the same order each day.  Set up cues such as putting your keys on the ironing board so that when you leave the house, you will remember to turn off the iron.  Practice repetition -- for example, to remember a person's name, work it into the conversation several times after being introduced. 

Take time to remember things.  Normal aging changes the brain in a manner that makes your mind less efficient in processing new information.  Forgetfulness may indicate nothing more than having too much on your mind.  Slow down and pay full attention to the task at hand -- whatever it is.  I find that focusing on the "present moment" pays off in the long run. 

Learn relaxation techniques.  I have written about this in a previous column and will do so in future columns as well.  Stress and anxiety can interfere with our ability to concentrate -- so it is really important to relax.  I find that deep breathing helps me to relax especially in moments of crisis.  And as a spousal caregiver, these "crises" occur on a daily basis. 

Keep a positive mental attitude.  Again, I have written on this before and can not over-emphasize the importance of this caregiver attribute.  It will help you to be more alert and to focus on the caregiving job at hand.  Research has demonstrated that people who score high on optimism have a 50% lower risk of premature death than those who score high on pessimism.  I attribute my success as a spousal caregiver for almost 11 years to my positive mental attitude.  My motto is "Accentuate the Positive" (December 9, 2004). 

Talk to your doctor.  There are many factors and conditions unrelated to aging or genetics that can contribute to memory problems.  These include certain drugs, poor vision, poor hearing, vitamin deficiencies, fatigue, depression, stress, and various illnesses.  If you are concerned about dementia and possible Alzheimer's disease, just remember that there are more than 100 dementia diagnoses and many of them are treatable.  Personally, I have found that many caregivers in support groups have not really explored their diagnostic options -- for either their spouses or themselves. 

Record your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.  These tests are usually standard practice for a physician office visit, are easy to take, and are good indicators of what is really going on inside you.  Make sure that your thyroid gland is functioning normally.  Older adults who keep their blood pressure in check and don't smoke lower their risk for stroke and vascular dementia.  You typically provide preventive maintenance on your automobile -- shouldn't you do it on your own body, especially since you are a caregiver for your spouse? 

Keep your perspective.  Regardless of what happens to you, try to place it all into perspective.  Remember, you are not the first, and only, one to drive away with a cup of coffee on the roof of your car.  Like many things in life, it happens.  Unless you feel that it occurs with high frequency, I would not be overly concerned. 

Many of the above steps to maintain your memory skills were described in several previous columns -- especially A Prescription for Caregiving  (December 2, 2004). 

If you would like to share your spousal caregiving experiences with other readers of this column, please e-mail me at ASKBill@caregivershome.com.  You can also ask any questions that concern you -- but remember, I can only share my personal experiences with you and can not provide any advice that would require specific licensure. 

WORDS TO CARE BY. . .

". . .his memory will not disappear. . ."

(Sirach 39:9)


Bill Andrew identifies himself as a former “nutritionally-empowered Alzheimer’s caregiver” who attributes the slow-down in progression of Alzheimer’s disease in his wife, Carol – and the growth of his own personal emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual capability and strength to provide quality 24/7 care for her in their own home – to the targeted nutritional supplements they both took on a daily basis. Carol went to her Heavenly reward on June 9, 2008 – Bill continues on to advocate for family caregivers. Contact Bill with your caregiving questions and comments via email at ASKBill@caregivershome.com.

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