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Posted: October 05, 2006

Spousal Caregiving

Ten Ways to a Healthier Life

Bill Andrew

As spousal caregivers, it is incumbent upon each of us to maintain a healthy life style in order to continue to provide quality care for our loved ones -- our spouses. I recently came across an article that suggested 10 ways to achieve a healthier life. While much of what I am about to relate to you may be old hat to you, perhaps some of these suggestions can be taken to heart and help both you and your spouse.

These suggestions apply to non-spousal caregivers as well, so share them with your family and friends. In fact, many of these suggestions may not apply to your loved one but may apply to you as a caregiver.

Laugh Out Loud. It has been proven that laughter provides many health benefits -- this according to the American Association of Therapeutic Humor. Laughter reduces the levels of stress hormones in our bodies. High levels of stress hormones have a negative effect on a person's health because they compromise the immune system and tend to raise blood pressure. Laughter not only releases this stress but also boost a person's mood and attitude. Find ways to get a good laugh -- a real belly-buster -- occasionally during the day to relieve your caregiver stress. For a good laugh, try watching videos or CDs of comedians such as Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, The Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, and others.

Move Those Feet. Getting at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day can work wonders for your physical and emotional health -- this according to the Mayo Clinic. Exercise improves physical health -- which concurrently improves both mental health -- by reducing risks of coronary artery disease, hypertension, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. It may also reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, such as breast, colon, and prostate. Exercise helps to improve mental health by releasing endorphins, the body's natural mood elevator. Exercise options can include something as simple as a brisk 15-minute walk several times a day. Of course, you could also go to the gym when you can.

Go To Church. A recent study at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center indicated that the average church-going person lives longer than people who do not attend a church. Dr. Daniel Hall's study, entitled "Religious Attendance: More Cost-Effective Than Lipitor?" was published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. The study suggests that church-goers live up to three years longer than people who don't attend church services. Increased lifespan was attributed to a number of factors, including church-goers having a stronger feeling of purpose in life and better stress-coping skills. Other research supports this theory: a 1997 Duke University Medical Center study indicated that the average church-goer has lower blood pressure which can lead to a longer life. A follow-up study in 2002 showed that church-goers were less likely to engage in risky behavior that could negatively affect both psychological and physical health -- such as smoking, drinking, unsafe sex, or drug abuse. The bottom line: going to church on a regular basis is good for your health!

Tie The Knot. Research at the Mayo Clinic and Harvard University showed that happily married people live longer than their single peers. As a spousal caregiver, you already know that. One study found that married women were 20% less likely to die of heart disease than unmarried females while married men were 2-3 times less likely to die from the same illnesses that affect their single counterparts. The results of the study were attributed to the fact that a healthy marriage can reduce stress. Of course, that does not take into account the stress caused by being a spousal caregiver. Still, a happy marriage seems to be a key component to the health and well-being of spousal caregivers -- at least, it does work for me.

Raise A Pet. Research published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society indicates that having a pet works wonders for a person's emotional health, especially for seniors. Pets provide a source of unconditional love and acceptance. They give seniors someone to love and care for and reduce the loneliness that often affects seniors, especially those who are physically and mentally challenged. Pets can also offer seniors an easy way to make new friends since they often become a conversation topic. While a pet may not be appropriate for you and your spouse because of the health challenges you are dealing with, perhaps an occasional visit from the pet of a family member, a friend, or a neighbor may help your spouse -- especially if they had pets when they were young.

Enjoy (One) Glass of Red Wine. A number of studies indicate significant benefits of drinking a glass of red wine. A study published in the journal Neurology found evidence that seniors 65 and older who drank at least one glass of red wine each week were less likely to develop dementia. Apparently, the flavonoids in the wine provide an antioxidant that helps keep blood vessels healthy, including the ones that flow through the brain. According to the American Heart Association, grape juice may provide similar results. It has been recommended that no more than one glass of wine will provide such benefits. Drinking more than that can cause health problems,including raising the risk of certain types of cancer, causing negative interactions with medications, or raising blood pressure. Apparently the old saying "a little wine is fine" makes perfect sense for elders. In fact, current studies indicate that "a drink a day keeps the doctor away."

Get A Flu Shot. The Mayo Clinic says that flu kills more than 36,000 each year in the United States and hospitalizes more than 200,000. They suggest that many of these deaths and hospital stays can be prevented by getting a flu shot. However, if you are averse to getting a flu shot, they recommend that you wash your hands frequently and avoid crowds during the flu season in order to avoid contracting the flu germs. There may be stronger and varied flu vaccines for seniors in the foreseeable future. Flu shots are not for everyone since some folks have had adverse reactions. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to do whatever it takes to avoid the occasions when you could possibly contact the flu germs.

Keep Records. Having a written medical history on hand during an emergency just may save your life or the life of your loved one. If you have not already done so, take the time to write down your medical history. Include ongoing health problems, current medications and dosage, drug allergies, dates of any major crises or hospitalizations, medical conditions that run in your family (genetic predispositions), and anything that is pertinent to your medical history. Keep a copy in a safe location such as a safety deposit box or personal safe -- or leave with a trusted relative who has your durable power of attorney in case you become incapacitated and can not speak. I have written on this before and it is called a "personal health record" or PHR.

Wear Sunscreen. Undoubtedly you have read about the increase in melanoma-related deaths in the United States. That is the bad news; the good news is that melanoma and other forms of skin cancer are preventable. Obviously, the best way to avoid skin cancer would be to stay out of the sun. However, doing that negates the value of the sun and its relationship with vitamin D -- a natural way of obtaining the vitamin D that your body needs. So limit your time in the direct sun to 15 minutes of so per day. If you have a family history of skin cancer or have had dysplastic (precancerous) moles removed, see a dermatologist at least once a year. In between visits, perform skin checks looking for suspicious moles. Wearing sunscreen when you are outdoors may help but there are no quarantees. A little sun every day is good for your health; a lot of sun every day may create complications such as skin cancer. Living in Florida, like I do, it is difficult to avoid the sun. Therefore, you should limit your time outdoors as much as possible, as I do.

Follow Your Heart. While heart disease is the #1 killer of both men and women in the United States, it is largely preventable in most people through diet and exercise. Check with your doctor for assistance in assessing the risk factors that you may have for heart disease including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and an overweight or obese body mass index (BMI). Visit the American Heart Association website for more information. I find that a healthy life style is key to the maintenance of my personal health as I perform the 24/7 duties as the caregiver of my spouse. Watching my diet and getting sufficient exercise help me to "follow my heart" so that I will be there for her when she needs me.

In the United States, we spend billions of dollars each year on health care, gym memberships, and the latest fad diets. Often, this effort is made to correct some deficiency in our lifestyles, but often not to prevent those problems from occurring in the first place. The medical community is consistently looking for what works and what doesn't when it comes to health -- but again, often after the fact. Our healthcare system is one focused on correction of health problems and not on preventing these same health problems. The above 10 ways to live a healthier life as both a spousal caregiver and spousal care-recipient are based on recent medical research. This is often called "preventive medicine."

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "The first wealth is health." That is so true in our society today where we Americans typically spend a lot of money on healthcare but are in generally poor health. As a caregiver, you owe it to your loved one to be in "good health." Are you?

If you would like to share your thoughts regarding the above with other readers of this column, drop me a line at


"The first wealth is health."

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82)


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

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