Caring for someone with dementia can be a rewarding experience. However, it can also be stressful and lead to social isolation. As a carer, it's vitally important to look after yourself and to stay connected to close friends and family, who can provide you with social and emotional support.
As a carer, it's important to take care of your own needs – only then can you help others. Caring can sometimes put you in a lonely place, so it's especially important to have a team of trusted friends and family around you to provide emotional support.
While caring for someone with dementia can enrich our lives there is no denying that being a caregiver – particularly when you are the primary caregiver – can also be a source of chronic stress.
You already know that to stay healthy and function well we need to make sure that we get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet and keep physically active. Becoming a carer doesn't change that, but the demands of caring can make it a little more difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle. So you need to make an extra special effort to look after yourself and that includes making time to socialise.
Spending time with friends and being in social situations may help you to feel less stressed and more positive but caring for someone with dementia can restrict your social circle. Maybe you have cut down on the hours that you work or maybe you have given up working outside the home altogether. Maybe you don’t get out to the shops, to the gym or to meet friends as much as you used to. Maybe friends and family don’t visit as much as they did before.
And, crucially, if the person with dementia is your partner, a parent or another close relative or friend, you may feel that you are losing an important confidante.
If you feel that you can no longer reliably share memories or stories of your day or even make important decisions together, it can make you feel lonely and more burdened.
Chats to lose the loneliness
Our brains thrive on positive social connections and social intimacy. Research shows that being lonely and socially isolated mean we are at greater risk of depression, anxiety, dementia and age-related cognitive decline, which can affect our memory.
But here is the better news – just being able to chat with trusted friends can make us feel connected and help us to avoid loneliness. Social interaction can help tackle those feelings of loneliness and has an added bonus of boosting your health.
So if you know someone who is a caregiver of a person with dementia, then of course helping with housework and care-related tasks is often welcome but there is another (and perhaps even more important) way to help. Just be there. Visit, have a chat with the caregiver and be a listening ear for them.
And don't forget the importance of an appropriate hug. Studies have shown that lack of affectionate physical contact is associated with higher levels of stress hormones. But social contact, like giving someone a hug or holding their hand can lower stress hormones and even lower blood pressure and reduce pain.
Or if you are the caregiver, when a visitor calls make sure that you make time to enjoy the visit yourself – have a chat with them. And remember that smiling has health benefits too.
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The Alzheimer Society of Ireland is the nation's leading dementia-specific service provider. They offer supports and services for people with dementia and their carers, as well as opportunities to connect with other carers.
Looking after yourself is one of the most important things you can do as a carer, and will benefit the person in your care too. This resource from the Alzheimer Society of Ireland provides practical suggestions and resources to help you to do so.
This section of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland's website provides factsheets and advice on caregiving issues such as communicating with the person with dementia, dealing with unusual behaviours, and daily tasks such as feeding, dressing and bathing.
This resource from the Family Caregiver Alliance outlines tools for effective self-care for carers.
It’s not unusual for carers to develop depression as a result of the demands of caregiving - this resource from the Family Caregiver Alliance provides more information on the illness and ways to address it.
Family Carers Ireland and its local carer groups provide support, services and training for family carers.