Life Philosophy: "I've learned that it's much easier to be positive than negative, it's easier to smile than to frown, and when in doubt, eat chocolate!"
Now that's a philosophy I can truly embrace :) This is a quote from an anonymous elderly person participating in a project at Cornell University called the Legacy Project. This project is a truly amazing collection of "lessons for living from the wisest Americans", created by Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, and Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College.
Begun in 2004, the project used a variety of methods to collect these nuggets of wisdom and life experience, including a pilot study, surveys and in-depth interviews. The project gathered over 1500 answers to the question, "What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?" According to the website, "People from across the country in their 70s and beyond shared their wisdom for living. The advice ranges from how to be happy on a day-to-day basis, the secrets to a successful marriage, tips on raising children, ways to have a fullfilling career, strategies for dealing with illness and loss, and how to grow old fearlessly and well."
Grouped into categories, this wisdom is made available to any who wish to find some heart-warming, practical, and sometimes downright funny advice from America's elders. The best of the lessons have been complied into a book, 30 Lessons for Living, which has the distinction of being named "Best Self-Help Book of 2011" by Library Journal. Here's to the wisest Americans, a tribute of gratitude for their humor, grit and experience, and to Karl Pillemer for being the catalyst for sharing it with all.
One of the most recurrent themes in eldercare is the highly detrimental effects of boredom & loneliness. This is something experienced by most elders, whether living alone or in an assisted living or nursing home situation. It can even be a problem for elders living with family, depending on the family dynamics.
For family caregivers, this translates into a very difficult issue, creating conflict and emotional upheaval, and, of course, guilt, if their loved one is afflicted by loneliness. Yet there are some bright spots on the horizon.
One pioneer in innovative long term care reform is physician William H. Thomas. He is a self-described "nursing home abolitionist" and has been an advocate for eldercare reform for decades, creating the Green House Project nursing home concept, the Eden Alternative philosophy and training to "deinstituionalize" eldercare facilities by alleviating the "three plagues" of boredom, helplessness and loneliness. The Eden Alternative, which incorporates pets, gardens and children into the culture of nursing home care has an international following and is actively revolutionizing elder care. In addition, this Harvard-trained physician has written numerous books, one of which he turned into a one-man play which he performed to raise further funds for his visionary goals. He is a passionate speaker who champions honoring and valuing elders and aging with dignity, love & joy. He is truly an inspirational, enthusiastic powerhouse of a man! Click here view a video of Dr. Thomas and catch a bit of his spirit and commitment. And here's another recent video with Dr. Thomas visiting a woman in a nursing home and bringing such joy and delight to her with some beloved opera played through headphones for her. OK, hanky-alert on this one. I melted into tears because she reminded me so much of my own mother.
Dr. Thomas and his wife have also developed and built an entire village in Shelburne, NY centered around these concepts, called ElderShire: Creating Well-Being through Living in Community. The need for this kind of revolution is most apparent to anyone who has experienced the soul-less bleakness that is prevalent in the current culture of nursing homes as "storage" for the elderly. Dr. Thomas' lifework offers hope and vision, along with well-designed and researched programs and materials for creating healthier, happier aging in our world. Given the graying of our populations (in particular the baby boomer generation in the US) these are ideas whose time has come and we must implement these changes now to create a better life for both elders and the ones who care for them!
If you should need further evidence of the importance of banishing the "three plagues" of nursing homes, the article which appeared in Science Daily this week supplies it -- titled: Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Loneliness in Older Adults, Study Shows. The study offers verifiable data that the meditation known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) reduced both loneliness and also markers in the blood for inflamation response, which are indicated in a host of physcial and neurological diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer's.
Won't you join me in supporting this vision and important culture shift in whatever way is possible? I cannot imagine a more worthy goal than to turn our reality of aging (and let's face it -- no one has found the fountain of youth!) into one of health and well-being and joy!
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Of course, there is no answer to that philosophical question. But, if you ask how many caregivers are dancing the complicated, unchoreographed dance of the challenges of caregiving, the answer is, by current consensus over 65 million. That is 65 million unpaid, family caregivers in the U.S. alone. To wrap your mind around that, it means that roughly one third of Americans are caregivers! One in three people in the U.S. are performing some duties to care for an elder or disabled person!
And I read an even more astounding projection for new cases of Alzheimer's internationally for the next 40 years (source: The Journal of Alzheimer's Disease) -- there will be an almost unimaginable, 115 million new cases of Alzheimer's-type dementia by 2050. This projection doesn't just boggle the mind, it makes it run away screaming in denial!
However, on a more positive note, there was a recent article synopsis in Science Daily, titled: Link Between Brain Insulin Resistance, Neuronal Stress in Worsening Alzheimer's Disease in which the authors of the study found some promising research on insulin resistance (diabetes) in the brain, which interferes with neuronal pathways. In essence, they are postulating that Alzheimer's is basically a metabolic syndrome, even going so far as to call it Type III Diabetes -- and that just makes sense to me. The more reading I do, the more apparent (to me) it becomes that it's all interconnected. Picture a giant, multi-headed underwater monster popping above the surface in different places so it appears to be separate, yet just beneath the surface, it is one. So (this is my own opinion, not the study) the obesity crisis, diabetes (insulin resistance), metabolic syndrome, inflammation and Alzheimer's may be different faces of one disease. If the monster only has one heart and it can be targeted, it stands to reason that would make it easier to defeat. This strengthens my own resolve to continue to explore and share information & self care techniques to help the caregiver slay the dragon of disease.
If, after further detailed neurological research, it turns out that all these are indeed aspects of one multi-faceted illness -- essentially a result of being out of balance, then it actually provides even more reason to use the tools that promote optimal wellness in our lives -- and ultimately, finding our balance in mind, body & spirit may be the healing, holistic approach that will provide keys to an eventual cure. I certainly find it hopeful in that it empowers us in our own healing process. That's good news that can perhaps make the alarming statistics fade away, replaced by a healthier, brighter future with far fewer dancing the caregiver dance.
I came across this excellent website with webinars, videos, and articles to support the caregiver. The one that caught my attention is titled, "Caring for Yourself During Caregiving" and it has a wealth of information and helpful ideas. These are not new, but need to be reiterated often due to the extreme importance of these tools for overall health and well-being of caregivers of all kinds. Please do take time to look over the ideas mentioned and begin to incorporate them into your life today, if you have not already. If you are wondering why you are seeing this so often, it's because of what I call the 'superwoman syndrome' (applies to male caregivers as well, but superperson sounds contrived). That is what happens to many caregivers (guilty, myself!) who think that they can manage their lives, families, work, caregiving, and anything else that plops onto their plate, with unfailing strength, ease, and unflagging good humor and wisdom. Well, I'm here to tell you, you can't. It's just that simple. Caregiving wears on a person's infrastructure, energy, mental resources, and spirit like water on rock -- eventually, the water wins and wears down the rock. It's a fact of nature and physics, so you'd better develop your own individual protection plan before that happens. Really. I would not lead you astray. You might even find that doing some of the recommend solutions might be fun and may rekindle your enthusiasm for life and love. You'll never know unless you give them a try.
You'll find a regularly recurring theme on this blog -- self care for the caregiver. The vital import of this concept cannot be stressed often enough, since it can help to keep a caregiver strong and in balance while providing the care necessary for their loved one. This self-care can take many forms, but the simple act of nurturing yourself, providing little "treats" for an emotional, mental health boost, finding quiet moments of pre-planned respite when you feel your composure crumbling, reminders of all the ways that life is good and concentrating on that goodness in a tangible way, centering yourself through prayer, meditation, relaxation -- these are basically what self-care is about.
I would recommend to all caregivers that you create a "comfort drawer" or basket for yourself, containing items that bring you calm, comfort, and simple pleasure. The types of items to include will vary widely depending on individual tastes, but here are some ideas: aromatherapy lotion or body creme (a lavender scent is very calming and balancing for most folks, or perhaps orange is right for you), a little book of inspirational quotes or daily meditations, bath salts or oils, calming tea such as chamomile, green tea, or mint. You can also put in some comfort food (think emergency chocolate, here!) but try to stay with healthy, life affirming things as much as possible. You can really have fun with this idea and get as wild and crazy as you want. You can even wrap some items up so that you surprise yourself when you open the drawer or basket for comfort. It's your comfort, so only you can really decide what belongs in this sacred spot. The point is to make some effort to give yourself support and nurturing, available easily and when you need it. Sometimes, just the act of creating of such a secret cache of comfort starts the pleasure rolling. Remind yourself that you are enough. You deserve good things that bring pleasure. Caring for yourself in this way enriches not only your own life, but that of your loved one and all those around you. Create an oasis of comfort today, so that it is waiting for you the next time you need some extra tender loving care.
For more suggestions, check out my favorite products in my Caregiver Resource store by clicking here. (Then click on the category Self Care Products on the right.)
Karen is a compassionate, enthusiastic student of life, who cared for her mother for 17 years. She brings her insights, compassion, experience and desire to share knowledge and healing to this ongoing conversation with others on the caregiving path. If you are caring for a parent, spouse, friend or other loved one this site offers sanity-saving tips, open-hearted self-care ideas, and an open forum for discussion, connection and sharing resources for the journey.
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