Caring for the Caregivers

In a recent CTV News piece, health reporter Avis Favaro reported that nearly half of unpaid caregivers for seniors with dementia experience distress.  The piece cites a study from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, which also points out that of the estimated 402,000 seniors in Canada with dementia, approximately 60% live at home and are cared for by family, friends and neighbours.

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, the number of Canadians with dementia related illness is set to rise.  It’s a concern that’s prompted the federal government to develop a national dementia strategy to help provide doctors and caregivers with more resources.

As many of my clients know, I’ve spent a great deal of time studying the impact stress can have on the body. In my book Lifelines –unlock the secrets of your telomeres for longer, healthier life, I describe telomeres as the tips of each of our chromosomes, which like the plastic tips of your shoelaces are there to keep them from fraying.  When we become overly stressed we can prematurely burnout our telomeres, which increases our risk of developing many chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and even dementia itself.

Putting Yourself First

Many caregivers are so consumed with providing care for their loved one that they often neglect the warning signals their own bodies are sending. It’s remarkable the number of times I need to remind patients to put themselves first. It’s as if they need a ‘doctor’s order’ before they’re able to put their own health needs ahead of the individual they’re taking care of.

It’s Not Too Late

Lifestyle changes are key to keeping telomeres in good shape – or even reversing damage that’s already done. In fact, telomerase (the enzyme that lengthens telomeres) activity can be increased and is responsive to certain lifestyle and mindset changes quite quickly.

In a Lancet study, Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes, Dr. Dean Ornish, celebrated physician to President Clinton and Oprah, oversaw an intensive lifestyle modification program for men with prostate cancer. Those who followed the plan saw their telomerase activity increase by 30% over 3 months.

3 Key Steps

While it may seem like fairly common advice, unpaid caregivers for seniors of dementia can protect themselves by focusing on diet, exercise and mindfulness.   Specifically, they should try the following three tips:

  1. DIET: Look for a plant-based diet that’s high in fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates with minimum amount of animal protein from chicken and fish only
  2. EXERCISE: Target 30 minutes of walking daily
  3. MINDFULNESS: Try stress-reduction techniques such as yoga and meditation. Aim for 60 minutes daily

Consider these lifestyle changes regarding diet, exercise and mindfulness and put them into practice.  It might just save you from the same fate of the people you are so lovingly and generously taking care of today.

Tip: Meditate to save your telomeres

In a study of men and women who care for patients with dementia, the group practicing meditation showed more telomerase activity – 43% more – compared to a relaxation control group.




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