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11.10.20 | Sage Advice

Advice for Caretakers Caring for Loved Ones with Dementia

Caring for a loved one is no easy task, and no one should feel alone — whether caretaker or a loved one receiving care. In honor of National Family Caregiver Month, we spoke with Loren Faith Buford to discuss her expert insights and advice for caretakers caring for loved ones with dementia.

Buford is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the clinical program Supervisor of Senior Services at Metropolitan Family Services in DuPage County, as well as a member of the Board of Directors at Sage Collective. Beyond her extensive professional expertise, Buford and her sisters are taking care of their beloved 90-year old mother who is experiencing dementia.

Assessing You and Your Loved One’s Unique Situation

Sometimes the hardest part of caring for a loved one with dementia is admitting there’s a need. But that acknowledgement, and planning accordingly, can be vital. “The first thing you can do when grappling with caring for a loved one with dementia is to recognize the symptoms, and recognize that there’s a need,” confirms Buford. “Too often, those struggling with dementia are able to fool the people around them for a long time. You won’t know they need help, because they’re proud and want to maintain their dignity. But the truth is that everyone needs help, especially in cases of dementia, and it isn’t a shameful thing,” she says.

“Developing your awareness, and understanding when there’s a need to seek a medical diagnosis for your loved one takes attentive care,” says Buford. “If your loved one lives alone, for example, I recommend going to their house often: look in their refrigerator, see whether the mail is piling up, and to see whether they’re losing strength and struggling with daily tasks like cleaning or cooking. Those are the first signs. There will be behavioral signs too, like if they get upset more easily or begin repeating information.”

“Once you acknowledge the need for care is there, then you have to figure out how you can balance your life with helping them take best care of themselves,” shares Buford. “Specifically, how can you balance your self care with their care? That’s also why it’s so important to catch dementia early on: the sooner you acknowledge that need, the easier it will be to gather the necessary resources, people and services that are out there, and that can help make the task of caretaking easier on you.” 

Just as caretakers must help their loved one accept help, we too must help caretakers accept the help they themselves need to carry on this essential work.

Creating Solutions That Work: Balancing Communication and Care

Whether caretakers live with or apart from their loved one, establishing a routine of care that feels natural and comfortable for both parties is vital. Buford runs through the gamut of challenges: “When do they eat? How do they get exercise? How do I make sure they’re getting a rounded out day? And most of all — how do I ensure these things without upsetting my loved one and having them feel like all I ask about is medication?” And her answer: “You have to make these things a part of their life, and make it feel natural.”

Even when caretaking feels like a strenuous task, it’s important to remind oneself of the love driving the work. “You have to find ways to provide care and not be a martyr about it,” reflects Buford. “It’s essential that your loved one knows this is what you want to do — and that you’re a team. If they’re feeling it’s not genuine and you’re not comfortable, they’ll feel like a burden and they’ll fight and resist receiving care, and worst of all they won’t communicate, or feel comfortable sharing what they need. But when you’re a team, your loved one will feel like an active part of their own treatment plan, and together you can find solutions they take part in, agree and want.”

So how can caretakers build healthy trust and communication? “Make caretaking a good time and make those memories count. If your loved one starts singing a song, join in. If they’re laughing, laugh with them. When you join them in their world, you find that it’s fun for you, too. It creates a whole different dynamic between the two of you, one that’s productive, and also full of joy,” says Buford. 

And most important of all: “As your loved one’s dementia progresses,” advises Buford, “it’s absolutely vital to remind yourself that the core of that person is still there. Whether they’re having an irritable day, or maybe you’re having a bad day yourself, remind yourself to see them for what they were and continue to be: the person you love.”

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10.13.20 | Sage Advice

Advice for Older Adult Caretakers During the Pandemic

Caretakers shoulder a heavy responsibility; afterall, the health, wellbeing and happiness of another person is in their hands. Even on an ordinary day, caretaking can be an intense task — add a global pandemic on top of that, and many caretakers are feeling the weighty responsibility more than ever. We spoke with Rear Admiral (ret) James M. Galloway, MD, FACP, FACC, to compile advice (and helpful insights) to guide older adult caretakers through the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Galloway is a medical doctor and Public Health physician, as well as a member of the Sage Collective leadership team.

Starting with the Basics: Health and Safety

When working with vulnerable populations, like older adults, it’s more vital than ever to follow health and safety guidelines. “There are basic personal prevention practices that everyone should follow,” explains Dr. Galloway. “These include practicing social distancing, wearing masks at all times, isolating or quarantining when necessary and regularly cleaning your environment.” These are steps that many are familiar with, and the most up-to-date basic health and safety guidelines can always be found on the CDC website

However, many caretakers serve clients living in high-risk environments such as independent living facilities and retirement communities, and with increased risk, feel the need for increased precaution. Dr. Galloway provides a few additional tips and tricks: “Limiting the number of nonessential visitors is important. As we all know, the more people you interact with, the more at risk you are of encountering and contracting COVID-19. Beyond that, if you wear a reusable cloth mask, washing that mask regularly is vital. Another good practice is to increase indoor air circulation whenever possible by opening windows — but this of course can be a safety risk depending on your client.”

All in all, Dr. Galloway recognizes that each circumstance is unique. We’re all familiar with the risk COVID-19 poses and know the easiest way to prevent spread of the virus is total isolation. But of course, humans have other needs that conflict with basic health and safety — like our need to socialize with others and engage with the world to stay mentally well. “What we’ve outlined here are general guidelines,” Dr. Galloway explains, “but ultimately every decision we make is going to weigh the balance between risk and benefit, and that’s an individual decision.”

Balancing Emotional Wellbeing for Both Client and Caretaker

As addressed above, emotional wellbeing is a crucial component to a person’s overall health during the pandemic. For caretakers, ensuring their client remains engaged and connected has taken on new significance and importance. “It has become important for caretakers to take more time with their clients,” says Dr. Galloway, “to make a point to engage them in conversation and to help them stay connected with their loved ones. Caretakers have begun assisting clients in making regular phone calls or facilitating the use of FaceTime.” 

But for as much attention as caregivers put into ensuring the physical and emotional wellbeing of their client, it’s more important than ever to give that same attention to themselves. “Taking care of yourself ensures you can take your best care of others,” says Dr. Galloway. “Caring for a client or loved one can place stress on even the most resilient of people. So how can you take time to replenish your own wellbeing?”

Image of one person's hands holding another's, with text on top that reads Taking care of yourself ensures you can take your best care of others

In response to this question, Dr. Galloway has several pieces of advice. “First and most important: know the signs of unmanageable stress and know when to ask for help. Think about ways people you trust can help you, such as getting groceries for you during a long shift. Secondly, focus on what you’re able to provide. Nobody is perfect, even caregivers, so it’s important to acknowledge you’re doing the best you can. In that same vein: my third piece of advice is to set realistic goals. Creating a list of tasks allows you to check items off as you go, so you know you’re accomplishing things — and also, say no to tasks that are draining, like hosting Thanksgiving dinner!” 

There are many ways to self-manage stress, but Dr. Galloway also provides one other invaluable tip: “Get connected. Join a support group for caregivers! Many people see joining a support group as a weakness, but really it’s a strength. It’s an opportunity to gain new friends, and to develop your own strength and resiliency as you move forward. It’s so important to know you’re not alone in this struggle.”

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