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Caregivers: Take Care of Your Brain

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Caregiving can be hard, draining work. With so much to remember, combined with long hours, exhaustion and little time left over for ourselves, we can easily overlook our own needs. Sometimes, our thoughts are so burdened with details and demands, it makes us feel that our brains are taking a hit!

Is there anything we can do to help us maintain our own brain function? Even more, are there things we can implement in our days that might even improve our minds?

Yes!

As my coauthor, Elizabeth Eckstrom, MD, MPH, MACP states in The Gift of Caring, proactively taking control of your own aging while you are busy taking care of others can make a real difference in how you get through. In fact, arming yourself with an understanding of how to protect your brain is one of the most important things you can do while caring for others.

Neuroscientists are finding that there are a number of excellent strategies that can help shield the brain from aging’s deleterious effects and to aid in its healthy functioning. Among these are Four Chart Toppers.

  1. EXERCISE FOR AT LEAST 30 MINUTES DAILY. Yes, it may seem impossible to squeeze one more thing into your busy days. Yet this strategy is critical to keep your own brain healthy as you perform your caregiving tasks. Exercise affects the hippocampus region of the brain. This is the part that is crucial for memory. It can stimulate new neuron development in the hippocampus, and can hold back decline by increasing the volume of this part of our brain. Scientists at the University of Illinois have determined that this increase can make up for approximately two years of normal age-related decrease.

For me, my favorite thing to do is run. While caregiving, I made sure I took time to run, even for 30 minutes every other day. Running made a huge difference in my mood and made me feel so much healthier and better about myself. While running may not be enjoyable or even possible for all, try to think about what activity makes you happy and gets you moving. Walking, hiking, swimming, an elliptical machine…whatever it is, it is crucial to make time for exercise.

  1. FOLLOW A MEDITERANEAN DIET. In your rush to care for others, it’s easy to neglect your own nutrition. This is not good for your brain! Eating well can give you the energy and stamina you need when you are looking after our loved ones. Studies are documenting that people who adhere to the Mediterranean diet have a marked decrease in dementia, heart problems and many other medical tribulations as they age.

The Mediterranean Diet is one that hinges on fresh fruits and vegetables. It can benefit the one you are caring for at the same time it keeps your own brains healthy. As Dr. Eckstrom advises, aim to get five colors every day! For example, spinach, tomatoes, peaches, blueberries, oranges or squash. Also, eat lots of whole grains (including whole-grain bread) and legumes (lentils, beans)…consume healthy oils such as olive oil…and limit red meat. Most of the protein advised for the Mediterranean Diet, other than beans, should be derived from fish and chicken.

  1. LEARN NEW THINGS! Challenging our brains to become skilled at something new is one of the best ways to maintain its function. So, how do you do that when you are stressed to the limit with caregiving loads? Once again, realize the importance of your own health to do your caregiving job…and let yourself think about things that, at one time or another, seemed interesting. Then try one.

There are many creative ways to learn. Learn a new language. Take up playing a musical instrument. Take an art class. For me, it was taking piano lessons again. I couldn’t do them as often as I wanted, but having music in my life was enriching…plus it encouraged my children to take up musical instruments too!

Attempting creative pursuits is strongly correlated with positive and healthy outcomes. Building new skills, partaking in hobbies (remember, you need to find time for hobbies even if you are a caregiver!) and engaging in creative activities all require the brain to remodel itself. This function jumpstarts growth of new brain cells. And these new cells act to replace those that are growing older or have become damaged.

  1. STAY ACTIVELY ENGAGED IN YOUR COMMUNITY. Again, caregivers may easily feel there is no time to become engaged in even one more thing. But as research is showing, staying involved in cultural, educational or civic activities is a critical aspect to keeping our brains healthy. Such pursuits reward us with beneficial social integration. Staying connected with family, friends, support groups and paid or volunteer work offers caregivers a healthy respite from duties, protects our brains, and acts as an antidote to depression.

One way I stayed involved was by participating, whenever I could, at my children’s school. I became “class photographer,” something that didn’t take much time but got me around young, energetic people and kids, which always improved my mood and gave me a renewed lease on life.

As any caregiver knows, your time is limited and demands can be fierce. Therefore, it is important to always bear in mind that keeping yourself healthy is the best thing you can do for both your loved one and yourself. By keeping your own brain healthy, you are contributing positively to the health and wellbeing of those who love and depend on you.

Now that my caregiving days are over, I still love to run, to play piano, to be involved with my children and my community. What’s more, all those activities did something else: They brought joy and interest to both my mother and father as I cared for them. Even if they couldn’t participate in the same way I was, they did so vicariously—loving to hear about their grandchildren’s school, or see the pictures, or hear all of us play the piano. By keeping my own brain healthy, I was able to care better for all those I love.

Click here to purchase Marcy’s book, The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents—and Ourselves— from the Perils of Modern Healthcare.

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