Caregivers, be proactive to ward off isolation

Marci Vandersluis writes the Embrace Your Aging column. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Marci Vandersluis writes the Embrace Your Aging column. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

My family noticed that our dad was becoming more forgetful, and soon after we started to realize that our mom was reluctant to talk about this change in his cognition.

Mom was protective of her spouse often rationalizing that, for example, dad got lost on his way home because he was detoured from his regular route, or that a neglected bill payment was a result of miscommunication between the two of them, thinking that each other had made the payment.

As his memory issues become more evident, mom found that dad was most at ease with her in their own home. So, despite having a strong social network, and supportive family with very willing hands, she declined their offers for support.

Invitations for both she and our dad remained unanswered, and outings were mostly limited to grocery shopping and medical appointments. As she assumed the formidable responsibility of being her husband’s primary caregiver, feelings of gratification at being able to support her life partner blended with the realization of a disconnect from the life that she and he had prior to his dementia diagnosis.

A study conducted by the Stanford Center on Longevity found that family caregivers, particularly older caregivers run the risk of poor well-being and depression when caring for a loved one.

To complicate matters, often times the longer family caregivers provide help to loved ones, the less social support they receive. Many caregivers who continue to turn down opportunities to spend time with others may find that, in wanting to respect these wishes, friends will began to withdraw.

Another reason that may contribute to feelings of isolation as noted in a recent AARP publication, is that “caregivers may become so consumed with their duties, tightly organizing each day around those tasks, they stop nurturing other relationships and neglect their own enjoyment. Guilt about going out socially may keep them confined home, instead of viewing spending time with others as an important and beneficial outlet. As gerontologist Carey Sherman so aptly notes, “caregiving is done with a lot of love and affection, but there is a lot of loss involved. It can be a very lonely and isolating experience.”

While the emotional toll of caregiver isolation can be overwhelming, the physical consequences can be equally worrisome. Information from a recent New York Times article noted that those with fewer social connections (which may be an unintended consequence of fulltime primary caregiving) might experience disrupted sleep patterns, lower immune function, memory issues and increased risk for heart disease. Caregivers often neglect personal health responsibilities, which may result in unaddressed medical concerns. Most upsetting is that data from multiple studies suggesting that loneliness and social isolation may negatively impact longevity.

Caregivers, you are not alone. Help is available. As difficult as it may be, try not to turn down offers of assistance. If a loved one is most settled when home, suggest to a friend that rather then dine out they bring a meal to you so that you can be at ease together. If a friend or family wants to visit and offers some respite, spend this time out of the house and do something for you. Be proactive, and, even if thought to be premature, search the Internet and talk with others to learn about local caregiver support groups, Agencies on Aging and other caregiver options. This knowledge can help in the event of an unexpected crisis.

Of equal importance, though often easier said then done, schedule a visit with your primary care physician to discuss your feelings regarding caregiving responsibilities.

Marci Vandersluis is a licensed social worker and has a master’s degree in gerontology. She is employed as a care manager assisting older adults in the community connect with needed services. Email: marcirobinvandersluis@gmail.com.

Resources

Area Agency on Aging: 937-223-HELP (4357) or http://info4seniors.org

National Caregiver Alliance: 800-445-8106 or www.caregiver.org

United Way's Help link 211: 937-225-3000 or http://dayton-unitedway.org/call-211/

Alzheimer's Association: 800-272-3900 or https://alz.org/dayton/in_my_community_support.asp