Aug 14, 2012

Caring From the Heart

Although there was heart ache and pain in watching Pat’s decline, I am grateful that I was able to be a source of love and support for them both during that difficult time.

By Donna McCullough

As a psychologist in private practice and through my prior work at the UCSD Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center evaluating the cognitive decline of patients with dementia, I am familiar with the toll that this disease takes on both the patients and family members.

Personally, I was involved with the care for my step-father, Pat, who experienced Alzheimer’s disease for several years before he made his transition earlier this year.

I was a support person for my Mother who was his primary care giver. Although there was heart ache and pain in watching Pat’s decline, I am grateful that I was able to be a source of love and support for them both during that difficult time. So often my Mom would become fatigued, overwhelmed and hopeless, and in turn Pat seemed to sense her distress, thus becoming more anxious and discontent.

Many of us have sought answers to questions about how to improve the quality of life for both the Alzheimer’s patient and the caregiver. In borrowing from what I know about emotional health and healing from other areas of psychology and spirituality, I would like to offer some ideas that might shed some light on dealing with Alzheimer’s related issues.

Although it is not always apparent, we all have unlimited amounts of energy available to us at all times regardless of our age. When we can tap into this energy, we feel more energized and are able to cope better with challenges.

What blocks us from experiencing this energy? Closing our hearts can close off this unlimited flow of energy. Here's an example, Imagine a 20 year old guy whose girl friend just broke up with him. He's heart-broken, miserable, and depressed. Day after day he lies on the couch. His friends call but he has no energy to go out. Then one day SHE calls and says "I'm so sorry. I made such a mistake. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. Can I please come over and talk to you about us getting back together?" Well how long do you think it will take him to get up off the couch, get himself together and have her over? Instantly. So his energy was there all along just blocked by the closing of his heart due to the break up.

When his girlfriend broke up with him it is likely that he had thoughts that contributed to his despair, such as “I’m not good enough” or “I’ll never find someone I love as much as her” or “What’s wrong with me that she doesn’t love me?”

Fear-based and negative thoughts such as these cause people to close down their hearts. If you pay attention to how you react to negative situations you will notice that you might hold your breath, tighten your chest, tense your shoulders, clench your jaw etc. We have many ways of tightening up when faced with bad news. This tightening up, blocks our natural flow of energy.

Chronically difficult situations, such as the daily stresses of dealing with someone with dementia can have this same effect on the closing of one’s heart and blocking the natural flow of energy.

One way to keep the heart open is to take several deep breaths while silently saying to oneself “I am relaxing my chest and opening my heart.” (It is important to use present tense when using affirmations.) It’s a matter of being consciously aware of when the heart is closing (e.g., either by noticing which situations trigger the closing and/or by noticing when the chest feels tight) and then choosing to use the breath to open it.

For a caregiver of someone with Alzheimer’s disease this deep breathing could be occurring on and off throughout the day. Each time the patient becomes agitated, or every time the caregiver becomes frustrated with having to answer the same question over and over again, they could be using the breath to open their heart and allowing more energy to flow in their bodies.

If a caregiver could keep their heart open even in the midst of dealing with the painful situation of watching a loved one struggle with Alzheimers, it would mean that they would have more energy to help redirect the Alzheimer’s patient. Since most people tend to have less patience when they are tired, by keeping their heart open a caregiver is likely to respond to their loved one with more patience. In addition, the caregiver would probably feel more loving and empathic towards the patient. This way of responding would have a very positive effect on the patient as well as the caregiver. As I saw with Pat and my Mom, when the caregiver responds to the patient in a more loving and nurturing way the patient becomes more calm and cooperative.

Another way to keep the heart open and to recharge the caregiver is by choosing positive thoughts that reflect the good work that the caregiver is doing.

Everyone feels better after hearing something good about what they are doing instead of focusing on the negative. As we saw in the example above with the 20 year old whose girl friend broke up with him, the messages that we give ourselves (i.e., our thoughts) are connected to our hearts.

Barbara Derrick, PhD, a psychologist in South Carolina developed a form of therapy called “Suggestive Therapy” which uses affirmative statements to help both dementia patients and their caregivers to feel better about themselves. Dr. Derrick conducted a research project where she had both Residential Care Facility patients and their caregivers listen to daily positive affirmations for a period of months. The results of her study show that patients who listened to these affirmations were more cooperative and easier to redirect than patients who did not listen to the affirmations.

Dr. Derrick also found that caregivers who listened to the affirmations, had greater job satisfaction and their rate of absenteeism dropped significantly. It may be that the patients became more cooperative as a result hearing the positive affirmations and because they sensed the caregiver’s more positive attitude.

So in summary, it is helpful for caregivers to remember to stay aware of feelings, especially the tendency to close up the heart, use the breath as a way to relax and open the heart, and choose thoughts and affirmations to help the mind and heart stay open and positive.

Good luck to you. Remember that you are doing an important job, and a difficult one.

Take care of yourself and don’t forget to breath!

Donna McCullough, PhD is a psychologist with a private practice in Laguna Hills, CA and co-founder of Affirmative Therapy Products.

Original the Alzheimer's Reading Room