When caring at home for my mom whose diagnosis was probable Alzheimer’s disease, I experienced stress that took its toll on my body. My symptoms included daily tension headaches and a bout of Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS. When I lost 20 pounds and my diet consisted of liquids, my head finally realized what my deteriorating health was telling me, that I could no longer care for mom at home.I was not an isolated case, for according to the Alzheimer’s Association many caregivers frequently report high levels of stress. Caregiver stress signs from their online Caregiver Center include denial, about the disease and its effect on the person diagnosed; anger, at the person with Alzheimer’s that he or she can’t do the things they used to do; and social withdrawal, from friends and activities that used to make you feel good. Other signs are anxiety about the future and facing another day, depression that breaks your spirit and ability to cope, and exhaustion that makes it nearly impossible to complete necessary daily tasks. Still other signs are sleeplessness caused by a never-ending list of concerns, irritability that leads to moodiness and triggers negative responses, lack of concentration that makes it difficult to perform daily tasks, and health problems that begin to take a physical and mental toll.
If you are a caregiver, perhaps you recognize in this list of stress reactions something of your own experience in caregiving. If so, consider meditation to lower your stress level.
Recently our Alzheimer’s Association support group members listened to Nicole Cangero from Vitas Healthcare as she led us in a meditation. She first talked about mindfulness, defined as the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are, and what we are doing. Mindfulness is easy, according to Nicole, but it takes practice. “It is a matter of taking a breath, slowing down and pausing, especially when you would normally react in a hurried or frantic way to a stressful event. Meditation then, is the practice of turning your attention to a single point of reference. This can be your breathing, a bodily sensation or a word or phrase known as a mantra.”
Nicole stated, “There should be no pressure to be perfect at meditating, to feel you must do it right. Learning to meditate is about taking time for you. This is an opportunity to quiet your mind and rest your body. This is not about self-judgment or getting upset at your wandering mind. When distracting thoughts come to your mind, acknowledge them and then go back to your intended focus.”
Nicole suggests finding a time, perhaps early in the morning or at night. “Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands resting on your lap. Close your eyes and begin taking slow, deep breaths from your belly. Feel the air coming into your body and as you exhale, let the stress go out with your breath. Feel your body rise and fall with each breath and let go of more and more tension as you go further into a state of relaxation. When your time is up, slowly open your eyes and become aware of your surroundings.”
If a caregiver, finding a quiet time at home to practice meditation may be difficult. If that is your situation, there are several meditation opportunities to consider on the island. One is held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church every Thursday at 6:30 PM. I recently revisited it as a way to lower my stress from doing too much during this busy season.
Shoes can be shed or not in the library, however the meditation begins in the adjacent chapel where about 15 of us sat in silence until we were invited to stand and move and stretch our bodies. The night I attended, Patty Myers, the lead facilitator, was absent because of a death in the family. Fritzi Holmes, co-facilitator, led us in a mindful moment with a focus on breathing. Then we said our names and with the sound of a gong, began a 15-minute silent meditation. After a busy day, my thoughts and breathing slowed and my body started to relax.
The next optional exercise was a longer walking meditation in the twilight and quiet of the sanctuary. Fritzi suggested we coordinate our steps with the silent, “I have arrived, I am home.” We followed her single file walking as slowly as possible. Clear windows in the front and sides of the sanctuary let the outside in and the A/C made it comfortable. While daily walks are a stress-reliever for me, during the sanctuary meditation I was distracted by being too aware of the person in front of and behind me and would have preferred more physical space between walkers. We rejoined those who had chosen to remain in the chapel.
After a few minutes of silence, Dr. Rich Blonna, lifestyle coach, author, Coastal Breeze News columnist, and session cofacilitator, spoke of mindful moments be- ing always in the present, never the past or future. When other thoughts come, he said redirect your mind to the present. Being mindful also includes being non-judgmental and, though you notice what is going on in your mind or environment, you don’t judge or evaluate what you are experiencing. Mindful moments are silent moments according to Rich, when the only talking is self-talk and are not thinking or planning moments. He added, figuring out, sorting out, and solving things takes you out of just noticing the present moment. When you find yourself doing these other things, redirect your focus back to just noticing.
After Dr. Blonna shared a few personal experiences about connectedness and spirituality, participants were encouraged to share their own thoughts and a number of people did, ending the hour and a half meditation and discussion.
When Patty, the meditation leader returned home, she reminded me that meditation is just one way to be mindful. “It’s a tool we use to strengthen our ability to focus.” We can be mindful walking, even brushing our teeth.”
Another way to lower stress and focus may be yoga classes available currently at Mackle Park on Wednesdays at 12:30 and 1:30 PM, at Marco Lutheran Church on Mondays and Thursdays at 12:30 and 2 PM, and on South Beach Monday – Wednesday at 5:30 PM and Thursday – Sunday at 8:30 AM. Meditation & Mindfulness sessions by psychotherapist Christine Sanderbeck are led year-round at Mackle Park, Wednesdays at 10-11 AM, $10 for adults.
The online Caregiver Center suggests other ways of managing stress including visualizing a place or situation that is peaceful and calm and progressive muscle relaxation (tightening and then relaxing each muscle group starting at one end of the body and working to the other). Other tips include checking out in-home assistance and meal delivery providers to make life easier and less stressful.
Another option is the new dementia respite program on Marco Island that still has a few spaces left. On Mondays and Wednesdays for four hours from 10:30 AM to 2:30 PM those enrolled in the program located at St. Mark’s Church on the corner of N. Collier Boulevard and East Elkcam Circle participate in activities to stimulate brains and bodies. These include computerized games, trivia questions, art and music therapy, a catered lunch, meditation and chair yoga. Caregivers who wish to enroll their loved ones can call Naples Senior Center at 239-325-4444 and ask for an interview with Rhonda Eisenberg, social worker.
If you’ve had a hectic day with your brain working overtime, your body stressed, perhaps you might do what I’m planning next: to sit in my comfortable chair, feet flat on the floor, hands in my lap, eyes closed and focus on my breathing, not thinking, not judging, speaking, planning. Hope you can do the same.
Shirley Woolaway has an M. Ed. in counseling and worked in journalism, in business, and as a therapist in Pennsylvania. She has 25 years personal experience with dementia as a caregiver for family members with Alzheimer’s disease, and nine years as the coordinator of an Alzheimer’s Association memory loss/caregiver support group, earlier in Pennsylvania and now on Marco Island. We believe that Shirley’s insights will prove helpful to many of our readers.
For help on all aspects of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias call the national Alzheimer’s Association confidential, 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900 or the local Bonita Springs office at 239-405-7008 for care consults and support group information. Also helpful with local educational programs, workshops, and support groups, is the Naples Alzheimer’s Support Network, 239-262-8388.