Three Voices of Encouragement

Three people popped into my view last week with ideas that are too good not to pass along. If you’re caring for a loved one, you might find their thoughts good refreshers. The last thing you need as a caregiver is more advice from someone, like me, who doesn’t understand your special situation.

Nor do you need to hear yet again the tiresome but true cliché: “If you want to take good care of your loved one you also need to take good care of yourself.” If your experience is anything like mine was over our 17-year odyssey I too often couldn’t find time to play and exercise. Or maybe it was I didn’t make the time.  

That said, there are moments when it’s good to take a deep breath and look at what we’re doing and why, in which we ask ourselves, “Is there a different approach that might be better? What can I do with my loved one that will help us both at the same time? What family or friends are willing to help that I’ve been shy about calling?”

These three persons offer important ways, I think, of helping us do just that: 1) What can I do to avoid burnout? 2) Just what is the point of “faith” in the midst of a burning crisis like Alzheimer’s? 3) How can something like meditation, secular or religious, be of help when I can’t find enough time even to sleep?

Caregiver Burnout—A Few Good Coping Tips
Carol Bradley Bursack is an online friend and one of the best out there with insights for taking care of your loved ones. She’s a journalist by trade and a former multi-tasking caregiver by default, as well as by choice.

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Carol’s daily post is titled Minding Our Elders and she writes for Health Central under the pen name The Candid Caregiver. I was struck by the simplicity and depth of understanding of her recent post titled Caregiver Burnout: A Pervasive Problem. In essence, she’s saying none of us is perfect so we need to stop trying to be. In this post, she writes about determining your priorities, setting realistic boundaries, making adjustments as necessary, seeking support, and watching your own health.

I wish I’d found someone like Carol as a guide two decades ago when my wife Martha was diagnosed at age 50 with early onset Alzheimer’s.

Finding Faith in Alzheimer’s. Huh?
You may have come across Greg O’Brien and his story of living with Alzheimer’s. An award-winning journalist, he wrote a book titled On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s. He continues to speak and write today as best he can, which is still quite articulate. His most recent column in Psychology Today is “Finding Faith in Alzheimer’s: As the brain atrophies in Alzheimer’s, the soul endures”.

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No, Greg is not trying to persuade you to believe in God or to believe a certain way. Rather, he’s describing how he’s learning “to speak and write through the heart, the place of the soul, when the mind fails”. Such practice helps him remain grounded in a Presence that he finds to be both within him and well beyond him.

When I began working on my book in 2014 I saw a number of caregiver guide books on the market, several quite good. So I decided to take a different tack. As a result Alzheimer’s is not the focus of our story; it’s the context. The focus of my book is the spiritual odyssey that unfolded before us over 17 years. It took me a while to understand, but I discovered that such a crisis—well really, any serious crisis—not only has practical day-to-day needs but is also weighed down with some heavy baggage—long embedded emotional and spiritual issues that must be addressed as best we can if we want any kind of wholeness and wellbeing. Deep-seated issues like resentments, fears, ill-defined anxiety, obsessions, and unending distractions. 

Our odyssey is a distant echo to what Greg experiences, who also has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which he told NBC News that he’s choosing to leave untreated. “That’s my exit strategy.”

Greg’s essay is powerful, no matter what you believe.   

Can Meditation Help Prevent Cognitive Decline?
Interesting studies are coming to light that help document ways that we might forestall or prevent the onset of cognitive decline. My last post, To Test for Genetics, or Not?, touched on the provable benefits of ample aerobic exercise and a good diet.

Now comes this interview with Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Sara Lazaar on the Being Patient website. Dr. Lazaar focuses her work on “how meditation could transform the brain and whether it could even help prevent additional memory loss in adults living with MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment) or early-stage Alzheimer’s”.

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Dr. Lazaar studies mostly secular forms of meditation rather than religious. And some conversations in this interview get too deep in the medical weeds for my understanding. But the underlying theme is that intentional meditation can contribute to the brain’s health and our wellbeing.  

Says Dr. Lazaar: “As you’re meditating, it’s sort of like physical exercise. As you activate a certain region, there’s going to be more branches and roots in that area, so it’s going to attract more branches and roots, and those are going to get strengthened over time. Just like the more you work out your arm muscles, the more you work a brain area…the more complex the connections are going to become, and it’s going to get bigger.”

You may remember that Martha and I began the practice of Christian meditation as described by the Benedictine monk, Father John Main. I have no idea what impact this had on Martha’s brain or mine. I do know that after a while our anxiety, which so overwhelmed us, began to diminish. Surprisingly, to me at least, I also began to feel a deepening intimacy with Martha that we’d not experienced in our 25 years of marriage. I sensed Martha did, too, even though she was unable to talk about it. And after she moved into a nursing home, I found this practice to be a wonderful connection between us when she was unable to walk or talk or take care of herself.

Thank you, Carol Bradley Bursack, Greg O’Brien, and Dr. Sara Lazaar.

I hope you find their thoughts as worthwhile as I did.    

Carlen Maddux

PS1 As usual, feel free to forward this post to your friends and family. If you’d like to sign up for my blog, there’s no charge; just click here.  

PS2 An inexpensive way to support the end of this disease is to buy several sheets of the Alzheimer’s first-class stamps at 65 cents a stamp. The net proceeds from its sales go to the National Institutes of Health for Alzheimer’s research. As of June, over 6.9-million stamps have been sold, raising $935,000. Join me and thousands of others to Help Stamp Out Alzheimer’s.


PS3  My book, A Path Revealed: How Hope, Love, and Joy Found Us Deep in a Maze Called Alzheimer’s, can be ordered from any bookstore or found on Amazon.

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