Jun 152012
 
mother_daughter_noses

Whether your musical tastes run to the 70s television show with the Partridge family singing their theme song, C’mon Get Happy, or the 1950s song that inspired it, Get Happy, made famous by Judy Garland, the message is that happiness is in our hands not something we are handed.

When it comes to caring for a loved one, happiness may not be the first emotion that you would associate with a life role that many find overwhelming, frustrating, exhausting and time-consuming. Yet, as I researched more about happiness and how we go about creating the happy factor in our lives, it was apparent that many of the activities associated with caregiving are actually the principles that experts say will make us happier in our lives.

Following are five principles identified by Dr. Ian K. Smith in his book, Happy   Simple Steps to Get the Most Out of Life. I have taken his principles and added my own caregiving take on these tenets along with some tips on enhancing each of these ideas to create the maximum happiness along your caregiving journey.

1. Be kind, do something nice for someone, volunteer
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 75 percent of caregivers feel they had no choice to become a caregiver, the need was there and they were the one to fill the role. Even if you felt you had no choice, you have volunteered for one of life’s most important roles  caring for a loved one. This is one of the kindest, nicest gifts you can give another person. You are paying it forward for your own care later in life.

My tip: Be kind to yourself just like you are kind and caring to your loved one. Take the time to write yourself a thank-you letter for everything you do  the patience, the time, the love you are providing. Take this letter out and read it on days when you feel down or like you cannot go on. Congratulate yourself for the wonderful gift of caring  and the gift of volunteering  that you are giving.

2. Strengthen and deepen personal relationships
We know from numerous studies that isolation is bad for our older loved ones  it impacts both their health (such as not eating properly or enough) and their wellness (sometimes leading to depression). By spending quality time with your loved one, you are helping them achieve better happiness. What will take this up one more notch is to talk to them about days gone by. When I would spend time with my grandpa  he loved to talk about his early childhood growing up in Cleveland and riding the wooden roller coaster at Euclid Beach. Nostalgia and legacies are important to our older loved ones and we can learn a lot we may not have known about our family’s history.

The flip side of this happiness principle is carving out time to strengthen your other relationships. What researchers at Harvard University and the University of California at San Diego found is that our friendships actually can improve our happiness quotient. Their study showed that happiness is like a virus that spreads through social networks  your friends’ happiness and even their friends’ happiness can affect (or infect) you. The happiness of a first degree contact friend increases your happiness by 15 percent!

My tip: Increase your happiness factor  carve out time to grab a coffee or go on a walk with a happy friend and feel your spirit uplifted.

3. Develop a spiritual life – practice forgiveness
When we search for deeper meanings in life, believe in a higher power, or just take the time to understand both our own and other’s limitations, we are on the path to more happiness in our lives. Numerous studies have shown that our spirituality increases as we age. Forgiving your loved one for their behaviors  whether it is their crankiness, their obstinance or their constant needs  is hard for caregivers. Take these trying times and forgive your loved one because in the end they are probably afraid and that often changes our personalities. For your sake, find an expert that can give you techniques on how to cope so you can maintain your happiness level.

My tip: It is important that caregivers find experts: geriatric care managers, a therapist or caregiver support groups can all help you find ways to forgive the person you are caring for and forge new ways to cope when you get frustrated. Caregiving support groups can be a terrific resource on techniques on coping.

4. Spend money on someone else
This is a little tricky because sacrificing your own financial future is a concern I have for caregivers. A National Alliance for Caregiving study showed that one-half of all caregivers spend 10 percent of their annual salary on care-related costs. While you do not want to go bankrupt while caring for your loved one, feeling good about paying for something your loved one needs can be very satisfying and puts a deposit into your happiness account.

My tip: Ensure you talk to your financial planner or accountant about your caregiving responsibilities and especially about what you are spending out of your own pocket so they can help you save your nest egg. It may be that some of these costs can be covered under Medicare or Medicaid or you may even be able to qualify for tax credits if your loved one depends solely on you and other criteria you must meet to claim them as a dependent.

5. Be hopeful (the glass half full form of optimism)
The Mayo Clinic actually did a study tracking participants over a 30-year period and found that the optimists had a 19 percent higher chance of still being alive and that they suffered less from depression. Other studies have shown that optimistic people have less chronic stress because they view setbacks as minor incidents that can be overcome. We know chronic stress is the number one factor that causes caregivers to develop chronic illness at twice the rate as the general public according to a study by the Commonwealth Fund.

My tip: One of the characteristics of an optimist is the power of their smile  remember how good you feel when someone smiles at you? You inevitably smile back and for a few seconds all seems right with the world. Even though you may be blue or having one of those days  try smiling. It is hard to be mad or sad when you have a smile on your face.  Sonja Lyubomirsky, a researcher at the University of California at Riverside and who has long studied the health impacts of smiling, finds that people tend to mirror each other. Smiling is truly infectious  it catches on faster than the flu. You will be amazed how happy you are when you just smile.

Charles Schultz, cartoonist and creator of the Peanuts comic strip said “Happiness is a warm puppy and a side of French fries.” I am smiling as I write this (because I agree with him) and I hope you are smiling as you read it. Caregiving can be many things and maybe it can even make you happier.

©2012 Sherri Snelling

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About Blog Author Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self care” while caring for a loved one. She is the former chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving and is currently writing a book about celebrities who have been caregivers.

 

Jun 012012
 
Lee and Val

I’m Valerie Ferrero, wife, mother and care partner. My husband Lee was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s (also known as early-onset Alzheimer’s)  in November 2008. This is the beginning of my story…..

It is difficult to know what action to take, what plans to make, or what the future holds when you don’t have the answer to the “elephant in the room.” It took more than seven years for us to get Lee’s diagnosis of younger-onset Alzheimer’s.

We began noticing problems when Lee was in his early- to mid-50s. He was the CEO/President of a local non-profit. I realized that things were worse than I suspected when his staff started calling me to find out what was going on or why he missed a meeting. I had been noticing early signs for some time by this point.

I really didn’t know that the problem would turn out to be Alzheimer’s. For one thing my husband was young.  Alzheimer’s happened to older people — or so I thought. He kept telling me it was the stress of his job, and I preferred to think that rather than any alternative.

In our quest for answers, we visited the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2006, where Lee was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment and Executive Dysfunction. The doctor prescribed a low dose of Aricpet and suggested that Lee might want to retire. He also stressed that Mild Cognitive Impairment does not necessarily turn in to Alzheimer’s. The doctor wanted us to return in a year.

We returned home and went about our daily lives. We saw a bit of improvement in Lee’s memory issues. But as the year went on, I was still hearing from his office and noticing changes myself.  Lee has always been a “people” person. Suddenly, he didn’t want to go to events or meetings. I sensed changes in his personality.  Negativity was creeping in where it had never been before. The little things were slowly becoming bigger issues. My once confident husband was losing his self-confidence. He began to second guess himself. And he worked longer and longer hours to make up for the loss of work time in the day.

His work was still stressful and he had become distant and defensive.  Things were getting progressively worse. We returned to the Mayo Clinic about a year and half later. The first visit we were there for several days. This time we flew in and out the same day.  The diagnosis was still Mild Cognitive Impairment and Executive Dysfunction.  The doctor wanted to continue to monitor his progress.

Again, we continued on in our everyday world, but friends were beginning to ask if anything was wrong. Lee was showing more signs of something being very wrong and of considerable stress. He had convinced himself that it was only work-related stress, but by this time I could no longer ignore the “elephant in the room.”

Our children were very aware of the problem from speaking with him every weekend and when they visited. The same story would be repeated over and over again. The same question asked over and over again.  This was creating a great deal anxiety for me. I was working and trying to balance the situation at home. It became increasingly difficult. I really needed answers.

I began to notice several troubling changes. He became dependent and seemed to need to know that I was around. This was something totally alien to me. I finally mentioned to our doctor that we needed to do something closer to home. This is when he mentioned the University of California, San Francisco. Another patient suffered similar problems and had had good luck at UCSF.

We scheduled the appointment as soon as possible. Our daughter, Jenny, was pregnant with our grandson John at the time. Our son, Eric, lives in Manhattan. Eric offered to go to the clinic with us. At first I resisted thinking of his costs and time. Fortunately, I relented and he met us in San Francisco. He set up the hotel rooms and everything for us. It was really helpful to have him there.

We were scheduled for early in the morning. I brought copies of all of the records from our never-ending quest for a diagnosis. The day before the visit Lee had an MRI of the brain. We picked up the CD of the scan to take with us. Lee went off with a couple of doctor’s and Eric and I met with other staff. They asked a lot of questions, and I gave them the records we’d brought with us. A little after noon, Lee and the doctor came out. The doctor said that we needed to return about 2 p.m. for a meeting and review of the morning.

Off we went to lunch on the campus. We arrived back at the memory clinic and waited in a conference room with a long table. We were joined by the different members of the staff that the three of us had been meeting with earlier, as well as students and some other doctors. There was a doctor from England. Dr. Bruce Miller, the memory center director.

Dr. Miller asked what we wanted to get out of the visit. My response, “answers.” He then explained the diagnosis. It was “Early Onset Alzheimer’s” (now often referred to as “Younger Onset Alzheimer’s).  He did several tests right there with Lee and asked him a number of questions. The other doctors also asked questions.

Dr. Miller advised Lee that he would have to retire. Lee didn’t think that retiring would be necessary. Eric asked Dr. Miller, “Would it be feasible for my Dad to get another job? He thinks that all he needs to do is get another job without stress.” Dr. Miller advised Lee that retirement was a must. He would not be able to work again. He could get another job and not remember what he was doing one day or why he was there. He recommended doing any of the things that we really wanted to do in the next couple of years.

Even though I was expecting to hear something like Alzheimer’s, it was still mind numbing to actually hear it. Dr. Miller asked if Lee would be willing to make a video for students. He wanted to demonstrate a highly functional, articulate younger than usual person with Alzheimer’s. Lee readily agreed.

We went back to the hotel and called our daughter. Even though she too knew the probable outcome, she was in tears. We were all both physically and emotionally drained. The next morning Eric headed back to New York and we started the four hour drive home.  We talked a little but were really feeling the weight of the diagnosis and lost in our own thoughts.

Forward to today: On most days, I understand and accept the diagnosis. Some days, however, I wonder if there’s been a mistake. For a brief, shining moment our world seems normal.  Then in the blink of an eye, we’re back in the reality of the situation. But while Alzheimer’s complicates our lives, it doesn’t end them. We try to live more in the present and to educate ourselves as much as possible about the disease. Knowledge helps us cope. We  attend a support group for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s and their care partners,  and we volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association whenever possible. They give so much too so many that we like to give back whenever we are able.

Read Lee’s experience receiving a diagnosis of younger-onset Alzheimer’s.

Blog author Val Ferrero is a Senior Admissions Advisor with California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.  In 2008, Val’s spouse Lee Ferrero was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since that time, Val has committed herself as a care partner and advocate in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Val and Lee have been married for 41 years and together have 2 children and one grandchild.

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