It's the start of a new year and, like me, you're probably sitting there, staring at a blank sheet of paper, contemplating what you want to accomplish in 2015 and what 2014 mistakes you don't want to repeat. Will you resolve to lose weight... save money... manage stress better... eat healthier... run your first marathon... find a new job? I'll bet if you went back five years, 10 years, 20 years, your lists look pretty similar.
Someone very smart once observed, a "New Year's resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other." For me that was all too true, until I became a dementia caregiver. And that changed everything.
For a person who bears the onerous responsibility of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's or dementia, the new year always brings a heavy emotional burden. Realistically, we know that Alzheimer's is a fatal disease. There's no cure and no therapies to stop its progression. We know the road ahead only gets harder.
So, at a time when those around you are putting added pressure on themselves with what may be unrealistic and unattainable expectations, my message to every caregiver is don't do it. It's the last thing you need. As caregivers, we are already very hard on ourselves. We try to be superman or superwoman -- balancing our own lives, families, children, careers and problems with the extra worry of providing care for a mother, friend, sister or husband who has Alzheimer's or dementia.
Don't add to your load. Keep your resolutions simple. Keep them real. And, above all, keep them.
Resolve not to go it alone. Get help from the professionals. Help is there for you. Look for it and take advantage of it.
The Alzheimer's Association website is a great resource for information on everything from warning signs to myths about the disease, and from research developments to legislative updates.
But more important, it's a place where you can find help -- real help like support groups where you can share your experiences with other caregivers; workshops on when and how to choose residential care; educational initiatives on topics like finances, choosing a doctor and legal issues; and events that even get you of the house and into museums or the community.
Resolve to grow your circle of care. Too often, caregiving responsibilities fall disproportionately on the shoulders of one member of the family. As the new year begins, try to bring other family members into your circle of care. Ask them for help. Share your experience with them.
Maybe your sister can watch your husband while you go to the hairdresser. Think about it; how long has it been?
Maybe your grown son, who hasn't come around much since your wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, can take her and the grandkids out to the park while you take a well-deserved nap or go to the diner with your old bowling buddies.
It's also important for you to help family understand how hard this has been not just for YOU, but for the person who is ill. Teach them how to better communicate with their family member. Show them that despite the disease they can still participate in your lives in a loving and deeply meaningful way.
Resolve to be better prepared. I was never a great Girl Scout, but after dementia struck my father, I learned the hard way about the importance of being prepared. It was not until late in the progression of his disease that I realized that my mother -- his primary caregiver -- had spent so much time caring for him, that almost no legal and financial matters had been dealt with. Problems with military benefits, insurance claims and finances plagued us for years after his death. So by the time it was apparent that my mother, too, had dementia, I was ready.
I resolved to be vigilant about getting my mom's financial and legal house in order. You should too. Durable Powers of Attorney, Health Care Proxies and Living Wills should all be prepared at the time when the person is still of sound mind. It will save you years of aggravation and heartache and, worst case scenario, the expensive alternative of a custodial proceeding.
Resolve to take care of yourself. Make sure you schedule medical appointments for yourself. And then make sure you keep them! All too often, stressed caregivers feel they are too busy to go for an annual doctor's visit or mammogram, sometimes resulting in serious medical situations. Please, pay attention to your emotional well-being as well. As a caregiver, you are at a significantly increased risk for depression.
Last, and probably most important, resolve to give yourself a break -- literally and figuratively. Alzheimer's care is complicated and exhausting. Forgive yourself if you get annoyed, angry, frustrated or fed up with the situation. Many people caring for a relative with dementia feel guilty if they experience these normal feelings. It is natural to feel a range of emotions: from tender love, profound sadness and intense loss to mild annoyance and rage.
And, always remind yourself that you're doing the best you can in a difficult situation.
It'll be a happier New Year if you make and keep these simple resolutions.