While we enthusiastically share the message that a healthy lifestyle is important, Highmark Health employees don’t just talk the talk — we also walk the talk (#IWalktheTalk). In this series, employees share their stories and tips on achieving and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Mom sitting in the gazebo outside her apartment building.

Mom sitting in the gazebo outside her apartment building.

When my mom was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I didn’t believe it. Sure, she had been forgetting things, but it was more of an annoyance than anything else. She still cooked dinner, visited family and friends, and could easily hold a conversation. In fact, until that day at the doctor’s office when we got the news, she was still driving.

I didn’t take the diagnosis seriously until a few months later. It was the Fourth of July, and I was talking to some friends at a picnic. During our conversation, Mom walked over and introduced herself. At first I thought she was joking, but I soon realized she did not know who they were.

These were my closest friends whom I grew up with. They participated in our family activities and even went along on vacations. Mom thought of my friends like her own children. Now I was introducing her to them as if she were meeting them for the first time.

More Care Needed, With Fewer Caregivers

I wasn’t sure what to expect from that point on, so I consulted with the doctor. She told me that Mom would eventually need round-the-clock care. When that day came, my dad declared himself her primary caregiver. He took care of her day and night, with my sister and me helping on weekends.

Our system worked well for the first year. Then Dad got sick, and when he recovered, could no longer care for Mom. The responsibility shifted to us. We were not prepared for our extended role as caregivers. There was so much we didn’t know.

There were doctor appointments, medications, making sure Mom did not leave the house on her own, and so much more. The stress of having full-time jobs, our own families, and caring for not only Mom but Dad too, soon began to take a toll on us.

Caring for Yourself While Caring for a Loved One

According to the National Care Planning Council, 25.8 million people care for loved ones that have a disability or chronic illness.

That’s a big responsibility that should not be taken lightly. But one of the best ways to care for your loved one is to take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Here are a few tips that I learned that may help you.

Visit Your Doctor

Woman holding senior woman's hand on bedAccording to the Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA), caregivers tend to have higher cholesterol and blood pressure compared to non-caregivers. The FCA also reports that 59 percent of caregivers suffer from clinical depression. Beyond the stress that caregiving can entail, another contributing factor to these and other health issues is that caregivers may put off going to the doctor and getting preventive health care.

It’s important to visit your doctor at least once a year even if you feel ok. That becomes even more important when you’re dealing with the extra challenges that caregiving may bring. Ignoring issues such as fatigue, stress, and sleepless nights can cause your health to decline.

It’s also a good idea to get a seasonal flu shot and any other necessary vaccinations. This is not only for your health, but to protect the health of the person you’re caring for — especially if their condition may result in a weakened immune system.

Eat Healthy Foods

Caring for someone is a lot of work, and often the last thing you want to think about is your eating habits. But poor nutrition is another thing that can not only impact your health but also drain the energy you need to be a good caregiver.

Your caregiving responsibilities may mean there isn’t always time for the ideal shopping trip or meal preparation. That makes it important to plan ahead, so that you don’t find yourself snacking on unhealthy foods. Remember that some of the healthiest foods are also the simplest and don’t require much preparation time. For example, my dad always made sure there were plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables for my sister and me to eat while we were caring for my mom.

Get Plenty of Exercise

Exercise? Who has time for that when you’re a caregiver?

Every caregiving situation is different, of course — but it’s understandable that many caregivers struggle to find time and energy for the gym, long jogs or bike rides, swimming and similar activities. However, if you redefine “exercise” to fit your situation, you may find it’s not as hard as you thought to build some healthy activity into your days.

First, look for small windows of opportunities to stretch or move. If you’re in a house with steps, go up and down the stairs a few times. There may also be ways to combine some exercise with your caregiving. In my case, my mom loved being outdoors, so I took advantage of that by driving us to the local park to walk. Walking is not only a good way to stay healthy, it’s also a good way to relieve stress.

Ask for Help

It may be important (or possible) for only one or two people to do primary caregiving for someone, but caregiving is not all or nothing — it’s healthier for all involved to approach it as a team activity. If you’re in that very demanding role as a primary caregiver, it’s ok to ask for help from other family members or friends.

My sister and I were not shy about that. We have another sister and a brother who could not commit to the amount of time we gave to my mom and dad because of distance. But that didn’t stop us from asking them for help. The key here is to focus on what people can do to help, not what they can’t. For example, our sister scheduled all of my mom’s appointments with doctors, since she could do that even without living nearby. And our brother took on the responsibility for coming in to take our dad shopping.

It’s ok to get professional help, too. When my dad was sick, we hired a nurse to sit with our mom during the day, so we could focus on his care while he was in the hospital. Friends were more than willing to help out, too. Some sat with our mom to give us a break, others made dinner for us. Every little bit helps, and often all you need to do is ask and people will step up.

Take a Break

Speaking of breaks — there is nothing wrong with needing to take a break. In fact, it’s a good idea. In my case, I was fortunate because my sister and I were able to rotate our days with Mom and Dad so that we each had time to rest and take care of ourselves. But even if you don’t have the advantage of a regular rotation like that, don’t hesitate to tap family, friends or a professional service to step in so you can take some time away from caregiving when you need it.

Write It All Down

While in the caregiver role, I kept a journal — writing down my thoughts, struggles and triumphs. I kept a record of Mom’s progress, Dad’s care, and small but meaningful moments like Mom reaching for my hand right before falling asleep.

A few months ago, Mom passed away. Reading what I had written has given me a better perspective of the past few years. There were a lot of good days. In fact, there were more good than bad. It also helped me to see the deeper bond that was formed between Mom, Dad, my siblings, and I. What we were going through wasn’t easy, but it brought us closer together.

Focus on What Matters

Being a caregiver can be stressful — but it can also be rewarding. After all, you’re doing this for someone you love — you’re making a difference in their lives when they need it most.

Although caring for my mom and dad has been challenging, I would do it all again if I had to. I will always cherish the days I spent caring for them.