Caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients face days and nights filled with stress. Many do not ask for help because of personal pride, the expense of hiring attendants or the alienation due to the stigma of the disease. Many well-meaning friends and family members seem to fall by the wayside as Alzheimer’s is not a pretty disease and requires a calm patient interaction, especially when there is no recall of that interaction. However, there is an even more insidious toll on the caregiver which is an erosion of personal health and a shorter lifespan!
The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (September 15, 2007) cited not only the emotional toll of being a caregiver to an Alzheimer’s patient, but the physical toll as well. In a study comparing 41 caregivers with 41 non-caregivers, researchers observed that Alzheimer caregivers had shorter telomeres than non-caregivers. Telomeres are the genetic material at the end of chromosomes that promote proper cell division. While the natural aging process is responsible for shorter telomeres, the telomeres of those found in the group of caregivers were shortened up to eight years of aging beyond what was found in the control group. Also the caregivers’ group had fewer immune system T cells along with higher CRP levels, inflammation-promoting proteins.
When my father had Alzheimer’s, my mother was his caregiver while she ran their real estate business. Although I checked in frequently, visited, but the burden was hers. She was the one who lived with it 24/7. After my father passed on, a couple of years later she herself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I am convinced that stress was the tipping point in her disease.
Based on the studies and my personal experience, I want to alert caregivers to the lifesaving attributes of a support system. Research shows that those caregivers who receive emotional support, participate in support groups and get counseling both in person and on the phone, are healthier and more positive as they manage this disease process.
Each one of us has a right to live our authentic life with personal joy. Taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient, although an enormous task, should not define us and transform our identity. We must see the larger picture, the rich context of our lives.