One of my best tools as a caregiver is the practice of mindfulness.
I mention mindfulness today because I’ve just read about a study of mindfulness training as a way to help people with early-stage dementia and their caregivers. You can read the article below, but first, some background.
How Mindfulness Helps Me in Caregiving
According to the scientists at the Greater Good Science Center, “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” It sounds simple, and it is, though it’s also complex, and subtle. Mindfulness takes practice.
Practicing mindfulness, for me, means paying attention to what happens in the moment and just noticing my responses, without judging myself for what I think and feel. As I learned in holistic nurse Pamela Katz Ressler’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course a few years ago, mindfulness is not about setting and achieving a goal, but about repeatedly practicing an attitude of nonjudgmental awareness. I can practice mindfulness formally, in meditation, or informally, in my everyday life.
Mindfulness, for me, is a simple three-step process:
- I notice what is happening, both in my mind and body, internally, and outside me, in the world.
- I watch as my mind slips away into thoughts and feelings about the past and the future.
- I bring my mind back to the present moment and notice what is happening again.
As a caregiver, mindfulness helps me because it helps me stay focused and attentive in challenging moments, no matter what is happening. When I’m shocked or startled by a sudden symptom that one of my clients is experiencing, mindfulness helps me regain my balance. When I’m slogging through a rough patch in my personal life, mindfulness helps restore my energy and courage.
Mindfulness Training for Early-Stage Dementia Patients and Their Caregivers
Given how helpful mindfulness training has been for me, I heartily recommend it for caregivers. But what about people with memory issues? Can mindfulness training be adapted to help dementia patients, too, despite their cognitive impairments? Northwestern University researchers are reporting success, at least for people in the early stages of the disease. Below is Northwestern’s article describing the study results, which are receiving wide attention in the news.
CHICAGO — Mindfulness training for individuals with early-stage dementia and their caregivers together in the same class was beneficial for both groups, easing depression and improving sleep and quality of life, reports new Northwestern Medicine study.
“The disease is challenging for the affected person, family members and caregivers,” said study lead author Ken Paller, professor of psychology at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and a fellow of the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Although they know things will likely get worse, they can learn to focus on the present, deriving enjoyment in the moment with acceptance and without excessive worry about the future. This is what was taught in the mindfulness program.”
The study will be published August 25 in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.
Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s are particularly hard on caregivers, who are often close family members. They tend to have an increased incidence of anxiety, depression, immune dysfunction and other health concerns as well as an increased mortality rate, according to prior studies.
This is the first study to show that the caregiver and the patient both benefit from undergoing mindfulness training together. This is important because caregivers often don’t have much time on their own for activities that could relieve their emotional burden.
The training also helps the patient and caregiver accept new ways of communicating, scientists said.
“One of the major difficulties that individuals with dementia and their family members encounter is that there is a need for new ways of communicating due to the memory loss and other changes in thinking and abilities,” noted study co-author Sandra Weintraub, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Feinberg and a neuropsychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “The practice of mindfulness places both participants in the present and focuses on positive features of the interaction, allowing for a type of connection that may substitute for the more complex ways of communicating in the past. It is a good way to address stress.”
The study included 37 participants including 29 individuals who were part of a patient-caregiver pair. Most of the patients were diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia. Others had memory loss due to strokes or frontotemporal dementia, which affects emotions as well as speaking and understanding speech. Caregivers included patients’ spouses, adult children, a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law.
Although the individuals with Alzheimer’s had mild to severe memory loss, they still were able to use other cognitive functions to participate in the mindfulness training and to experience emotion and positive feelings, Weintraub noted.
The participants attended eight sessions designed specifically for the needs of patients with memory loss due to the terminal neurodegenerative illness (dementia) and for the needs of their caregivers. Both groups completed an assessment within two weeks of starting the program and within two weeks of completing it.
Paller had expected mindfulness to be helpful for dementia caregivers based on previous research in the field. But he was uncertain whether a program would be successful for patients with memory impairments and whether patients and their caregivers could be trained together.
“We saw lower depression scores and improved ratings on sleep quality and quality of life for both groups,” said Paller, director of the cognitive neuroscience program. “After eight sessions of this training we observed a positive difference in their lives.”
“Mindfulness involves attentive awareness with acceptance for events in the present moment,” Paller said. “You don’t have to be drawn into wishing things were different. Mindfulness training in this way takes advantage of people’s abilities rather than focusing on their difficulties.”
Developing mindfulness is about learning different habits and a person has to practice a new habit for it to stick, Paller noted.
Paller said he hoped the study findings would encourage caregivers to seek out resources for learning mindfulness for themselves and the individuals with illness.
THE STUDY: Read the study.Editor’s Note: Thanks to Marc Onigman of Stone Hearth News for calling my attention to this study. — MAB