Lorene’s daughter brought her to see her primary care doctor saying that Lorene had become increasingly confused over the past week.
Her husband died last month, and now Lorene lives alone, but her children check in on her daily. Lorene’s doctor evaluated her for physical causes of confusion — dehydration, urinary tract infection, stroke — and for depression. Her physician also asked Lorene’s daughter about her own level of stress. As a result, the provider connected Lorene with their in-house counselor to provide grief counseling and identified outside resources to support Lorene’s daughter as a caregiver.
This is just one example of what integrating holistic and conventional care looks like for an older adult and their caregiver. Figuring out what’s wrong often means putting together all the pieces of the puzzle — the physical, mental, social, and spiritual needs along with the preferences of the person being cared for and the caregiver. What caregivers and older adults need is comprehensive support.
Here’s a look at five common aging and caregiving problems — and solutions that address them holistically.
Anne lies awake at night, her mind bouncing from her adult daughter who just went off to college to her aging father who lives alone. The thought of getting a solid eight hours of sleep sounds like a pipe dream to the hypervigilant and overstressed caregiver. Anne’s therapist says she should book a respite stay for her father so she can get a much-needed break, but guilt prevents her from receiving the help she needs. Her physician has floated the idea of a sleeping pill, but Anne is hesitant to turn to prescription sleep aids.
There are many options Anne and other caregivers who deal with sleep deprivation can take to manage the circumstances that cause sleeplessness so they can return to a more regular sleep schedule.
If you suffer from insomnia, what you do during the day can be just as important as what you do when you lie down at night. Make sure you get enough exercise each day and eat healthy foods, but avoid vigorous movement, heavy meals, and spicy foods two to three hours before bedtime. A daily yoga or tai chi practice can help you reduce feelings of stress, fall asleep faster, and stay asleep longer.
Because insomnia is often connected to stress, basic relaxation techniques can help calm your mind and body so that you can rest. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery are all effective ways of gently guiding your body into a relaxed state.
Many people use lavender to help induce a state of relaxation, and research suggests that the inhalation of lavender essential oils can have a positive impact on sleep quality and mood. There are a number of ways you can use lavender: Get a massage with lavender oil, inhale a few drops on a cotton ball, or use a diffuser.
2. Fear of Falling
As Barbara ages, the fear of falling continues to creep into her thoughts more and more. Falling could mean injuries that are not only painful but that also make it hard to get around, do everyday activities, or live on her own. Just last month, Carol from church fell, broke her hip, and never recovered. To cope with the fear and anxiety, Barbara has refused to walk outside of the home unassisted and sometimes avoids leaving the home altogether.
What Barbara doesn’t know is that by limiting her activities and social engagements, she’s actually increasing her risk of falls: When a person is less active, they become weaker, which increases their chances of fall. Plus, the fear of falling and a general loss of confidence can contribute to depression, isolation, and feelings of helplessness. They become even weaker, which increases their chance of falling again. It’s a vicious cycle.
Just like falls and fall-related injuries can have physical, mental, and emotional costs, fall prevention requires addressing the body, mind, and spirit.
Failure to engage in even mild exercise on a regular basis results in reduced muscle strength, decreased bone mass, loss of balance and coordination, and reduced flexibility — all making it easier to fall. Doing strength and balance activities at least three times a week can help make Barbara’s muscles stronger and joints flexible. She can even practice getting up off the floor. Being able to get up off the floor will provide Barbara with a little more independence, which will reduce some of her anxiety and boost her confidence. Bonus: It’s also a good exercise for large muscle groups.
If Barbara is sleepy, she is more likely to fall. She can help boost her energy levels with aromatherapy. Using uplifting scents like orange, peppermint, lemon, and rosemary in the morning by diffusing the oils into the room or applying them directly to clothing or tissues can help increase her energy levels.
Eating healthily also helps decrease the risk of falls by supporting healthy muscle and bone strength. By incorporating good sources of vitamin D and calcium into Barbara’s weekly meal plan — salmon, egg yolks, green leafy vegetables, whole grains — she can lower her risk of falls.
3. Depression and Isolation
Sally used to be the life of the party. But over the past two years, she’s seemed more withdrawn. She’s experienced so much loss recently — loss of her spouse, loss of friends, loss of routine and independence, loss of a sense of purpose — and she seems to be losing weight, too. When her adult son asks her about it, she says she just doesn’t have much of an appetite. But Sally used to delight in new culinary experiences! Her doctor says these are just natural responses to aging. But her son fears these are warning signs of depression.
While it’s true that many older adults cut back on activities as they age, dropping out of everything and showing interest in almost nothing is a red flag. If you’re depressed, taking medication is only one of many treatment options. A healthy diet, exercise, and talk therapy are a few of the holistic approaches you can use, along with medication, to help speed recovery from depression.
Eating a balanced diet can keep your blood sugars stable throughout the day and help calm your mood. This stability is especially important if you’re depressed. Foods and drinks that are high in added sugars, such as processed foods, soft drinks, and sugary snack foods, may cause blood sugar levels to go up and down dramatically during the day. This may have a negative effect on mood and energy levels.
Exercise can also have a positive effect on your mood and energy level. Research shows that exercise is as effective as medication in treating depression in some people.
Talk therapy is another valuable tool to combat depression. If you don’t have a place where you can express your feelings, it can really hurt your emotional wellness. To help develop resilience when challenges arise, you need space to be sad without facing attempts at being cheered up. Talk therapy can allow you to vent your emotions and feelings as much as possible.
When Shannon became the primary caregiver for her mother, everything changed. As her mother became weaker and more vulnerable, Shannon’s fear of doing anything wrong — especially with medicine or a needle or just trying to safely turn her over in bed — became overwhelming. Recently, Shannon was trying to quickly get in and out of the grocery store because her mom had a doctor's appointment that afternoon and the kids needed to be dropped off at soccer practice. Suddenly, her heart started beating fast and her hands began to sweat. Her doctor later called it a panic attack. Shannon called it the worst day ever.
Feeling stressed is normal for caregivers. But constant worrying, unrelenting doubts, and preoccupation with the “what-ifs” and worst-case scenarios can be unproductive and even paralyzing. Anxiety causes physical symptoms — trembling, heart palpitations, insomnia, sweating, fatigue — and mental anguish that interfere with day-to-day life.
Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can instantly lower the physical symptoms and mental worry associated with anxiety. Learning yoga, meditation, or prayer will teach you techniques that you can use throughout the day to reduce stress. Getting regular exercise can be a huge help to your mental health, as well.
Avoid things that can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety, such as poor diet, caffeine, sugar, smoking, and alcohol. Research has shown that the top three dietary causes of increased anxiety are caffeine, sugar, and alcohol.
Many herbal teas promise to help with anxiety and ease sleep. Some people find the process of making and drinking tea soothing, but some teas may have a more direct effect on the brain that results in reduced anxiety. Research shows that chamomile can lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Fred has suffered through the pain of arthritis for years. At first, it was hard not knowing when he’d wake up with such painful and swollen hands and fingers that he could not do simple things like wring out a washcloth. Then it became exhausting to deal with the chronic pain that wore him down and affected his sleep. It was heartbreaking to feel like he was missing out on social events with friends and family because of a painful neck or knee. Now, his knees, hips, feet, and back are riddled with the disease. He’s afraid to even walk down a set of stairs.
Although arthritis can’t be cured, there are simple treatments and lifestyle changes you can make to reduce and manage arthritis pain.
Research shows that exercise can improve your joint pain and stiffness and is considered the most effective non-drug treatment for osteoarthritis. Although it may be uncomfortable to get started, not moving actually makes arthritis pain worse. If you have osteoarthritis, try walking, aquatic exercises, range-of-motion and flexibility exercises, and strengthening exercises. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, consider mind-body practices, such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and walking meditation, which not only decrease joint pain and stiffness but also improve relaxation and reduce stress.
Another way to reduce arthritis pain and stiffness is massage. Research shows that people with arthritis in the knee had more flexibility and range of motion and less pain after getting weekly Swedish massages for a few months. Apply heat to the painful joint to warm the area first, then gently rub and massage the area. Adding lotions or oils to reduce friction can also feel good.
The more pressure you put on weight-bearing joints, such as hips and knees, the more pain you’ll feel. Research shows that losing just 1 pound takes 4 pounds of pressure off each knee. If you have a few pounds to shed, consider adopting a healthier diet and increasing exercise to help take a lot of pressure off your joints.
If you’re looking to learn more about how you can integrate holistic and conventional care to enhance your life, read our eBook Living Your Best Life.