Just as her career was hitting star status in the 1980s, Lea Thompson, 50, was starring in the real-life role of devastated granddaughter. Thompson, who starred in the “Back to the Future” movie franchise watched Alzheimer’s claim the lives of both of her grandmothers nearly three decades ago.
“My maternal and fraternal grandmothers both had Alzheimer’s,” says Thompson who currently stars in the ABC Family hit series “Switched At Birth.”
But her experience with the degenerative brain disease that causes the death of brain cells and progressive loss of memory, cognitive and social skills also affected other branches of her family’s tree.
“My stepfather and father-in-law had Alzheimer’s so unfortunately, I have quite a lot of experience with the disease.”
Not only does Thompson have experience watching Alzheimer’s rip through her family, she know a lot about the significance of caregivers. And she has some tips to relieve the emotional, physical and mental stress, along with the importance of taking one day at a time for those in similar situations.
Thompson says she’s grateful for the changes in attitude toward family members with Alzheimer’s that have occurred over the past few decades. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“Going through it recently with my stepfather and father-in-law, I saw a big difference between how society views the disease. Years ago, when my grandmothers were living with Alzheimer’s, there was little acceptance of the disease. It was a family’s dirty secret no one talked about because of the “crazy” stereotypes. Many people even believed the stereotype that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was somehow a person’s fault.”
She says these days society is much more understanding of the disease and the toll it takes on an Alzheimer’s patient’s entire family, including those closest providing care. And that helps to eliminate some stereotypes. But there’s still work to be done.
“This is no one’s fault and thankfully there’s much more support in communities for caregivers and patients. But we have to continue to raise awareness for the disease so family members don’t ever feel embarrassed about the disease touching their family. That’s a stress they don’t need. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” says Thompson.
Do what feels right for you
Thompson says she struggled with guilt when her grandmothers were battling Alzheimer’s because she regrets not listening to her gut.
“I don’t think I dealt with as well as could have. I feel like I should have visited more. I wanted to but I didn’t, and I still feel badly that I didn’t,” says Thompson. “People say don’t go because the patient doesn’t recognize you anyway. Caregivers and family are told ‘don’t bother going, they don’t know you’re there.’”
Instead of listening to well-intended suggestions, Thompson says go with what’s in your heart.
“If you want to visit a loved one with Alzheimer’s, don’t let anything keep you from doing so. If that feels good to you, and for you, do it. If taking a break is what feels right, do that. Doing things that feel good like visiting or not, taking a walk or spending time with friends away from caregiving are little ways caregivers can take care of themselves and their spirit. It’s important to not miss those, or any little feel-good opportunities to manage stress and re-energize yourself.”
Accept help and support
“Caregivers are emotionally and physically exhausted. It’s one of the hardest jobs you’ll ever have,” says Thompson. “It’s tough on secondary caregivers, but the people doing it 24/7 like spouses go through so much.”
And to keep up their strength Thompson’s mother and mother-in-law both looked to her for support and a compassionate shoulder to lean – and cry – on.
“They needed a lot of support because caregiving is exhausting. So I was there to talk, listen, pitch in and do whatever was necessary to care for them, the caregivers.”
Thompson says caregivers shouldn’t be shy or selfless.
“They should ask for help,” says Thompson.
Caregivers also need to accept help and support when it’s offered and suggests offering to sit with an Alzheimer’s patient while the primary caregiver takes a shower, goes to the store, or even goes to lunch with a friend for a much-needed break.
“My family found support groups to be very beneficial. It’s comforting to know you’re not the only one going through this very tough time.”
Crack a smile
“It’s understandable to get frustrated,” says Thompson. “You want your loved one to ‘go back to normal’ and it’s hard to accept that’s not going to happen.”
To keep her cool and manage frustration that her stepfather was slipping away, Thompson looked to laughter.
“I would watch a funny movie, listen to comedy, or look for little humorous aspects of the day. Anything that makes you smile helps you relieve some tension to you get through the day.”
Look for unexpected moments of serenity
“Despite all the heartache, there are some strange, unexpected opportunities for healing and peace along the journey,” says Thompson. And recognizing them can give caregivers strength to go on.
“I remember my mom saying her mom was never nice to her until got Alzheimer’s. So my mom had some unexpected healing and hat helped her manage stress,” says Thompson. “Seeing that little tiny bit of good come from something so bad helped her get through.”
Thompson’s personal serenity came from spending time with him as well as in the final hours of her stepfather’s life.
“My stepfather was great man. And even though he couldn’t put words together, there were magical moments we shared when we spent time together or I helped my mother care for him,” she says. “I was with him when he died and that was an ultimate honor. It’s an incredible honor to be able to be with someone when they’re that vulnerable. It was good for me to be there and those magical moments helped to ease some grief and find a new normal after he was gone.”
Sidebar Option 1:
Don’t carry the stress of caregiving in your back
You expect mental exhaustion, and to have some uneasy nights’ sleep. But, who knew you could be carrying caregiving in your back? A recent Spanish study stress experienced by caregivers goes straight to your back even if you’re not lifting someone in and out of bed or a chair.
To shut down stress-related back pain, researchers at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque found you don’t have to dedicate a lot of time to these stress busters. They discovered as little as one hour a week can significantly reduce stress levels. Just 10 minutes of yoga, meditation and breathing exercises a day are some of the easiest ways to blow off steam, says Kelly McGonigal, PhD., a health psychologist at Stanford University specializing in the relationship between psychological stress and physical health.
Other ways include:
Stretch. You wouldn’t start lifting weights or run a mile without jogging. So, don’t start your caregiving day that way, either. “Stretching warms up your muscles and prevents many muscles sprains and strains,” says Lombardo.
Drink water. This hydrates the muscles and the discs between the vertebrae. If you’re dehydrated, the discs will shrink and the nerves become pinched increasing the pain.
Lift smartly. Always keep the person or object you’re lifting close to your body and lift with your legs (which are much stronger than any other part of your body). Keep your back straight and avoid any twisting or motion that will take your body out of alignment, move or pivot your feet.
Eat right. Excess sugar and caffeine can lead to adrenal burnout which can lead to greater fatigue. And, ultimately to using poor lifting techniques and the risk of injury.