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Self-Care and Brain Health Tips for Caregivers by Toni Pliskin

AARP image May 2019

Caregivers of family members with dementia face many challenges and often neglect their own needs while taking care of others. We asked Toni Pliskin, Licensed Clinical Social Worker with the NorthShore Center for Brain Health, to describe common challenges caregivers face, as well as strategies for self-care and brain health.

  Common challenges

With changes in roles and responsibilities, caregivers may feel torn in different directions. The weight of responsibility due to caring for someone may cause feelings of isolation, sadness and grief, as often times the freedom they once had is now occupied by responsibility.  Due to a family history of dementia, they may even begin to fear their own cognitive decline, and worry that their spouse or loved ones may face similar challenges caring for them one day.

Caregivers are also at risk of fatigue – being “on” 100 percent of the time can cause problems, physically, emotionally and otherwise. If caring for their own children while also caring for a parent, there may be little time for the caregiver to take care of themselves. Furthermore, during stressful times unresolved issues within family relationships can feel magnified and compound the challenges of caregiving.

Caregivers are expected to tolerate mood and behavior fluctuations, such as sundowning, anxiety, paranoia, depression, and anger from their loved ones; which can be challenging psychologically, emotionally and physically. Caregivers often face tough financial obligations and burden from the added costs of medical care.


Signs of caregiver stress

With the high demands of caregiving, it is easy to overlook signs of stress. Your health is just as important as those you are helping. If you can identify any of the following experiences as your own, you may be more stressed than you realize.

  • Anxiety, depression, irritability
  • Feeling tired and run down
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Overreacting to minor nuisances
  • New or worsening health problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling increasingly resentful
  • Drinking, smoking, or eating more
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Cutting back on leisure activities
  • Feeling isolated or lonely


Tips for caregivers:

  • Build in time for yourself for the respite and relief that can improve your mood and outlook
  • Build in time for brain healthy habits that are associated with lower risk of dementia
    • eat a low-inflammatory, heart and brain-healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet.
    • Aim to achieve 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night
    • Exercise aerobically 3-5 times per week for 30-40 minutes
    • Socialize regularly
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family, friends and neighbors.
  • Utilize community resources available for additional support and direct care, such as hiring a caregiver, or using the services of Adult Day Care or Respite Care.
  • If you are a spiritual person, connecting with spiritual resources can be helpful for gaining understanding, strength, and answers to a range of questions and feelings. Helpful strategies may include meditation, yoga, daily prayer, spiritual reading, writing, listening to music, and journaling.
  • Becoming educated about the dementia process and its challenges for patients, caregivers and families, through books, seminars, The Alzheimer’s Association (,), support groups and/or an experienced Licensed Clinical Social Worker can be immensely helpful and supportive.

Professional counseling with a clinician who is trained to understand the challenges and specific issues that caregivers of family members with dementia face can lead to an enhanced ability to understand and cope with the disease process and provide assistance in responding to challenging behaviors. Professional counseling can be especially helpful in handling crisis situations and with family stress, teaching ways to balance your needs with those of your loved ones, and addressing feelings of grief and loss.


Support and resources

The most important tip I can offer is to remind you that is that you are not alone. In fact, AARP estimates there are 34.2 million adults in the United States who have been caregivers to adults this year! There are a wide range of resources available to you and your loved ones to help you through this transition, including the following:

    • AARP
    • Support groups through Senior Centers and local hospitals



    • ElderCARE Locator a nationwide data base offering lists of local resources for older adults and their families (800) 677-1116
    • Elder Law Attorneys for help with estate planning, long term care, Medicaid and POA for healthcare and finances




About the Author:

Toni Pliskin, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., is the Director of Social Work at NorthShore University Health System, Neurological Institute. There she conducts psychosocial assessments, provides counseling for patients and families, and links caregivers and patients to community resources, advocacy and education on the disease process and caregiver fatigue.  For more information, visit

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