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Jan. 3, 2020

By Carol Zernial

At the WellMed Charitable Foundation’s recent Caregiver Summit, we had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Liliana Oakes about the impact of stress on the physical and mental health of persons providing care for someone. Many of us have heard that stress is bad for us, but we’re not really sure anything can be done about it. After all, we can’t change our situation.

Dr. Oakes, who is a WellMed Palliative Care doctor, routinely makes house calls and interacts with the family member caring for her patient. These patients are not dying, but they do have complex needs, serious illness, and often some type of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

While Dr. Oakes is visiting with her patient, the person receiving care, the caregiver is using that time to frantically run around the house straightening and cleaning. Have we ever done this? She said that she routinely asks the caregiver to just stop and use the time to sit down, and take a break for a few minutes. The cleaning can wait. Yes, it can.

Why does she ask the caregivers to stop and relax? Constant stress with no time for relaxation permanently changes our brains. Our brains need time to relax, too. In other words, if we don’t reduce our stress, we will feel like we are being chased by the lion all of the time. When that happens, we will get sick more often. We will suffer from anxiety and depression. We will no longer be able to cope with our day-to-day lives.

And when are caregiving journey is over, our brains won’t go back to the way they were. We will have been permanently rewired.

Dr. Oakes reminded us of the part of the Serenity Prayer that says, “God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” She asked us to stop trying to control everything, and pick one thing to control at a time. I like the goal of picking just one thing.

The things we can’t control are like gravity. These things require defying the laws of physics to change them. Now, think of the relief of trying to control only one thing. That one thing might be a difficult medication schedule. If all of the pills are making us crazy, this might be our one thing. We might find an app, a new pill box, or schedule a meeting with the physician to see if the number of medications can be reduced.

The one thing can be for us, for our own physical or mental health. It could be carving out 30 minutes a day to do something we want. Do we have a friend, neighbor or relative who can stop by to watch our loved one for just 30 minutes? With 30 minutes, we can have a lovely nap, read one chapter in a book, work in the garden, or take a walk.

It’s easier to focus and see the possible alternatives for one thing versus 100 things. One thing can be one big thing that we work on over a period of time. Or it can be one small thing that we accomplish, celebrate victory, and move on to another one thing.

Caregiving does take a lot of acceptance: Accepting the new normal of our loved one’s condition; accepting our own limitations; accepting the things we can’t change. Shifting our focus to one thing at a time is a way of letting go of the things that are like gravity. Picking one thing gives us greater clarity and focus. Picking one thing – it’s just what the doctor ordered.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

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