Caring for the Caregiver: Essential Oils

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I was recently introduced to essential oils, and have become very interested in their therapeutic properties. Up to this point, my experience had been limited. I knew they smelled good and that lavender was said to decrease stress and improve sleep, but it didn’t go much further than that. It was really conversations with a few friends that piqued my curiosity.

Why Essential Oils?

Essential oils are nothing new; in fact, they’ve been around for centuries. However, with increasing concerns over use of harmful chemicals in everything from household cleaners to shampoo, there is definitely a heightened interest in natural alternatives. Oils have many practical household applications, but I’m most interested in what they can do for our mind, body, and spirit.

In the last few weeks of my mom’s life, I used a lavender balm on her temples in hopes that the scent would have a calming effect. Now that I’m learning more about the oils, I wonder if diffusing oils like lavender, vanilla, or bergamot would have helped when she was particularly agitated.

Simple Self-Care for Caregivers

My own personal experience over the past couple of months has moved me to reflect on how helpful essential oils might be for caregivers as well. Consider these facts from the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • Nearly 60% of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers rate the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high.
  • About 40% of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers suffer from depression.
  • Due to the physical and emotional toll of caregiving, Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers had $9.7 billion in additional health care costs of their own in 2014.

In no way am I suggesting that essential oils are the be-all and end-all for caregivers, but I do think they can aid in relaxation, improve sleep, enhance focus, and even help strengthen the immune system. Here are some oils you may find beneficial.

  • Stress – lavender, vetiver, clary sage, chamomile, sandalwood
  • Depression – lemon, grapefruit, sandalwood, orange
  • Sleeplessness – lavender, vetiver, valerian, chamomile, clary sage
  • Focus & Energy – peppermint, lemon, rosemary, orange
  • Mood – lemon, lavender, rosemary, orange
  • Immune System – lavender, lemon, eucalyptus, melaleuca (tea tree).

Getting Started

When purchasing, always look for 100% pure therapeutic grade oils. Drug store oils are often diluted, weak, or impure. Like most things, you get what you pay for. Where essential oils are concerned, I strongly believe it’s worth it to spend a little more for quality.

As with any natural remedy, it’s a good idea to speak with your physician if you have concerns about a particular ailment or potential drug interactions.

If you’re interested in learning more about essential oils and how to use them safely, a quick Google search will yield tons of information. When applying essential oils topically, remember they are highly concentrated and some oils require use of a carrier oil. A carrier oil is generally a vegetable- or nut-based oil, such as grapeseed or coconut (fractionated) that “carries” the essential oil without diluting its effect.

There are also many excellent books on the subject. My current favorite is The Complete Book of Essential Oils & Aromatherapy by Valerie Ann Worwood.

Are you a caregiver who uses essential oils? If so, I’d love to hear from you. What are your favorite oils? How do you use them? How have they made a difference for you or your loved one? Please leave a comment and share your story!

Mother’s Day Reflections: The Journey Continues

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I kept very busy this week – the week before Mother’s Day. There’s no avoiding it – Mother’s Day is everywhere! However, by maintaining a packed schedule and having a few Alzheimer’s projects to focus on, I was able to stay out of my head.

It helps to recognize the problem; for me, too much thinking is never a good thing. Thinking about projects or work or writing is different – I’m referring to “idle thinking.” Like clockwork, without something to keep my mind busy, it wanders off to unpleasant places and takes up residence. It’s a very slippery slope.

Keeping Mom’s Memory Alive

Jess and I are planning our first annual #ENDALZ Amazing Race. The event will honor my mom, raise money for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, and be tons of fun, which she would have loved! We’re hoping it will be successful enough to become an annual tradition. Because this is a learning year, we’re keeping it fairly small but it’s amazing the amount of planning it takes to pull something like this off. It’s the perfect place to direct my thoughts and energy.

Eason HouseKeeping Mom’s memory alive is so important to me, not only on Mother’s Day, but also year ‘round. Events like our Amazing Race help to do that, along with this blog, other writings, and my volunteer and advocacy work. But there are simple things that honor her as well. Living in a way that would make her proud is at the top of the list along with being happy – I know she would want that more than anything.

Getting a Grasp on Reality

Even after almost 2 ½ years, I have flashes where the fact that she’s gone hits my reality like a ton of bricks. It’s interesting how the mind works, isn’t it? When those moments creep up on me, the pain of realizing I can’t hug her, talk to her, or laugh with her is intense. There’s nothing to do but ride it out and sometimes that means crying it out. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully grasp that I no longer have a mother.

It helps to think of her reunited with her parents, beloved sister, Shirley, and favorite aunt, Helen. When I’m in that place where I can imagine them together, I see nothing but smiles, love, and laughter. It’s such a comforting, joyful thought…

Her Legacy

Mother’s Day is a time for honoring her legacy. Whether your mother is still with you in this world or has passed on to another, spend some time on Sunday thinking about what she means to you. And, if you have the opportunity, tell her those things while you still can. As for me, I miss my sweet mom more than I can express.

Here are some words that come to mind when I think of her…

Feel free to share your own stories and memories of your mom by leaving a comment!

#ENDALZ Amazing Race – Columbus, Ohio!

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2015 Event Flyer v3-page-001

Joyful Moments in Memory Care

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Volunteering with Alzheimer’s patients is something I’ve thought about doing since my mom died at the end of 2012, but part of me felt apprehensive about it. Would it hit too close to home? Would my emotions get the best of me? Would it just be too painful? Was it too soon? I don’t think the grief ever really ends; it just changes with time – but it’s ever present.

All valid concerns under the circumstances, but it had been nearly 2 ½ years. Quite frankly, how could I know whether or not I was ready unless I put myself out there? I would either be fine – or I wouldn’t, but all the pondering in the world wasn’t going to answer that question.

The First Step

Last week, I had my orientation and it went well. I left the building feeling good about the community and the staff members I’d met that evening. The 15 minutes spent in the memory care unit bolstered my confidence in the decision to work with dementia patients. So many of those sweet faces reminded me of people I’d met in Mom’s last four years of life – people I had fallen in love with.

Alzheimer’s may have changed the LOVE that you share, but it can’t ever, will never, have the power to ever completely erase it.   -Mara Botonis

Over the ensuing days, I found myself feeling excited, but also a bit uneasy. Just about anything unfamiliar is accompanied by some level of trepidation, and this was no different. Of course, the fact that I came out of the womb worrying probably didn’t help, but what’s life if you don’t step out of your comfort zone every now and then, right?

The Day Arrives

Throughout the day of my first shift, my mind wandered to thoughts of the coming evening and how things would go. Finally, the workday ended, and it was time to head over to the community where I would be volunteering. Rush hour traffic gave me some time to organize my thoughts before I arrived, and I was glad of that.

I signed in and made my way to Memory Care, where I took a deep breath, punched in the security access code, and walked into a brand new experience. An experience, I must say, that was more than I could have hoped for.

The residents were finishing dinner and gradually moving over to the common area. It all felt a bit awkward initially as I didn’t know any names and I was still trying to get a sense of the evening routine. With each passing moment, I found myself feeling more and more at ease and it wasn’t long before I knew for certain I was just exactly where I was meant to be.

Memories of Mom

Moments of joy with Mom at Eason House

Over the course of the evening, I spent time with two women in particular who reminded me very much of mom at various stages of her illness. The moments where similarities came forth made my heart leap inside my chest – flashbacks to treasured moments of joy.

One of the ladies, mostly non-verbal, surprised me several times by perking up and responding to my words. When I complimented her on the bright red blouse she was wearing and told her that red was one of my favorite colors, her eyes met mine and she quietly, but very clearly said, “Me too.” For a moment, her expressionless eyes sparkled.

Creating Moments of Joy – for Them and for Us.

There was no mistaking “Mary’s” contentment as she reached out and took my hand in hers, squeezing tightly. Yet from across the room, her vacant exterior had me fooled into thinking she would be completely unresponsive. It took less than a minute for me to see how wrong I had been.

Later, as she began to smile and laugh, I asked if she was happy. Again looking right into my eyes, she sweetly said, “Very happy.” I can’t even describe how I felt at that moment. There was something about her laugh and the expression in her eyes that reminded me of mom in the late stages.

All of us who love someone with Alzheimer’s know that feeling. A visit that includes a smile, a couple of words clearly spoken, or a few moments of clarity is better than a winning lottery ticket. We wait for those experiences, and when they come, it’s pure magic.

The Gift of Time

I’m told that of 40+ Memory Care residents in this community, only about five have regular visitors. I think that’s astounding, and it’s probably indicative of what’s happening in Alzheimer’s units around the nation.

If you’ve ever thought about volunteering, I urge you to take the next step. The all too common misconception is that dementia patients are merely a shell of a person. People mistakenly think, “They won’t remember my visit, so why bother? “ Nothing could be further from the truth.

While it’s true that they may not remember the details of a visit, I feel confident that the resulting feelings last long after we’ve gone home. Ten or fifteen minutes of loving,  listening, and kind attention can make all the difference in the world to someone who spends so much time alone.

These are beautiful, living, breathing human beings with emotions, spirit, and so much left to give. They deserve to have the best quality of life possible and we hold the keys – all we have to do is meet them in their world rather than expecting them to be fully present in ours. At the end of the day, they give us so much more than we could possibly give them.

I was emotional as I walked out of the building after my first volunteer shift. Indeed it brought back all kinds of memories – good and bad – but my heart was overflowing with love and purpose. I knew that in those couple of hours, I’d made a difference in a few lives. and they had certainly made a difference in mine. Nothing beats that.

To find a volunteer opportunity, reach out to a care community in your area. The need is great, and your query will most likely be met with sincere gratitude. I’d love to hear about your volunteer experiences! Please leave a comment below sharing your story!