BY LAURA ISENSEE
Tom and Margaret Canning have been married for 54 years. It’s a journey that has taken the pair, both natives of Ireland, from dancing in New York City to playing golf in Florida.
Alzheimer’s disease has marked the last decade of their marriage. Margaret, 79, has the disease and Tom, 82, takes care of her and their home in Pembroke Pines.
“We’re at the stage now where we don’t hold conversation. She will ramble on things that don’t have any meaning,” Canning said.
He still loves her and tries to be patient. To help, Canning takes care of himself. Support groups have helped him cope. Sessions on things like anger management have taught him key care-giving skills. And several days a week, Canning takes his wife to an adult center in Pembroke Pines. His wife, still a people-person, enjoys being with others. The time gives Canning a chance to exercise, do grocery shopping and take a break from caregiving.
“If it weren’t for that opportunity, it would be even more stressful,” Canning said.
Doctors and health experts say it’s important for caregivers like Canning to take care of themselves.
“There is a direct correlation between feeling better about yourself and taking care of yourself, the better it is for your patient,” said Bonnie Bonomo, a patient advocate for Leeza’s Place at Memorial Hospital Pembroke. The resource center offers social activities, support groups and educational classes for caregivers.
Said Bonomo: “Take your oxygen first, like in an airplane. It’s the same philosophy. If you’re not standing strong, rooted on the ground on two feet, you can’t possibly take care of someone else.”
Dr. Saneet Kumar, a clinical psychologist with the Memorial Healthcare System, said often people who care for others with chronic illnesses often see their own health decline. They can’t sleep well, they eat fast food, exercise less and miss their doctor appointments. Emotional issues can emerge, such as depression, anxiety and irritability.
For caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients, the situation can grow more complicated, because their loved one may grow agitated and upset without their main caregiver.
“The caregiver feels really tied down to their loved one and they can’t leave. There’s really one person [the patient] feels safe around and for that person, their health starts to decline as well,” Kumar said. “The hardest thing to do for most caregivers is try to delegate responsibility to social services or to other family members.”
He said even an hour a day to run errands, take a walk, or plan a meal can help. He advised if a caregiver feels depressed more days than not in a two-week period, they should seek professional counseling. Exercise can be great medicine for mood, Kumar said, noting a goal would be exercise for 30 minutes to an hour three to four times a week.
Also, caregivers shouldn’t forget to laugh. A funny movie, a joke on the Internet or the comics in the paper can lighten the mood. Even 30 seconds of laughter can help someone cope.
“It can be hard to laugh for someone who’s going through Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. We find laughter is very good medicine and it’s very cheap and you don’t have to leave home to do that,” he said.
Canning counts his blessings. He said the support groups at Leeza’s Place have been a lifeline.
“If it weren’t for the goodness of God, I would be struggling. We all need people,” he said. “I don’t care what your situation is, there’s always a need for people to listen to your story and give you some advice.”