What if someone told you there was something you could do, right now, that could slow down the mental decline of your loved one with dementia by 37 percent?

Before you dismiss this claim as an exaggerated pipe dream—keep reading.

A new study, conducted by researchers at Utah State University (USU), has unearthed a significant link between the stress-management strategies of caregivers and the mental functioning of the people they care for.

Those who adopt a primarily problem-focused approach to solving common caregiving problems not only experience greater personal health, they are also able to provide better care for their dementia-stricken loved ones, says JoAnn Tschanz, lead study author and USU psychology professor.

She and her colleagues discovered that caregivers who use healthy coping strategies may potentially slow down their loved one's mental decline by as much as 37 percent.

Distressing dementia behaviors

Dementia behaviors (wandering, sundowner's syndrome, anxiety, hallucinations, etc.) are huge sources of stress—both for caregivers and their loved ones.

When figuring out how to handle the distress caused by these behaviors, the strategies that can be employed are typically sorted into one of two categories: emotion-focused and problem-focused.

Emotion-focused coping techniques emphasize dealing with the feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, etc. caused by a particular source of stress. Strategies include venting, praying, distracting yourself from the stressor and ignoring the stressor.

Problem-focused coping techniques emphasize dealing with the source of the stress directly. Strategies include removing oneself from the presence of the stressor, or seeking to understand and come up with a plan to tackle a stressful situation

For example, if your loved one suddenly becomes agitated and starts pacing around the house, a problem-focused strategy would require you to research possible causes of anxiety and restlessness in someone with dementia. You would then examine whether your loved one was recently exposed to any of these triggers. Your first priority should be to calm them down by removing the cause of their agitation, or distracting them with another activity. After their anxiety has passed, you would then brainstorm ways to avoid the anxiety-producing situation in the future.

The caregiver's environmental impact

A caregiver's influence over the environment in which a person with dementia lives increases as their loved one's condition deteriorates.

Tschanz believes that this puts caregivers in a, "unique position," when it comes to being able to influence the mental and physical wellbeing of a family member with dementia.

She says that caregivers who can properly address their own physical and emotional needs are better able to maintain a healthy, safe home environment for their loved ones.

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Indeed, existing research indicates that a close bond with a caregiver who is physically healthy and who can effectively manage their stress levels may help keep a person with dementia out of a nursing home.

Healthy strategies for dealing with stress

The complex collection of challenges you face while taking care of a person with dementia will require you to employ both emotion-focused and problem-focused coping mechanisms.

Feelings of anger, sadness and guilt have to be dealt with. You can't just stuff them down. Sometimes things get to be so difficult that what you really need is an Alzheimer's Support Group to listen to you vent.

But, it's important to bear in mind that your ability to successfully deal with stress and prevent your emotions from boiling over can have a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of your loved one.

Tschanz provides some tips for healthy ways to deal with the stress of being a dementia caregiver:

  • Obey caregiving's golden rule: Take care of the caregiver. Put on your own oxygen mask first. There are countless iterations of this all-important advice. But given the intimate (and scientifically significant) connection between the wellbeing of the caregiver and the health of the care recipient, it's a maxim that bears repeating. "Taking a problem-oriented approach to caregiving also includes being aware of your own physical and emotional needs," says Tschanz. Schedule ‘personal hours.' Ask for help form family and friends.
  • Go with the flow: "Recognize that everyone has their good days and bad days," Tschanz says. If your loved one exhibits several bad behaviors in a single day, she suggests trying to identify what might be causing the abnormality. Maybe they didn't have enough to eat for breakfast, or their sleep was disrupted. Pinpointing these triggers can help you avoid similar situations in the future. Start keeping a written log that lists the things that seem to affect your loved one in both negative and positive ways. That way you'll have something to refer to when new issues arise.
  • Educate yourself: Learn everything you can about your loved one's ailment. The more you know about how dementia can affect a person's behavior and abilities, the easier it will be to come up with solutions to dementia-related problems.
  • Seek meaning in the madness: According to Tschanz, research shows that caregivers who are able to derive meaning and purpose from their experiences find the burden of caring for a loved one to be lighter than those who view the experience through a predominantly negative lens. If you're having trouble finding the positive, she suggests starting a journal where you write down the beneficial experiences and insights you've gained from your caregiving journey.