By Dr. Jamie Huysman

A dedicated caregiver’s heart is one of gold, and many should be awarded purple hearts!

Caregivers fight the good fight every day. There is no question that caregivers are constantly putting their hearts (and sometimes souls) on the line.

So, it’s really no coincidence that February is Heart Health Awareness Month. It is, after all, that time of year when hearts are everywhere, so it makes sense to use this time to remind people of the importance of keeping a healthy heart.

However, we are a stubborn species. We seem to put more effort into seeing to it that our cars run well than we do about maintaining a healthy heart!

Heart disease is known to be a leading cause of death, claiming a life every 42 seconds, and leaving a trail of broken hearts in its wake. Stress, poor nutrition, uncontrolled high blood pressure, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, and genetic predisposition are all common means to a preventable end for caregivers as well as those they care for.

The American Heart Association website

Tips to maintaining a healthy heart.

“True healthcare reform starts in your kitchen, not in Washington” — ~Anonymous

Jamie Huysman, PsyD, LCSW is Vice President of Provider Relations and Government Affairs at WellMed Medical Management, a UnitedHealth company. He has almost 30 years of medical and behavioral health experience in nonprofit and for profit corporate leadership roles in both hospital and managed care environments.

He co-founded the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation that created a new level of care for caregivers around the country and received Florida’s Social Worker of the Year Award for that work in 2008. Since 1992, his program TV Aftercare TM has provided millions of dollars worth of follow-up care for talk, court and reality guests.

Dr. Jamie co-authored the acclaimed Take Your Oxygen First: Protecting Your Health & Happiness While Caring for a Loved One with Memory Loss and was featured in The 100 Mile Walk: A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership, Voices of Caregiving and Voices of Alcoholism. Dr. Huysman writes for Caregiver SOS, Florida MD and Today’s Caregiver magazines and blogs on PsychologyToday.com.

Caregivers need a lot of light in our lives. We often spend too much time inside, behind the curtains, at home, in a hospital or in a care facility. This can lead us to spend too much time in the dark, in our own heads, and not enough time interacting with the bright world outside.

I met a Vietnam veteran who has literally been carrying a suitcase with him every day for the past 45 years. Inside are photos about his war experiences. He needed to talk about them, to air out his mind, and allow someone else to hear his story. He wanted to help others learn from his experience.

Sound familiar? As caregivers, we need to check to see if we picked up some baggage in the dark times of our lives.

Anger, anxiety, and stress are common companions for us. I know the last year of my mother’s life had plenty of these emotions to go around. Allowing our struggles to live in the shadows leaves them in the shadows. The layers of guilt and anger don’t go away until we see them, deal with them, and let them go.

There are therapists, clergy and support groups where we can safely express our fears and frustrations. We shouldn’t be afraid to use them. The simple act of talking to someone else can make a world of difference.

I would not want anyone to wait almost the entirety of their lives to make peace with their experiences. Let’s all open our suitcases and take out the stories we need to tell now. We’ll be able to see the difference between the shadow and the sun, and our steps will be so much lighter.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and 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. Learn more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.