By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

I have a new thing that makes me happy: Zumba at the local YMCA. I go twice a week. I look forward to it, and I’m sad when I have to miss it. It puts a smile on my face. That’s something I really needed during a difficult time.

What’s funny is that my friend has been inviting me to Zumba class with her for the past few years, and I didn’t want to go. I had other things at the time. Or I didn’t want to add anything new. I was sure I wouldn’t like it. So it has been a complete surprise to me that I enjoy it so much.

The reason I finally decided to go was that I wanted to spend more time with my friend, and she was at Zumba. So I went. But I found out that good things give many times over. Not only do I get to spend more time with my friend doing something we both enjoy, I also have met some lovely new women in the class. I’ve lost weight. I have better cardio endurance. I excited about the new music and artists that I have discovered through the class. I have some new dance moves.

I like the comradery of the class. These are women who are both professionals and stay-at-home moms. They are breast cancer survivors. They have recently lost a parent or are still caregivers. They are volunteering to raise scholarship money for the YMCA. Some, like me, are trying something new, too. We wish each other happy birthday, and celebrate each other’s achievements. We talk about community. It feels much more supportive than my old traditional gym, so I cancelled my gym membership. I guess I can add saving money to the list, too.

I think about all of the other caregivers while I’m dancing away at Zumba, wishing that everyone could have something that brings them joy at a time when they need it. I’m wondering how many of us have been turning down offers that could lead us to our next new thing.

A thing that brings us joy can be so small that we really do have time in our schedules and room in our lives regardless of where we are on the caregiving journey. It could be as simple as a new bright-colored flower in the garden that we nurture as it blooms. It could be a cat that purrs on our lap, or a dog that loves us unconditionally and does silly things. It could be a new book that we steal away to read one chapter or even a few pages at a time. It could be an online series available anytime. It could be a brief phone call that keeps us in touch with a person who puts a smile on our face, connects us to the outside world, and helps us to feel like we are still visible.

There are things, old and new, worth finding that will give back to us in ways we didn’t expect — but we have to say “yes” when the opportunity comes along.

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.

My mother recently passed away. This is the common ending of so many caregiving journeys. For us, it was six years after the official Alzheimer’s diagnosis. But it could have been cancer, end-stage renal disease, heart failure, pneumonia, or a number of other conditions that prompt people to pick up the mantle of caregiving.

I was standing in line at the busy Starbucks at the airport to go home. I felt on edge with the pushing of caffeine-craving people with their luggage, the overly loud voice of the woman on her cell phone behind me strategizing about the latest office brouhaha, and the incessant questions of the guy in front of me who wanted to know something about every pastry in the case.

And then it all fell away: the noise and the people. Because it wasn’t important. I was ultimately going to get my coffee and make my flight. And I thought about how helpful this ability to let go of unimportant annoyances would be for caregivers every day. Why did I save my hidden superpower until the end?

It now seems that caregiving built layers around me, like an onion or flower bud, that it is time to shed. At the center is me as I really am. Here, too, is my mother as she really was, without the disease. The next layers are the family and friends who have been on the journey with us. We are surrounded by the layer of the illness.

The next layers are the doctors, nurses and professionals who tried to help us along the way. There are the direct care workers from the assisted living facilities and those who came to our home. There are the medications, medical supplies, books and stuff we used along the way.

So now we don’t need these things or many of the people, and we will let them go. We will be forever grateful to the people who gave my mother the same love and care that we wanted to give her every day. And death has finally gotten rid of the illness that surrounded us.

After removing this layer of disease, we are back to just us: the family and friends. At the center is my mom as she always was before she was sick and will always be in my heart. And me – the person I always was and now the person I want to become in the future. Because I am different now, as we all are after this journey: I was a caregiver.

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. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or  toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

Carol-PR-Photo-10-1-11-SMALLERI’ve always sung with the music in the car. I’ve been that person you pull alongside at the intersection who is in the car alone, mouth moving, singing away. And yes, people have made fun of me. It hasn’t stopped me. I know the words to thousands of songs, maybe tens of thousands.

I don’t know if I sang too much or sang the wrong way, but in the past few years, I have lost my singing voice. Like Julie Andrews, sort of, without the fame, fabulous singing career or new turn as a children’s book author.  Some people are over-achievers.

This loss has been a huge blow to me personally, regardless at the relief of my passengers and the drivers around me. While there is probably some surgical procedure that would help, I’m not willing at this time to go that route. Instead, I’m now listening to the radio and to all of the music I have stored on my various devices. It’s a whole new world.

I have rediscovered why I enjoy the musicians in my collection. I hear the voice, the instruments, the highs and lows of the song very clearly. I find it almost equally satisfying and it brings a smile to my face.

Caregiving can be like that. We experience the changes in our loved one, the disease, this different relationship first as a tremendous loss, and we wonder how life will go on as we know it.  We are sad and we try to get back to where we were. But at some point, we face the facts. There isn’t any going back.

We can choose to go forward. As we say in our Stress-busting Program, we may not be able to change our caregiving situation, but we can change how we react to it. We can reframe our situation, and look for the positive.

I have recently witnessed this change as well. When my mother who has Alzheimer’s was living at home, her behaviors were very difficult to manage. My father was exhausted trying to keep up with her. Now that she lives in the memory unit of a residential care facility, my father can see my mother again. He can see past the disease to the smile on her face, to the satisfaction in being in each other’s company. Sometimes, they even hold hands, which I haven’t seen them do in years. This brings a smile to my face too.

Do we all have down days when we miss singing or miss the loved one as we knew them? Sure. It happens all the time. But we can rediscover the small things in life that can still make us smile and bring warmth to our hearts. That’s caregiving.

Carol Zernial is Executive Director of the non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation. A noted gerontologist, Ms. Zernial also serves as Chair of the National Council on Aging Board of Directors.