Don’t forget to care about yourself. Managing a loved one’s chronic illness will of course make you responsible for many additional aspects of their life. However, that should not come at the expense of your own life. Don’t forget that your own wants and needs exist too. Devote parts of your day solely to self-care and continue to do the things that bring you joy. Also be sure to stay on top of your own medical needs, including medications, doctor’s appointments, etc.
With all that’s going on in our country, our economy, the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. Caring for elderly or aging parents can be particularly stress-inducing. We know chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. What are stress management strategies that people use to become “Stress-Proof? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help reduce or even eliminate stress when caring for our aging parents? In this interview series, we are talking to authors, and mental health experts, who can share their strategies for reducing or eliminating stress. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Macie Smith.
Dr. Macie P. Smith is a licensed gerontology social worker who is focused on helping families support their aging loved ones through long-term care with a focus on people living with dementia. She is an advocate for specialized care and assists others in finding a way to provide a better quality of life for individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Dr. Smith serves as SYNERGY HomeCare’s expert gerontologist.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!
Believe it or not, gerontology was not my choice — it chose me! After graduating from South Carolina State University with a Bachelor’s in social work, I started applying for jobs in the pharmaceutical industry but did not land one interview. I started working with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and discovered my passion for working with vulnerable populations and helping them achieve their goals. Looking back on my career, I can see that my steps were ordered, that each thing I did led to the next thing, which eventually led me to this point in my life. But as I was in it, I didn’t see that. Now, I know that in order to positively impact the systems in place, it’s imperative to have worked on the front line of those systems. All of my direct work with older adults and those with chronic illnesses provides and invaluable perspective to address systemic change.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to slow down and enjoy the journey, to take time to appreciate the lessons of my experience. I would also recommend that my younger self take the time to stop and reflect on what each one of my roles had to offer, because every role I held early on in my career was in preparation for the next role. I missed a lot of lessons because I was focused on the future, not the present.
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
In high school, I played basketball. I wasn’t very good, but I was the tallest player on the team. My mom was always there — she would take off from her job at a sewing factory and drive behind the bus to every away game. Before every game she would say to me, “Don’t foul out so you can stay in the game.” She also told me to always leave someone better off than when you found them, to show up and do your best, and to respect elders. And then, my Uncle David, who was my spiritual guide. He was and still is my moral compass. He was that one to tell me what Jesus would do. And I would listen.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
I have a few things going on right now.
- In my role as SYNERGY HomeCare’s expert gerontologist, I author a variety of resources for family and professional caregivers to support the highest quality of life for families.
- I just relaunched my book “A Dementia Caregiver’s Guide to Care,” a 54-page interactive guidebook that answers typical questions caregivers find themselves asking over and over again.
- I was also just named the Communications and Advocacy Liaison for the South Carolina Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Our major initiative is to enact legislation that will allow social workers to join a compact, a legal entity that permits social workers to practice in other states, much like doctors or lawyers do. This change would make it possible for social workers from anywhere in the country to join emergency response efforts, not matter what state they are licensed in.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
I really like the World Health Organization’s definition of stress: Stress can be defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives. The American Psychological Association says that stress is a normal reaction to everyday pressures but can become unhealthy when it upsets your day-to-day functioning. The National Institute of Mental Health says stress is the physical or mental response to an external cause, such as having a lot of homework or having an illness. A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time. I like to say that stress can be compared to bills — it’s always coming. The key is in how you manage that stress, how it affects your quality of life.
In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?
Change contributes to stress and change is overabundant today. Further, we are often expected to conform to change on a timeline that is not our own. But in many cases, we have the ability to be in control of change, namely in the pursuit of a desired lifestyle or area of fulfillment.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
Everyone responds to stress differently, but some of the most common signs of stress include:
- Excessive worry, being preoccupied
- Persistent headaches or body pain
- Having colds you can’t get rid of
- Changes in appetite
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Trouble sleeping
- Lack of energy
- Being irritable
- Decreased concentration or ability to focus
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
In dangerous situations, stress signals a fight or flight response to ensure survival. In order to ready the body for battle, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, and your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity. In non-life-threatening situations, stress can motivate people, such as when they need to take a test or interview for a new job.
The dangerous part comes with sustained stress, which may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Other dangers of sustained stress are reliance on unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking or doing drugs, smoking, overeating or oversleeping. Positive coping strategies include exercise, meditation, journaling and talk therapy — with a friend, family member or professional.
Let’s now focus more on the stress of caring for elderly or aging parents. This feels intuitive, but it is helpful to spell it out in order to address it. Can you help articulate a few reasons why caring for our aging parents can be so stressful?
The biggest causes of stress when caring for aging parents is feeling unsure of your caregiving abilities, not understanding the level of care needed, not knowing where to turn for support and assistance and figuring out how to pay for care.
Can you share with our readers your “5 Things You Can Do To Reduce Stress When Caring For Your Elderly Or Aging Parents”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
In addition to the physical toll that may come with helping someone dress, walk or bathe, there is also an emotional toll that accompanies caregiving. It therefore follows that in order to properly take care of your loved one, you have to start by properly taking care of yourself. Here are five things you can do:
1 . Stay Engaged & Connected. Caregivers want to be sure that they are staying connected and actively engaged in their own daily routines. Prioritizing what they enjoy doing and writing it in as a part of their caregiving responsibilities; because, after all, the caregiver cannot provide adequate caregiving support to their loved one if they are not happy and healthy themselves.
Caregivers need to stay connected to family and friends, as caregiving can be a very lonely experience; therefore, having family and friends around is a support system for the caregiver that will ultimately better prepare them to provide meaningful care to their aging loved ones.
2 . Stay Active. Be sure to get out as often as you possibly can. The sunlight can provide a level of rejuvenation that you can’t even begin to imagine. The natural sunlight elevates a chemical in our body called serotonin that improves mood, focus, and motivation. So, the more sun you take in, the more of an opportunity you’ll have to reduce your stress.
In addition, you want to exercise and move about as much as possible. Exercising does wonders for the brain. It helps the body produce other brain enhancing chemicals that improves memory, attention, perception, mental clarity, and so much more!
3 . Develop a sleep schedule that coincides with your loved one’s needs.
If your loved one is mainly autonomous at night but needs more assistance in the mornings while getting their day started, try to go to sleep early so you can be up and ready in the morning. No one, including yourself, wants to start their day helping someone else while being groggy and tired.
4 . Don’t forget to care about yourself. Managing a loved one’s chronic illness will of course make you responsible for many additional aspects of their life. However, that should not come at the expense of your own life. Don’t forget that your own wants and needs exist too. Devote parts of your day solely to self-care and continue to do the things that bring you joy. Also be sure to stay on top of your own medical needs, including medications, doctor’s appointments, etc.
5 . Take Time Off. Chronic illness within the family can often make family members feel as though they’re bearing the entire load of responsibility for their loved one. While these diagnoses do mean more work for the family, it doesn’t mean you should be the only option available to navigate your loved one through their chronic illness.
It’s crucial that caregivers understand that it’s okay to ask for help. Reach out to family and friends and tell them what you need. A lot of times people don’t offer to help, because they don’t know what the caregiver needs. Therefore, they don’t offer anything.
You can also go beyond your immediate network and find help via respite care. Respite care is specifically designed to give you a break from being your family’s primary caregiver. Research home care agencies in your area and reach out to your local Area Agency on Aging or the Alzheimer’s Association if their family member has dementia, each of these agencies offer either respite or a respite voucher.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My passion project would be to amplify advocacy efforts to get Medicare to pay for long-term care. Medicaid pays for long-term care for people who have low incomes, but there are many people who fall into a coverage gap for long-term care needs. More and more people want to age in place because home is where people are most comfortable, connected and happy but we don’t have a system in place to support that.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
On social media, I am @drmaciep / My website is www.dtconsultant.org
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.