Dorothy recently lost her father to complications related to Alzheimer’s. Over the past ten years, she watched her dad deteriorate and become a shell of his former self. By the end, he did not know who she was, could not dress himself, and was on a soft food diet to minimize chocking. She grieved his loss with every decline and now that he was at peace, Dorothy decided it was time to take care of herself.
Knowing that Dementia and Alzheimer’s runs in her family, Dorothy wanted to improve her mental health. While there is no medical cure or preventative medication for either, she yearned for an opportunity to improve her odds. The Alzheimer’s came like a reoccurring thief in the night stealing random bits and pieces of her dad’s brain. She felt so powerless watching him deteriorate and yearned for a way to regain some control.
So, she decided to make her mental health a priority. Once the grieving process entered the final stage of acceptance, she had the physical and mental strength to redirect her energy. Here are ten items she religiously incorporated in her life.
- Adequate sleep. While the standard amount of nightly sleep is approximately 8 hours, Dorothy found she functioned better with 7. Good sleep habits allow the brain to process information and emotions that it cannot handle during the day, help to release toxin buildup in the brain, rejuvenate the senses. It is best to have relatively the same bedtime and wake time every day, no electronic devices 30 minutes prior to sleeping, and a relaxing bedtime routine such as drinking decaffeinated herbal tea.
- Proper exercise. Before things ramped up with her dad, Dorothy enjoyed a morning walk. Now that things settled into a new normal, she went back to walking daily. Exercise forces new oxygen and blood into the brain which can reduce anxiety and stress. The fresh air can be rejuvenating. The important part is to find activities that are enjoyable, have a consistent routine, minimize the risk of injury and set aside time specifically for exercise.
- Intentional focus. There are many activities that require an intentional focus such as reading, learning a new skill, having an intellectual conversation, writing, listening to a lecture, and taking a continuing education class. What is not on the list is video games; this is mindlessness activity not mindful activity. For Dorothy, she decided to take a psychology class at her community college just for fun. She enjoyed learning about new things and her recent experience with mental illness inspired her to learn more about the subject.
- Meditation and prayer. This experience with her dad increased Dorothy’s prayer time. She found comfort in looking outside of her current circumstances towards a bigger picture of her life. But she was unfamiliar with meditation. Purposeful meditation can reduce anxiety and depression. There are two ways this can be done. Take some time to focus solely on the environment such as looking at a tree or flower becoming aware of sounds, scents, and atmosphere. Or take some deep breaths feeling it travel through the body becoming aware of muscle tension or pain.
- Mindless time. Everyone needs some downtime where the brain can rest from the demands of the day. This is best done close to bedtime as a precursor to sleep. But taking some mindless time during the day can have a positive relaxing effect. Dorothy loved playing solitaire on her computer, watching a ½ hour comedy show, and combing through her FB feed. However, these activities were timed so that she did not spend hours a day on mindless activity.
- Time for play. While her dad was sick, there was no time for enjoyable activities and even when she tried, she was unable to unwind. The joy of life had been sucked from Dorothy. At first, it was hard for Dolores to even think about doing fun playful activities but after practice, it improved. Children are naturally great at play. They build things with Legos, draw pictures, finger paint, play with action figures and dolls, and dress up. Dorothy incorporated the adult version of using coloring books, crafting, photography, and acting.
- Time for socializing. Dorothy didn’t have any friends going through a similar experience with Alzheimer’s. Worse yet, she was embarrassed to admit how her dad angrily treated her towards the end and so she isolated herself. Incorporating social time back into her life was more of an emotional challenge rather than a time constraint. Connecting with others in a meaningful relationship can reduce the severity of depression. Just knowing that someone is unconditionally available provides comfort and community.
- Healthy diet. It sounds strange that one of the items for improving mental health would be related to food, but it is. Food is fuel to the body and if the fuel is poor, it affects everything including the mind. What is most important is to limit unhealthy items such as sugar, processed foods, unnecessary additives and preservatives, and chemically treated food. And instead of adding whole foods rich in vitamins and minerals back into the diet.
- Minimize alcohol and drugs. The abuse of alcohol and drugs is either a dependency or an addiction. Either way, these substances have a negative impact on mental functioning. So much so that every diagnosis including depression and anxiety are intensified by the use of substances. Dorothy found that she developed a habit of drinking at night to unwind which decreased the effectiveness of her sleep. So she decided to keep her drinking to a 2 glass minimum per week.
- Intentional Rest. Our bodies were designed to take a day off once a week. Dorothy started to think of her day of rest as a Sabbath. She used this time to do the activities she enjoyed without engaging in any work. By taking time out one day out of the week, she was able to function better for the rest of the week.
- Be creative. A strong creative side of the brain aids in problem-solving relieves stress, elevates the mood, and increases self-awareness. Creative activities can include gardening, cooking, baking, sewing, woodworking, drawing, painting, photography, crafting, coloring, journaling, building, decorating, and refinishing. Dorothy decided to use her creativity to redecorate her family room by painting the walls, sewing some pillows, and refinishing a piece of furniture.
By incorporating these ten items into her daily routine, Dorothy began to see improvements in her mental functioning. She forgot things less often, was not so easily distracted, and felt more in control of her emotional responses.