When dementia strikes, it takes its toll not only on the individual afflicted with the disease, but on their caregivers as well.
Simple, everyday interactions between the caregiver and the patient can be stressful when the patient becomes unpredictable. As the caregiver struggles to cope, they may well find their life spiralling downward into ill health and depression.
But Norman Farb, a post-doctoral fellow at Baycrest, is convinced using mindfulness meditation can halt the spiral and help caregivers reduce their stress. “Mindfulness involves being in a relaxed state of awareness, being in each moment as it is, without judgment, and observing your inner world of thoughts, feelings and sensations,” Farb explains.
Easing the mind
Recent studies have shown that mindfulness training can improve quality of life for people with fibromyalgia, chronic pain or a mood disorder – it is even used therapeutically in schools, hospitals, prisons, and other public institutions.
When Farb studied two groups of individuals at the University of Toronto in 2007 – one group had had mindfulness training; the other had not – he and his co-investigators (including Adam Anderson of Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute) were excited to see different areas of the brain lighting up in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. “The group with the mindfulness training was able to recruit the part of the brain which is involved with emotions,” he recalls. “Being able to recruit this area of the brain may give caregivers new resources in dealing with daily stress.”
Farb describes how mindfulness can help in a caregiver scenario: “When a spouse shows symptoms of dementia, like painting on a bathroom mirror, the caregiver may react angrily – why is the spouse behaving that way? The next interaction between them will be contaminated by negative emotion, which is completely understandable. But if the caregiver can use mindfulness to be more aware of their negative emotions and stop themselves from repeating bad habits, like snapping at a spouse, they can improve their quality of life.”
“Norman’s interests and mine intersect over the part of the brain that is crucial for normal social skills and emotional processing, and is also the part affected by frontotemporal dementia (FTD),” says Dr. Tiffany Chow, clinician-scientist in Baycrest’s Sam and Ida Ross Memory Clinic, and the first neurologist whose work is being supported by Women of Baycrest, which funds research into women’s brain health. “Improving the quality of life for my FTD clinic’s caregivers has been a longtime goal of mine.”
Farb’s fellowship is the first to be funded by Women of Baycrest. Most caregivers are women, and Farb says that in the mindfulness based stress reduction programs which he uses in his work, two-thirds of the participants are women. The program is an internationally accredited eight-week course.
At Baycrest, Farb’s goal is to organize a meditation based stress reduction program for caregivers, and then study the group with the training against one without it, to determine if mindfulness makes a difference in their well-being.
He summarizes his work by saying, “A huge concern in all caregiving relationships is the cost to the caregiver, since the stress can lead to depression and anxiety. With mindfulness we can help break down stressful and destructive patterns which will benefit not only the caregiver, but the patient as well.”