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Caregiver Health

I'm under a great deal of stress from caring for my husband. Do certain types of music help reduce stress more than others? I've always been a rock ‘n' roll girl, but it's not really helping.

"Music has different effects on us: physically, psychologically, even cognitively," says Al Bumanis, director of communication for the American Music Therapy Association, and a board-certified music therapist in Maryland. "That said, you must be aware of what the music is doing. Is it energizing you or relaxing you? Then you have to find the music that has the desired effect."

Bumanis adds that "music is very individualized. If you're looking for a relaxation response, playing hard rock or faster-tempo rock might not do it—but that's not the case with everybody." He suggests going to a music therapist who would "do evaluation and assessment, incorporating cultural background, and see how different music affects you.

"For most music therapists in clinical music therapy," Bumanis adds, "it's [about] creating music, engaging the client, whether drumming together, singing together, or creating music in other ways. Maybe playing an instrument can be relaxing, rather than more passively listening to music. Or you can do a mix of both. The key is to find what works for you."

Between work and caring for my ill husband, I feel tired a lot even though I sleep through the night. Is there something I should be eating to help keep my energy levels high?

A stressed and busy lifestyle makes it easy to forget some important basics that should help you revive your energy. "My first question would be, how much water are you drinking? One of the first symptoms of dehydration is being lethargic," says Julianne Koritz, RN, LDN, a dietician in private practice in Boca Raton, FL. Koritz suggests drinking "four twenty-ounce bottles through the day. Morning, afternoon, one at three or four-when people mainly get lethargic-and one at dinner."

Coffee or tea isn't necessarily a good substitute; as Koritz points out, "caffeine is dehydrating." Also, she says, "fresh fruits between meals are better than a power bar or granola bar because the sugar in that bar can cause dehydration. Fresh fruit is not just glucose, it's a natural fructose, which you absorb slower to keep energy levels up."

Greens will also do the trick, says Koritz. "Vegetables, raw or cooked, it doesn't matter. Also, add a bit of protein, perhaps tofu or hummus." For a quick, on-the-go boost, she suggests pistachios, pecans or walnuts, noting that nuts, period, are the best pre-packaged snack.

Sleeping during the daytime makes me groggy. How do I get an ideal nap that leaves me refreshed?

According to Sara C. Mednick, PhD, research scientist at the Salk Institute at La Jolla, CA, and author of the book Take a Nap, "our biological rhythm telling us when to sleep and wake changes across the lifespan. In older adults, those signals become weaker, and people develop changes in sleep pattern."

That said, there are some recommended methods for a nap that will leave you refreshed. "Typically, between one and three in the afternoon, you feel a bit of an energy dip," Dr. Mednick, says. "You can, within those hours, get on a schedule with your body. A nap of reasonable length is no longer than an hour and a half. That length of time gets you through a full sleep cycle. Also, you don't want to be sleeping too close to bedtime. Leave at least a three-hour window before beginning nocturnal sleep."

Being guided by moderation is the key to a nap that leaves you more energized than tired. "There's no benefit to napping beyond an hour and a half," Dr. Mednick stresses. "Beyond that, you're relaxing into the next sleep cycle."

I was told that yoga is a good exercise for relieving caregiver stress, but I'm 65 and have diabetes and mild arthritis. I wonder if I'm too old for this. Is it safe for me?

"There's an ease many people find through yoga, and goodness knows caregivers need it," says Peggy Cappy, a certified yoga instructor specializing in senior workouts. She points out that the Arthritis Foundation says, "The best thing you can do is mild exercise to keep the circulation moving around the affected joints." Yoga offers an ideal solution because, Cappy says, "you can take a gentle approach."

Cappy's DVD, Yoga for the Rest of Us, begins with "a warm-up of the joints, done seated in a chair. Through yoga, you learn to pay attention to sensations in your body so you know how much is enough or too much."

Regarding diabetes, Cappy adds, "it's essential to get circulation down in your extremities and many exercise programs don't. I've created yoga warm-ups that increase circulation into your feet and hands."

Cappy insists you're never too old to benefit. "I've had many people not start yoga until their eighties, and one started in her nineties. She told me, 'If I had only started when I was my seventies!"

As the stress over caring for my folks increases, I seem to increasingly suffer short-term memory loss. Is this normal? What can I do about it?

Adding caregiver responsibilities to an already full life will understandably take a mental toll. "When an individual experiences lots of everyday hassles or stressful life events, there is a reduction in the ability to remember [certain] information," says Dean D. VonDras, PhD, associate professor of human development and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who's conducted several studies on the effects of stress. Dr. VonDras notes that mental exercises and devices should improve short-term memory, such as a Concentration-type memory game in which a person must choose objects by remembering the sequence of their presentation. He also suggests you "perform familiar tasks in unfamiliar ways, such as combing your hair or brushing your teeth with the hand not normally used, which works different parts of the brain and improves mental functioning."

Dealing with the stress, however, requires different strategies. "The most basic would be to join a support group for caregivers and have the opportunity to share thoughts, feelings and key issues," advises Dr. VonDras. "Different support groups are focused on different [health] issues." Also, he points out, "there often are educational programs about how to be a caregiver sponsored by area hospitals and medical centers. Learning how to aid elders is an important resource for any caregiver, and this new knowledge tends to lower stress." It's important to remember that you're not in this alone, Dr. VonDras says. "A large body of research suggests that social support is a great buffer against stress."