Kathie Gansemer concentrates on her breath first.
Slow, steady breaths.
Then, perhaps, she recites an inspirational quote or a poem to set the mood. One of her favorites is from the 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi. It encourages the reader to welcome even the most disturbing thoughts and emotions as a potential means to clear the way for an unexpected delight.
Meditation has become an integral part of Gansemer’s life since she became the primary caregiver to her parents four years ago, when she moved them from Pennsylvania to an independent senior community a few miles from her Penfield home.
Her 93-year-old father has suffered two strokes and brain cancer. Her 89-year-old mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She is in contact with them every day, managing their health care and taking them to medical appointments, doing their grocery shopping, and running errands for them.
“There are different draws on me at times that can be pretty intense in terms of caregiving,” Gansemer, 62, said.
Sometimes, she said, their health crises coincide with the needs of another family member with mental illness who also relies on Gansemer for help. “That, literally, is almost next to impossible to handle,” she said.
Caregiving can be a moving experience. But it can also take an emotional and physical toll on even the most resilient caregivers, whose needs are often overlooked by a health care system focused on patients.
A 2018 study from the Alzheimer’s Association found that as many as 40% of caregivers reported symptoms of depression, and other research shows that the immune system can be weakened by the stress of caregiving, leaving caregivers vulnerable to illness.
But Gansemer, a Xerox retiree whose physical pursuits include playing paddle tennis and taking long bike rides, has found meditation helps her cope. She is not alone.
Research has shown that simple daily meditation reduces the stress level of people who care for those stricken by Alzheimer’s. Gansemer discovered meditation when she started practicing yoga. Soon, she was meditating every day.
“It calms you down, evens you out, centers you, so you’re not as reactive,” Gansemer explained.
‘Who are the most stressed people on the planet?’
Numerous studies have shown the multiple benefits of meditation.
But in 2012, Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a professor in residence of UCLA’s department of psychiatry, examined whether meditation could help caregivers in particular, specifically those tending to loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia. She thought they would be the perfect population to study.
“I said,” Lavretsky explained, “ ‘Who are the most stressed people on the planet?’ ”
Compared to a control group of caretakers, who simply listened to relaxing music while lying or sitting down, the meditation group showed improved mood, resilience, and cognitive performance, along with changes in neurological biomarkers of aging.