Caregiving takes a toll on my emotions; I throw my heart into caring for my 92-year-old dad, Robert, who has Alzheimer's. But a recent conversation with Clyde Yancy, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and an expert for the American Heart Association, reminded me that caregiving puts a strain on my physical heart, too.
Like many of you, I have family medical history that includes various heart conditions; my dad has bradycardia and needs a pacemaker. My late mom had atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, a heart attack and more.
With that family history and the stress of caregiving, I know I need to protect my own heart. I heartily agree with Yancy, who says: "It's not just about longevity. It's about the quality of life."
In order to live the best possible life while preventing and/or living with heart disease, he recommends going back to basics with steps that the American Heart Association calls Life's Simple 7.
1. Manage blood pressure. Do you even know what your typical blood pressure is? Check yours whenever you check your loved one's blood pressure.
2. Control cholesterol. It's easy now to get your cholesterol checked — you can even get a kit for home testing. If high cholesterol is a problem, address it using many of the other steps listed here.
3. Reduce blood sugar. Find recipes that won't spike your blood sugar (or your loved one's). Using a healthy substitute for soda will make a major difference.
4. Eat better. It's tough to find time to cook healthy meals, right? Wrong. There are so many easy-to-make healthy recipes! It's all about making good choices. I love AARP's healthy recipe tool — and it's free.
5. Lose weight. This is the step with which I struggle the most. Yancy suggests the 50 percent portion plan: Eat half of what you would consider a normal portion.
6. Stop smoking. You know you should, but have you quit yet? Thankfully, I've never been a smoker, but my sister was. She quit several years ago, and I'm glad not to be around the secondhand smoke.
7. Get active. Caregivers are on our feet a lot, which is actually great exercise (and walking is good for your brain, too). Yancy says monitoring your steps throughout the day can have the biggest impact, even if it's difficult for you to find time for a long walk or exercise classes. It's easy now with wearable devices, and a University of Pennsylvania study indicated most smartphone applications are just as accurate if you carry yours with you. I also do exercises with my dad that are good for both of us.
If it feels overwhelming to focus on all seven steps when you are so caught up in caregiving for others, just take it one step at a time, and you'll make steady progress. In fact, the American Heart Association is issuing a Red Steps Challenge as part of its Rise Above Heart Failure initiative, calling on people to take 6 million actual or symbolic small steps (in red socks!) in recognition of the nearly 6 million Americans living with heart failure.
I spoke recently with Queen Latifah about caregiving for her mom, who has heart failure, and the steps she is taking to care for herself, too.
Yancy and I put on our red socks, and I committed to taking some small steps to care for my heart. Caregiving fills my heart and makes me stronger, but I want my heart to be strong in other ways, too.
Amy Goyer is AARP's family, caregiving and multigenerational issues expert; she spends most of her time in Phoenix, where she is caring for her 92-year-old dad, Robert, who lives with her and has Alzheimer's disease. She is the author of AARP's Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. Follow Amy on Twitter @amygoyer; connect on Facebook and LinkedIn; and for ongoing caregiving support from Amy and AARP, text AMY to 97779.