The Santa Cruz Education Conference is underway! Caregivers: drop your preconceived notions about caregiving

Bill Fisher, chief executive officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, Northern California and Northern Nevada Chapter kicked off the annual education conference in the Santa Cruz area at the Mount Hermon Conference Center on a very personal note.

“My father died at age 90 about three weeks ago,” he said. “He was a cancer survivor, he had congestive heart failure and he had Alzheimer’s disease, and I can tell you that for my mother that it was the dementia that made it really hard for her as a caregiver.”

David Coon, Ph.D., discusses caregiving across the course of dementia

He reviewed the mission of the Alzheimer’s Association and introduced the day’s first keynote speaker, David Coon, Ph.D., associate vice provost for Health Outcomes at Arizona State University, senior associate dean, professor, who spoke about caregiving across the course of dementia.

He started his presentation by asking the audience to drop their preconceived notions about caregiving. “There are four types of people: those who have been caregivers, those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers.”

He reviewed statistics that show caregivers are at increased risk of depression, extreme fatigue, stress, anger, anxiety, financial loss and social isolation. Caregiver stress is generally caused by four things: 1.) Lack of control and predictability 2.) Loss of outlets for frustration or sources of support 3.) Perception that things are getting worse 4.) Feelings of not having what it takes to meet the next obstacle (helplessness).

Dr. Coon said he often hears statements from caregivers such as: Dad just does it to get to me; she could do it yesterday; he does it when he wants to.

“I understand where that comes from because we have history with our parents, siblings, etc.,” he said. “But how much does it benefit you to believe that someone with memory problems is strategically doing something to get to you? How helpful is it to hold on to the idea that someone who may be losing their judgment and memory is doing something on purpose?”

He encouraged the audience to change their thinking when they get frustrated with the person they are caring for. He explained the behavior chain: Trigger >> Behavior >> Reaction.

“The only thing you as a caregiver have control over are triggers and reactions. Occasionally, we can’t change the triggers. During those times, changing how you react to the behavior could keep the situation from getting worse.”

He then led the audience through a breathing exercise for stress release called mindful breath:

Step 1: Choose a word that represents relaxation for you.

Step 2: Take four deep breaths and mouth your word as you exhale.

Step 3: Rate your tension before and after this exercise.

Dr. Coon concluded his presentation by advising people to really be aware of who their support system is – who really offers help and support and a positive presence. “Avoid the toxics,” he said. “Taking care of yourself is the best gift you can give to the person you are caring for.”

More helpful resources related to this article

Caregiver stress check

Alzheimer’s behaviors and care

Caregiver message boards

Local education conferences and classes

Local support groups

For more information on how to cope with caregiver stress and to learn more caregiver tips, contact the Alzheimer’s Association at 800.272.3900 or visit