Helping carers care for themselves

Many carers look after their loved ones in their homes, often with no training in managing their own stress

Christy Fleming: ‘We want to educate the carers about diet and nutrition, the foods that help the brain, and also teach them different skills to de-stress themselves.’

It is just over two years since Christy Fleming’s brother, Paddy, died. He was 54 when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008.

Paddy had been living and working in the UK for 35 years as a chef. “He would always be on the phone to us and he was great at giving advice on diet and nutrition and was very spiritual,” says Christy. “He was very gentle and he loved nature. He meditated and had a very calm presence, he was also full of fun.”

However, the telephone calls changed. “He would be distracted in himself and you would be left hanging on the phone and the conversations were different so family members went to England to investigate for ourselves.”

He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the family decided that Paddy, who lived on his own, should come home to Ireland.


He stayed with his sister, Anna Doran in Finglas, in Dublin. "She became his carer and we built a place for him there," says Christy.

Alzheimer’s interferes with people’s lives, says Christy, explaining the idea behind the project ‘Disrupting Alzheimer’s’.

The brothers had the idea to have continuous residential workshops that take a holistic approach with practical everyday tasks to help improve the quality of life for someone living with Alzheimer’s.

"Because Paddy had an interest in back massage and reflexology and healing, I decided to try to get some therapists [together] at a residential unit," says Christy. He arranged two weeks of residential holistic care in Kiltegan in Co Wicklow.

The aim was to provides a dedicated, calm environment with a range of therapies, supports, activities and treatments to counter the effects of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and allow sufferers to explore their own potential, express their experiences, fears and joys.

All those involved in the programme have 24-hour supervisory care and a personal chef prepared menus based on a rich Mediterranean-style diet of fish, fresh fruit and vegetables and oils – like olive and coconut – seeds, nuts and berries.

Now the focus is also on the carers for workshops. “Many carers are in the frontline and many who care for their loved ones in their homes are often doing this without much support or training in managing their own stress,” he says.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) estimates that 35,000 people in Ireland have dementia, of which Alzheimer's is the most common form. "A lot of carers who are caring in their houses or homes are not prepared, they are stressed out and are thrown in at the deep end," says Christy.

“They do not get any support and we want to educate the carers about diet and nutrition, the foods that help the brain, and also teach them different skills to de-stress themselves. We have workshops where we can teach skills and techniques which they can apply in their own lives to help them handle stress.”

A key goal for the project is to have a purpose-built residential centre providing education and support for carers where, he says, “we would focus on diet and nutrition and sharing techniques with carers to reduce the stressors in their lives”.

Range of courses

The intention is that it will provide a range of courses ranging from information seminars to a seven-day residential programme.

Christy says one-day information seminars will be free but there would be a fee for the residential programmes.

“Based on previous residential programmes we organised, we estimate a seven-day programme would cost us in the region of €4,750 in total. This would include bed/board, training, therapies, workshops and would be staffed by both paid and volunteer staff.

“We would also employ the services of outside facilitators/tutors as required. The cost to the carer, if for example 10 people attended a course, would be about €475.

“As the project develops and our fundraising initiatives bear fruit, we plan to subsidise residential programmes for those carers who may be experiencing financial difficulties,” he says.

One of the speakers at the 'Minding Your Mind,' information day next month will be Martin Fitzgerald who practises Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, in Cork and London and who has a masters in chemistry from UCC.

“Carers need caring too. Often they prioritise the person they are caring for over themselves.

“Sometimes just a simple chat to a therapist about how to look after themselves better is of more benefit than going for repeated treatments,” he says.

“Small changes we can make now in our lives can greatly increase the quality of our lives in the future.”

He says “nutrition is key”. “If we are not eating well, then how can we expect our bodies to be well? After breathing and hydration, it’s the next fundamental input for life. “Different foods activate different types of metabolic processes which have a knock-on effect for our cardiovascular, immune, lymphatic systems, to name a few. What, when and how we eat, all influence our bodies.

“On a basic level, good nutrition provides the building blocks for growth and repair of our brain and the systems that support it. We cannot repair tissue without nutrition.

“Our metabolism, the collection of chemicals which control our heart rate, and how quickly we age, is directly influenced by the food we eat,” he says.

“ A very interesting area called epigenetics studies how the chemical environment in which our cells divide, which is heavily influenced by nutrition, alters the way our bodies cells, repair and replicate.

'Minding Your Mind' is on June 25th in the Barbara Ward Clonliffe and Croke Park Community Centre, Distillery Road, Dublin 3, and speakers will include Bernadette Bohan, cancer survivor and self-help author, and Sr Bernadette Sweeney, advocate and organiser of the Memory Lane Choir in Crumlin, Dublin.

Researchers looking for volunteers for Alzheimer's study Researchers carrying out pioneering investigations into the link between nutrition and Alzheimer's are seeking volunteers to take part in a Waterford-based study. The study will be carried out by researchers at the new Nutrition Research Centre at Waterford Institute of Technology.

The aim of the study is to see if giving a nutritional supplement improves cognitive or brain function among individuals with a mild cognitive impairment. Individuals with this condition show a decline in their thinking or memory abilities that is different from those experienced with normal ageing.

Researchers aim to recruit 120 volunteers: 60 individuals with a mild cognitive impairment (to be recruited from the hospital and referred by a doctor) and 60 individuals with no cognitive impairment.

"Alzheimer's disease represents one of the most challenging conditions for society, particularly that we now live in an ageing population," says Prof John Nolan, who is leading the research. "Research into preventative and treatment strategies for Alzheimer's disease is essential. Our research at the Nutrition Research Centre Ireland [NRCI] is focused on ways to try to combat Alzheimer's disease."

The aim of this study is to investigate if supplementation with the macular carotenoids (nutrients), vitamin E and fish oil in individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) improves cognitive function.

Applicants must be aged over 65 and answer no to the following questions: Are you taking any health supplements for your eyes?

Are you taking any fish oil supplements?

Are you taking cod liver oil? (Unless daily, then acceptable) Do you have a fish allergy?

Do you have glaucoma? (If acute angle glaucoma, not eligible)

Do you have depression or any other psychiatric illness currently under review by a doctor?

Have you ever been diagnosed by a doctor to have early dementia or any progressive or fluctuating symptoms of memory loss?

Have you ever had a stroke?

You must be able to travel to Waterford to be screened. To volunteer, call 051-845505.