If you’re one of the millions of Americans living with someone with a brain injury, you may be feeling tired or confused. You are not alone. The good news is there are practical things you can do to help you and your loved one thrive in this new time.
The CDC estimates that there are an estimated 5.3 million men, women, and children living with a brain injury in the United States. Each year, an additional 1.5 million Americans sustain a TBI.
Worldwide, the Journal of Neurosurgery estimates that 69 million people each year suffer a traumatic brain injury. There are millions more caregivers who are living with someone with a brain injury. This guide is for people who are walking that path and are looking for practical guidance to care for their loved ones and themselves.
Table of Contents
Let’s start with organization. Your loved one with TBI is facing new memory challenges. That’s why you can play such an important role in helping them to stay organized.
Help Your Loved One Stay Organized
Memory problems can be quite common in people who have a severe or moderate traumatic brain injury. Short-term memory is more challenging than long-term memory. That’s because TBI affects the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
As an individual living with someone with a traumatic brain injury, you provide valuable support when you help your loved one stay organized. Here are 6 things you can do:
- Label drawers and cabinets so your loved one always knows what is inside.
- Create a checklist for your loved one. It can be hard for someone with TBI to multitask, so intentionally focusing on one task at a time can help. A calendar can also be an effective tool for reminders about important daily tasks.
- Need to tackle some clutter? Organize and clean up together while you listen to a favorite playlist. Listening to music can help improve cognition and increase muscle control. If you both listen to music while you organize you can create a more organized space while giving both of your brains a boost as well.
- Create deadlines for the important things. Deadlines can be a great motivator for tackling things together. If you have household goods you can donate, consider scheduling a future pickup date that you can both work towards. The Vietnam Veterans of America has a great pickup program.
- Help your loved one to set reminders for important deadlines on their phone.
- Make organization a lifestyle choice. Rather than trying to carve out a long stretch during the day for a marathon organizing session, instead try and find small habits that you can slowly incorporate into life together.
- Prioritize and relax. Your loved one will need time to rest and recover after mental exertion. As a person living with someone with a brain injury, you can help by being relaxed and patient during the process. And you can help to limit the overall mental strain by prioritizing on the most important things.
Memory challenges are not the only change that your loved one may be going through. If you can prepare yourself for those changes, you’ll be better equipped to productively be living with someone with brain injury.
Expect Physical and Mental Changes From TBI
Your loved one has suffered trauma to their brain. They are still the same person but they will experience changes to their physical, mental, and emotional capacity. You can help to reduce stress while living with someone with a traumatic brain injury if you expect these changes ahead of time.
What Physical Changes Can Come With TBI?
Physical changes may include dizziness, headaches, and fatigue. People with TBI may also experience problems with their vision and suffer from sleep disturbances. An overall feeling of weakness and a lack of coordination are also not uncommon.
Can a Brain Injury Cause Anger Issues?
Yes, people with TBI may experience emotional changes including difficulty managing frustration or anger. Someone living with TBI may also experience more irritability compared to their baseline.
Can TBI Cause Depression?
Yes, both depression and anxiety are associated with TBI. There may be challenges with social functioning and difficulty adjusting to new situations.
The good news is that there are things you can do to counteract some of these physical and mental changes. For example, one of the best ways to help combat depression is to stay active. And that leads us to our third guideline.
Take Regular Adventures Together
Staying active is one of the best things you can do for your loved one with TBI. Going on an adventure outside of the house can keep their mind stimulated and minimize low and depressive feelings. Plus, exposure to natural sunlight can help to promote the healthy melatonin levels that support sleep.
You should expect to do the heavy lifting in terms of planning and logistics. You can certainly give your loved one a couple of options to choose from, but you should expect to fulfill all of the mental burdens related with your trip. Your goal is to help provide an escape, not to give them another project they need to think about.
Some individuals with TBI may experience sensory overload, so be careful to avoid overstimulation when you’re first trying out your destinations. Here are some options to consider that are both indoors and outdoors.
- Visit the zoo
- Go to the orchestra
- Take a hike outside
- Visit a museum
- Make a list of 5 new coffee shops to visit, and then rank your favorites as you go
- Go to the movies and spend some time talking about the plot and the characters
- Go to a park and spend some time in silence just swinging on the swings.
- Check out your neighborhood library
This can also be a great time to invite other friends and loved ones along to join the fun. This may be enjoyable for your loved one and can help ease your own mental burden as well.
Create a Safe Home Environment
Your home should be a place of safety and security for you and your loved one with TBI.
Here are 6 pieces of practical advice you can follow.
- Place a no slip mat in your shower. While you’re at it, consider adding safety handrails to make it easy to enter and exit the shower.
- If your loved one deals with nighttime wandering or disordered sleep, you may want to consider an enclosed bed. Enclosed beds like the Safety Sleeper are designed to provide a protective and calming environment that promotes healthy sleep. In fact, anything you can do to promote sleep patterns will benefit your loved one. A study of 30 patients hospitalized with moderate to severe brain injury found a clear link between improving brain function and improving sleep.
- If you have hardwood or tile floors, look carefully at any rugs in the home. You may want to remove them to reduce the risk of your loved one falling.
- Try to create a sanctuary room for your loved one. This can be a place where they go whenever they want to. It should have minimal stimuli and can be a place of comfort and safety where they can go to rest and recharge when they are feeling tired or overstimulated during the day.
- Add night lights to safe bathroom trips at night.
- If you have any dangerous objects around the house (kitchen knives, etc), consider moving them out of reach of your loved one so they don’t accidentally hurt themselves.
Promote a Healthy Sleeping Environment
According to the study mentioned above, “sleep is essential to restore body and brain functions”. Sleep is necessary for the brain to generate new neurons and for new neural pathways in the brain.
Here are 4 practical ways to promote a healthy sleeping environment.
- Get physical exercise during the day. If you’re following the guidelines recommended here, you’re already going to do this. As long as your loved one is feeling up to it, try and get fresh air outside on as many of those adventures as possible.
- Create a restful sleep environment. For many people, a room that is dark, quiet, and cool can be most effective at promoting restful sleep. It’s also important to have a bed that is safe and comfortable. For some people living with TBI, a bed like the Safety Sleeper can be a significant help.
- Try to minimize stress for you and your loved one. This may be easier said than done, as you are both dealing with a challenging time. But the more you can set aside these worries at night, the more likely you will be to get a night of rest. Consider writing down any lingering worries at the end of the day to help clear your mind. That may make it easier for you to relax and focus on sleeping.
- Make conscious eating choices. Healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables can contribute to a balanced diet and won’t impair sleep. Very heavy meals right before bedtime, on the other hand, can hinder sleep. The same situation applies if you go to bed hungry. The resulting feeling of discomfort can impair sleep. Drugs like nicotine and caffeine can take hours to wear off and can make it very hard to get a good night’s sleep. Alcohol, while it can promote drowsiness in the short term, often contributes to poor sleep later in the night. Avoid these if you can. If you must use them, try to steer clear of them in the hours leading up to bed time.
Remember, these healthy sleeping tips apply not only to your loved one with TBI but also to you. As a person living with someone with brain injury, you are performing a service that is valuable and can also be quite challenging. Don’t neglect your own needs while you care for your loved one.
Remember to Care For Yourself
If you are living with someone who has a traumatic brain injury, it’s important to take a moment (or multiple moments) to lean on your own support network. Call a friend or family member when you’re feeling overwhelmed. It may also be helpful to proactively schedule a recurring calendar appointment so you have a regular time to look forward to. If you prefer to relax with your own alone time, perhaps consider winding down each day with a good book. You can also reach the VA’s Caregiver Support Line at 1-855-260-3274.
Don’t neglect your own medical care. Continue to see your own doctor regularly. If you are accustomed to seeing a counselor or mental health professional, keep that up.
Prioritize your sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best ways to care for yourself and get prepared for the day ahead. As much as possible, make this a non negotiable in your life.
Remember, you are doing your best to practice patience for your loved one, and you should also extend that same grace to yourself.