December 6, 2010
Caring for a spouse, parent or loved one is demanding any time of year but can be even more so during the holidays.
To-do lists grow longer, and emotions including feelings of isolation and sadness about life's changes seem particularly amplified during a season wrought with expectation.
Letting go of the past and prioritizing and adjusting traditions to fit circumstances is a big step toward making the holidays more enjoyable for the caregiver and care recipient.
"A caregiver needs to decide what would make the holidays pleasant for themselves as well as appropriate for the person they care for, and make it happen," said Barbara Bronner, who coordinates a support group for caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer's disease and dementia in Steamboat Springs.
"Don't just let (the holidays) hit you and dwell on what's lost."
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Taking a proactive approach to the holidays allows a person to make plans and changes that minimize stress and emotional difficulty and can help strengthen relationships with family and sources of support.
A caregiver can start by sitting down and making a list of all the holiday traditions, responsibilities and occasions they typically assume or take part in.
Decide which ones are most important and least stressful and what needs to be done to make them pleasant for the caregiver and their loved one.
If a caregiver typically prepares a large holiday meal, they might consider making it a potluck, ordering the meal from a grocery store or restaurant, or asking a family member to host.
It's often necessary to make changes to fit the care recipient's needs.
Meals might need to be held during a different time of day when they are most alert or least agitated, gatherings might need to be smaller and quieter, and the care recipient might need a quiet place they can be during occasions away from home.
Amidst all the details, caregivers should set aside quality time to spend with the care recipient. Plan activities that take advantage of their abilities. If a person has dementia, for example, pull out some old holiday records or photos that will stimulate their long-term memories.
Try to find ways to involve them in traditions. If a care recipient is unable to accompany the caregiver on a shopping trip, maybe they can help choose gifts from a catalog. If they love Christmas lights but have limited mobility, string lights and decorations in their bedroom.
The holidays can provide a good opportunity to talk with family members who may not be aware of changes in the care recipient's health or a caregiver's responsibilities.
Prior to gatherings, caregivers should be honest with family about these circumstances so they have realistic expectations and understand why traditions may be different.
Sharing can help ease a caregiver's feelings of isolation or that they are unappreciated. It also opens the door for offers of help and support.
The gift of time
Offering to make small repairs or spending time with the care recipient is one of the best gifts a friend or family member can offer a caregiver, especially if they are feeling isolated.
Avoid open offers, and instead, suggest something tangible and specific such as picking up groceries for them or taking the care recipient on a walk or out to lunch on a certain day.
"There's nothing that feels better to a caregiver than knowing someone is caring about them," Bronner said.
Respite for the caregiver is essential any time of year but can be particularly important during the stress of the holidays, or after, which sometimes can be a time of let down.
Arranging for a friend or family member to be with the care recipient or taking advantage of adult day/respite programs can provide the caregiver time to get back into their fitness routine, pamper themselves with a massage or hair cut, tend to needed matters or just rest.
"When you are a caregiver for someone with a chronic condition, you can't let go of your own life completely … because it is unending," Bronner said.
"Everyone in that caregiving situation counts."
As caregivers reflect on the past year, rather than focusing on what has changed or become more difficult, it's helpful to think about the rewards of caring for a loved one and having the ability to make life better for that person.
"It's a time to remind yourself about what you are giving to someone and how you are changing someone's life for the better with what you do," Bronner said.