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ASU’s David Coon offers holiday caregiving tips

December 11, 2006

Make your stress less.

That’s the message David Coon, an associate professor of psychology in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University’s West campus, is sending to caregivers during the holiday season.

“Caregivers are the ‘hidden patient,’” says Coon, who last month co-authored a caregiver study designed to address the many ways caring for a relative with dementia can take it toll.  “Providing care to a family member with dementia is extremely stressful, contributes to psychiatric and physical morbidity among family caregiver, and increases the risk of caregiver mortality.”

For the last 15 years, Coon has been actively involved in the development and implementation of successful community intervention programs serving diverse populations and in the training and supervision of mental health professionals and trainees, providing psychosocial interventions to distressed older adults and family caregivers. 

Currently, Coon is working on two projects serving families caring for older adults with memory problems.  One addresses the needs of caregivers that are facing their own physical health concerns while providing care.  The second project streamlines key aspects of a recent successful caregiving intervention to increase its cost effectiveness while maintaining its positive impact on caregiver stress reduction.

Coon’s “Assisting Latino Caregivers Project” provides free educational, skill building, and supportive services to Latino family caregivers, and provides the opportunity to meet other caregivers.  The “Caregiver Health and Wellness Project” involves a personal interview with both Latino and Anglo/White caregivers who have their own chronic health conditions (overweight, Type II diabetes, high blood pressure).  Participants in the Caregiver Health and Wellness Project are also offered a free workshop focused on strategies to enhance caregiver well-being and reduce caregiver stress.

“Both these programs have been created to obtain valuable input about caregiving for older adults with memory problems and to learn more about the types of programs that are needed, but may not yet be available to the community.” said Coon

“Clearly, we want to partner with families and health and social service professionals to identify caregivers whose quality of life has been compromised, and provide the assistance they need.  We hope to expand our partnerships and work in the future to include other organizations and other communities of caregivers.”

Information for both programs is available by calling:  Spanish (602) 327-6010; English (602) 543-6364.

Coon lists these tips as sound advice to anyone giving care during the holidays:

Connectedness.  Reach out for meaningful connections that provide informational, tangible or emotional support – family, friends, and even your care recipient.  Pre-print holiday letters or photos, emails or faxes, set phone dates and ask for or send recorded messages to re-play. Enlist the help of others to accomplish. Connect and re-connect, don’t disconnect.

Avoid overload.  When stress, the blues or worry rises, take 5, 15, 30 minutes or more. Engage in something restorative. Read a meaningful and comforting passage or spiritual reflection, listen to soothing music, pray or meditate, sit in the garden, or admire a sunset. Above all, be kind to yourself by acknowledging your own caregiving efforts and accomplishments, and saying goodbye to guilt. Finding ways to take care of yourself – maintaining health and happiness – is really another way of increasing your loved one’s quality of care.

Resources.  Contact key community resources you have put off.  Reach out to other caregivers through educational programs, help lines, and support groups. Gather information for family, friends and neighbors who lack knowledge about caregiving or your loved one’s illness. When someone offers to help, provide an appropriate “to do” list to choose from or seek out their suggestions. When they don’t offer to help, why not ask for some, anyway?

Educate.  Family, friends and visitors who haven’t seen the changes in your loved one often zip in and out during the holidays.  Reduce last-minute stress with a holiday note or email that provides a heads-up on health and physical changes. Be brief.  Describe 3 key issues to help prepare guests for these changes and formulate realistic expectations.  Look for teachable moments to provide the educational material, reputable web sites and related resources that offer a better understanding of the situation.  Holidays can provide “hands-on” opportunities for those who have stayed outside the loop to experience some supervised caregiving responsibilities (Thank goodness!).

Game plan.  Plan ahead, especially for outings and in-home get-togethers with invited guests. Keep in mind your own energy level and your loved one’s limitations.  Have a game plan for safety. For example, maintain the same furniture layout as much as possible, carefully position electrical cords and avoid confusing blinking holiday lights. Plan for distractions should problem behaviors or upsetting situations arise.  Remain mindful that you can’t plan for everything, so stay flexible.  Look for humor and try to recount key blessings.

Invent new or transform old traditions. Avoid the “if we can’t do it the way we have in the past, let’s not do it at all” trap. First, determine what you really want from the holidays. What is most important?  Decide whether or not you like each activity and realize the blessing of letting go! For the “likes”, identify those you can transform or do differently to reduce overload on both your loved one and you.  Identify significant others who can share the responsibilities.  If family or friends are adamant about retaining a crossed-off tradition, enlist their support to adapt it for your loved one and to rally others to accomplish all the necessary tasks.

Value the quality, not the quantity, of time. Many times in the rush of the season and the responsibilities of care, we forget the precious present. Keep it simple – less is often more. Slowing down to spend time one-on-one or in a small group with your loved one can prove particularly rewarding.  Consider photo albums, favorite trips, familiar songs, and other comfort-level “events” that can be shared. Think of the ways the holidays can be incorporated into activities with the care recipient through seasonal music, DVDs or holiday cooking, decorating or other activities.

Identify simple, pleasant events. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of traditions both old and new, routine is very important for your loved one. What simple, every day pleasant events can be maintained in the holiday for your loved one, for you and for the two of you together? A daily walk in the park, time in the garden or reading a story together? Including your loved one in holiday activities when appropriate can be very rewarding for everyone, but watch for signs of discomfort resulting from too much noise or too many visitors. Know where your loved one can find quiet. Know where you can find quiet. 

No thank you is a short but indispensable phrase.  It’s ok to turn down holiday invitations that push you over the edge.  A sincere “No, thank you” and a suggestion on other ways to connect at a later date go a long way.  One alternative to an “outing” that discombobulates the caregiving dyad could be to connect to people at the gathering via a speaker phone.  For loved ones with memory problems, pull out a photo album to help connect a face with a voice on the line.

Gift giving.  Sincere thank you notes and small gifts for those who help you are truly appreciated.  Make it easy. Buy similar gifts through gift certificates, shopping online or catalog purchases. The gift of giving often rejuvenates, but keep it simple.  For you, ask for respite, cleaning, home repair, car washing, transportation, cooking or other “certificates”.  Finally, consider a true gift to yourself (this means no vacuum cleaners!) – a day spa massage, a gift certificate for your favorite carry-out food, a new fishing pole – anything that comforts or rejuvenates.