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ASU professor offers caregiving tips during holidays

December 15, 2008

Make your stress less.

That’s the message David Coon, a 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 has 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.

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.

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.

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 three key issues to help prepare guests for these changes and formulate realistic expectations.  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.

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.  Realize the blessing of letting go!  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. 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?  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.

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.