The Mindful Caregiver

By Nancy Kriseman | Featured Columnist AJT

Nancy Kriseman

How do you celebrate the holidays when an elder family member has physical or cognitive challenges? Should you bring your elder parent home for the holidays? Can your elder family member travel safely? Can your parent sit through a holiday dinner? How do you take care of yourself when attention is focused on your ill loved one? These are just some of the questions that tug at caregivers’ hearts during the holidays. Struggling with what to do can cause stress, guilt and tension among a family.

What’s Best for Your Elder?

Trying to decide what is best for your elder can be confusing and indeed emotional. Below are some tips to help bring some comfort to you both.

Set realistic expectations. Ask the critical question, what is best for my elder family member at this time? This may not be the same as how you would like things to be. So be mindful and try to get in touch with the messages that play in your head about how the holidays should be. Now contrast your answer with that from the first question. Can you adjust your expectations and plan accordingly?

Be mindful of your elder family member’s cognitive or physical challenges. Keep in mind that when a person has dementia, lots of noise and crowds can cause a person to get agitated. Likewise, an unfamiliar environment can cause confusion and discomfort. For elders with physical challenges, coming to a family member’s home may be uncomfortable. Will your elder have trouble getting around in the house? For example, does your house have any stairs, even just a step? What about low toilets or bathrooms without grab bars? These can all pose difficulties. Are you aware of your loved one’s stamina? Will he or she not be able to last the duration of the celebration? And perhaps, most importantly, will he be too embarrassed to let you know?

Create new ways of celebrating. New ways of celebrating can be new locations, new days, or even new rituals. If your elder family member is unable to easily leave her place of residence, consider bringing the celebration to her. And try to find ways for her to participate in the celebration that match her abilities. This might include asking your elder to provide a simple holiday dish or even the holiday music. Another thing to keep in mind is that, as a caregiver, you don’t have to celebrate the day of the holiday! Lastly, consider changing an old favorite ritual or coming up with a new one. For example, you may want to sponsor a meal for a needy family.

What’s Best for the Caregiver

Holidays are often more difficult for caregivers than for the elders themselves. Caregivers can sometimes place tremendous pressure on themselves to try to keep things as they always were. And if they attempt to change things, they invariably feel guilty. During the holidays, self-care is even more important. Consider these tips.

Learn to get to a positive no! A positive no is recognizing that you should say ‘no,’ when you feel compelled to say ‘yes.’ So consider your needs and identify what is pressuring you to say yes. If you can’t handle all that comes with hosting the celebration, consider some alternatives, such as going to a restaurant, have the meal catered, or asking another family member to host this year.
Break tradition! Ask for different gifts. Give some thought to things that will replenish you. This might include a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant, a massage, a facial or pedicure. Ask friends and family for “respite time,” which is when they volunteer to spend time with your elder family member. Or perhaps ask for a meal — many friends would be more than willing to make extra when fixing something for their family. Lastly, consider asking for help with errands.

Fill your spirit. Make sure you make time for people and things that make you laugh or bring you joy. Connect with friends. Get a massage, take a walk, listen to joyful music, watch a funny movie, or whatever makes you feel good. And make sure you get your rest. Avoid situations that deplete your spirit.
Focus inward. There are several introspective techniques that can be helpful. Some people meditate, practice yoga or tai chi. But if that is too much effort, here’s a simple and quick exercise that you can do at home. The goal is to take in three deep, long breaths and visualize words as you do so. For example, take a deep breath focusing on breathing in joy; then exhale sadness. Take a deep breath and breathe in ease; then exhale fear. Take a deep breath and breathe in comfort; then exhale distress.

I’ll end with a lovely quote I once heard.

Holiday Gift Suggestions:

To your elder family member — love & acceptance; to your family members and friends — love, joy and gratefulness; to yourself – compassion.

Nancy Kriseman is the author of The Mindful Caregiver and licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with older people and their families. This column is about helping families make the best possible decisions when supporting and caring for elder family members. To contact Nancy, visit www.nancykwriseman.com, post on her Facebook page, or follow her on twitter @GeriatricMSW.