Handling Holiday Traditions as a Family Caregiver

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…or is it? Maybe we should change the words of that song to be: It’s the most…stressful time of the year? Maybe it’s the most hectic time of the year? Or it’s the most frustrating time of the year? Well, at least that one works rhythmically 😉

Our family loves the holidays. The music, the lights, the food, and the traditions are all near and dear to our hearts. We decorate the weekend after Thanksgiving and take it all down sometime in January. It’s a busy season, with church events and concerts, parties, end-of-year obligations as business owners, and shopping for gifts large and small. We have traditional recipes we use year after year. We read the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, and A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore on Christmas Eve before bed.  We’ve taken the same Christmas morning photo of our kids in their Christmas PJ’s on the staircase that comes down to the kitchen from their bedrooms for ten years now. This year will be different because we will have an extra “kid” as our son-in-law joins the ranks on Christmas morning!

This year our Christmas will be a little different in another way as well because we don’t know what our holiday season will hold with Betsy’s mom’s recent change in health. Betsy knows that her brother could call at any minute to say she needs to come quickly. Of course, we have all known for years that this could happen, but it feels much closer now since her mom’s change in condition.

As a Family Caregiver, you know how unpredictable your schedule may be on any given day. Depending on the condition of the person you care for, or the care plan you have set up, you might have the freedom to keep up with a hectic holiday schedule, but it also might not be worth the effort. Ask yourself this question: do you have room to breathe deeply, to relax, to soak in a hot tub or enjoy a quiet cup of tea every day during the holidays? If not, you might want to rethink your schedule and your stress level!

Here’s an exercise to help you determine what might be negotiable this holiday season.

  1. Make a list of everything that is “tradition” during your holidays.
  2. Next to the items on your list, give each item a value of zero to five, with five being most important things you love about the holidays and zero being completely unimportant.
  3. Remove all the items that ranked as a zero. (Duh!)
  4. Now, look at your list one more time, to make sure there are no more zeros hiding there.
  5. Look at everything ranked one, two, or three and consider to whom you might delegate these items. Delegate them, or ask yourself, if it didn’t happen this year would it matter? If the answer is “no”, then re-rank it a zero and remove it from your list.
  6. Look at all the fives on your list. Do you really love all of these items? If you do, then make room for them in your schedule and enjoy them for all they are worth. Do the same for the traditions you ranked with a four as well, as you have time.
  7. Consider the ones, twos, and threes that you didn’t delegate. Seriously, to whom can you transfer these traditions? Or can they happen outside of the holiday crush? You could enjoy Christmas cookies in January when it’s cold outside. Skip hosting a get-together until after the holidays, when people are moving more slowly and looking for something to do.

Now, look at your list one last time. All you should have left on your list are the things you truly love about the holidays. These won’t feel like chores; they will be highlights of your month. They should bring you joy and pleasure and will make you a better Family Caregiver for your loved one.

What ranks as a five on your list? Join the conversation and share your heart!

Managing Stress

Family Caregivers are real heroes in the lives of those for whom they care! They juggle busy schedules, manage any number of challenges every day, and handle whatever comes their way. If you care for someone full-time, or if you oversee the care from a distance, you are going to have stress in your life.

Family Caregivers experience stress in a variety of ways; your success in managing your stress level will have a direct impact on your health and your ability to care for others. Family Caregivers report stress as a loss of sleep, poor eating habits, elevated blood sugar and blood pressure, limited physical activity, and a frequent or constant sense of anxiety or failure. These issues can lead to chronic health problems that will hinder, or even prevent, your ability to provide continued care to aging loved ones.

Some things I’ve learned over the years that help me manage my stress include: regular exercise, drinking plenty of water, limiting caffeine, eating lots of fruits and veggies, and getting at least seven hours of sleep each night. When I go to bed at the same time each night, walk while my mom is still sleeping, and keep a water bottle going all day long, I am more patient and calm. If my mom says or does something that might get under my skin, it’s easier to take a deep breath and remember that she didn’t mean to be hurtful. I am stronger as a person and as a Family Caregiver when I am more centered and focused.

Likewise, when I’m not doing these things, I am out of balance as a person and as a caregiver. I’m more tired, less creative, and quicker to react in anger or frustration. My response time is lagging, and my productivity in all areas of my life suffers. It’s just not a pretty picture!

To best manage my stress levels, I also have to assess what I do during my day, determine what I’m good at and what I hate doing so I can find ways to take the latter off my plate. For example, I love to cook, but I hate menu-planning and shopping. I can utilize resources that will plan my menus for me, and some will even do the grocery shopping and deliver to my home. I avoid pushing the shopping cart through the crowded aisles and blissfully chop carrots and onions in the comfort of my own kitchen.

To successfully manage the stress in your own life, you need first to assess how much stress you are feeling. Here’s a link to a Family Caregiver Stress Assessment Tool: https://www.caregiverstress.com/stress-management/family-caregiver-stress/stress-assessment/

Once you’ve taken the assessment, you should have a good idea of how stressed you really feel. You can then develop a plan to help you manage your stress and regain a sense of balance and control in your life.

Also, remember that the person you are caring for similarly has stress in their life. Their stress might be caused by loss of independence, loss of ability, loss of a sense of self-worth, loss of life as they once knew it, or even loss of memories. It is your job as a Family Caregiver to recognize your loved one’s losses and try to ease their sorrow or pain. You can even help them forget their losses for a time, or enable them to discover new abilities in this time of their life. But to find these new paths, to bring light to another’s darkness, you must be at your best. When you get a handle on your own stress and develop strategies that manage or alleviate that burden, you can feel great about putting on your Superhero cape and being a hero for someone special in your life!


Finding “Me” Time

Remember that song by Janet Jackson back in the 80’s: What Have You Done for Me Lately? The lyrics went like this:

Used to be a time when you would pamper me
Usta brag about it all the time
Your friends seem to think that you’re so peachy keen
But my friends say neglect is on your mind – Who’s right?

What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah
What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah

I want you to take those lyrics, and ask yourself if you could be talking about yourself with those words? As a Family Caregiver, you know how hard it is to carve out time to do the things you once did…from reading a book or a magazine or going out with friends for lunch, to dating your significant other or even spending time with your children. Caring for older family members or those with special needs can be both exhausting and time-consuming. Depending on how much help you have from others, you could be providing care up to 24/7! Just ask yourself this question: What have I done for me lately? Ooh ooh ooh yeah!

Finding time to pamper and care for yourself when you are caring for someone else can seem impossible, but I promise that with a game plan, you can care for yourself while caring for another. Building a winning strategy involves collecting information, developing a plan, gathering resources and implementing your system. It also includes regular check-ins to determine what works and what doesn’t, and a willingness to make modifications and try different ideas if the first one, or several, are not helping you achieve the desired outcomes.

Let’s say your desired outcome is to find one hour every day to spend alone, relaxing and resting your mind and body. Here are steps you will need to take to accomplish this goal.

  1. Consider the daily schedule that you observe with the one you care for. Consider the needs you are meeting with your loved one, and what other obligations you might have. Keep in mind that sleep and nutrition are ultimate necessities, so you cannot short-cut either of these when carving out your hour. Does your loved one nap regularly? Does s/he eat or take medications on a tight schedule? Does anyone come into the home on a regular basis to provide support services for cooking, cleaning, or caregiving? How does your current plan align with all of these details?
  2. Once you have collected all of this information, you are ready to develop a plan. Write everything down for a week or two, and then examine the schedule to see if there is a time where you can “step away” and rest for a while. If you cannot find anything, ask a friend, family member, or someone you trust to look with you. Ask this person to push you to find a solution to your dilemma.
  3. Once you have found your window of time, you need to gather resources. Use a pillbox to pre-sort meds so someone else might give them if your window of availability occurs when it’s time to take a pill. Consider who else might be available for the hour you need if there just is no safe way to leave your loved one unattended. Hire a professional home care company to provide support if you don’t have any local family or friends who can be available. Designate a space in your home that is your quiet place. Make it comfortable and cozy, and gather those things you want around you during your quiet time. Think about what you need to make this space and time conducive to your rest and restoration, and put it there.
  4. Finally, put your plan in motion! As often as is possible, when it’s time for you to unplug, do it! You might need to start with only 15 minutes or so, to help the person you are caring for learn that they can trust another while you are away. Be firm with the substitute caregiver; they need to figure out how to manage while you are taking some time to care for yourself. You need this time to be a better Family Caregiver, and they are here to help you accomplish this goal! Work up to your hour, and maybe even go beyond it. You will be amazed at how much better you feel, and how much more you can get accomplished with a little break now and then.

Once you’ve implemented your plan over a few days or weeks, you will want to check in with your support caregivers, as well as the one you care for, to discover how things are running and feeling for them. Sometimes it will be evident that the plan is not working. Perhaps your substitute isn’t working out or needs you for something every day. Maybe your loved one is more difficult to manage when you are away for the hour over several days. Any number of things might go wrong, but with patience and a willingness to make small adjustments in your plan, you should be able to find a working solution before long that will help you take your “me” time regularly, and you will be a much better Family Caregiver for doing this! And I promise, when you can pamper yourself regularly, even just a little bit, I promise you will find yourself saying, “Ooh, ooh, ooh YEAH!”

Finding Mental Strength

My mother fell and broke her hip. I got the call from my brother as the ambulance was transporting her to the hospital. I’ve been rehearsing this scenario for months now: what to do when I get the call, how to pack, how to travel to Georgia to be at my mother’s side in the hospital. Chris asked how I was doing. “I’m fine,” I replied. Of course, I wasn’t fine. I was just running on automatic at that point.

Five hours later I arrived at the hospital, and the next day she went into surgery. It was quickly determined that, at 97 years of age, she could not tolerate the therapy schedule required to stay in the hospital’s rehab program. She could barely hold her eyes open, and cried out in pain whenever anyone touched her. After six days, we requested a referral for hospice, and she was discharged home with hospice and around-the-clock care from Home Instead’s CAREGivers.

During those six days in the hospital, I felt both hope and hopelessness as I watched my mother struggle with physical therapy. I felt anger when she simply wouldn’t try. I was bewildered when she woke and thought that I was her mother, my grandmother. I felt relief when she survived the surgery to repair the broken hip, and then frustration when she repeatedly wished she could go ahead and die. I felt relief, and a little disappointment, when the hospital’s rehab program said they wouldn’t take her. I felt peace about bringing hospice into the equation, and sadness that my mother really is at the end of her life. It might be months, or even years now, but hospice brings a sense of finality to my mom’s story.

As a Family Caregiver, you are on an emotional roller-coaster ride on the best of days. One hour might be bright and wonderful, and the next might be painful, frustrating, or terrifying. And Family Caregivers who live at a distance from their loved ones are always waiting to receive “that phone call” that might tear them from their daily routines and send them into new landscapes of care. Whether you care for someone daily, or from a distance, you need a toolkit to help you remain strong through the toughest of times.

Your first tools are the things we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks. Taking care of yourself physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally will prepare you to manage the situation when it becomes challenging. You will be better equipped to manage the stress in your life and think clearly and with focus when you need to do so. Think of yourself as an athlete in training. You are a Family Caregiver in training for the crisis moments that will present themselves at the worst possible moments. Daily preparation helps the athlete perform at his or her best whenever the opportunity presents itself. You will be able to do the same. If you haven’t already, start today!

Next, you need to educate you on possible challenges and potential outcomes related to the person for whom you provide care. What is the best-case scenario, and what is the worst? Talk with an expert to help you gain a thorough understanding of the prospects, and to help you make a plan for best outcomes. Educate other family members and gain their commitments of support for your plans.

Third, learn about local resources that can help you manage the situation. This might include involving Home Health, Home Care, or Hospice Services. It could mean making a decision to move your loved one to a facility if you can no longer provide adequate care at home. It might mean enlisting other family members, neighbors or friends to help you manage things like household maintenance, meals, lawn care, laundry, or even just to give you a break. And remember, this time can be used to sleep, eat, exercise, or socialize with friends. You still need to be taking care of yourself while you are caring for your loved one.

Finally, embrace the fact that you are not in this alone. Accept that you need help, and get it. Also accept that the help you get might not look exactly like you want it to, but if it can give you back your balance and sanity, then allow and appreciate it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or request slight modifications, but also don’t micromanage a hired caregiver, healthcare worker, neighbor or friend who is there to help you and your loved one. Move to a mental place of thankfulness and resist feelings of guilt for letting someone else care for your mom. It’s what I had to do.

I mentioned earlier that my mother came home yesterday with around-the-clock care from Home Instead. Last night the overnight CAREGiver arrived at 8:00 pm. My mother asked why she was there, and insisted that she didn’t need anyone overnight, because I was there to care for her. I stuffed down the rising guilt inside of me, and spoke up. “Yes, Mama, we do need her here. I need her here tonight so I can get some rest and know that you are being looked after.” My mother slept well last night, with a Home Instead CAREGiver by her side. And I slept well also, knowing she was cared for.

Healthy Social Lives

Mary was caring for her husband, John, who had dementia. The couple were both in their 80’s and had been married for more than 50 years. John’s decline after his diagnosis was gradual, and at first Mary was able to keep up with her normal routines.

One Tuesday when Mary arrived to pick John up from his coffee group, he was gone. She found him only a few blocks away, but he was confused, disoriented, and cold. She quickly took him home and called John’s doctor, who said this was to be expected at this stage of the dementia. The doctor also discussed options to help Mary with John’s care, but she refused help, certain she could take care of her husband.

Over the next several weeks and months, Mary stopped going to her social engagements. Mary’s daughter noticed that her mother sounded tired and distracted whenever they spoke on the phone. When the daughter came for a visit a couple of months later, she was more stunned by her mother’s decline than by her father’s advancing dementia.

When a Family Caregiver withdraws from social engagement because of their caregiving responsibilities, everyone loses. Taking time to yourself will make you a better caregiver by improving your morale and letting you rest and recharge. Maintaining your social circle is critical for your health, as well as the health of the person for whom you are caring.

Here are a few ideas for nurturing your friendships after you become a Family Caregiver:

  1. Don’t shut people out. You might not feel like you have the emotional energy or the time to engage with anyone else, but it’s important that you find the energy and take the time. Let friends help, and your burden won’t be so heavy. And if, from time to time, you need to cancel plans, stay in touch and let friends know what’s going on.
  2. Communicate honestly. Share what’s going on at home with others who are close to you. Opening windows into your life allows others to better understand your true circumstances, and your needs.
  3. Be a friend back. Look for opportunities to reach out first. Ask how friends are doing, and take an interest in their lives. Share positive stories about your life; it will lift your mood as well as theirs. Remember that they have problems, too.
  4. Make time for regular social engagement. Schedule, honor, and keep it. This will give you better balance and a greater ability to care for your loved one.
  5. Show appreciation to those who help you. Write a note, or send flowers. A small gesture goes a long way among friends, and this world of text messages, Instagram and email, a tangible thank you goes farther than you might even imagine.
  6. Utilize Social Media options to stay connected. Facebook is a great way to connect with people over vast geographic distances, or even just across the street. Skype, Facetime, or other video call platforms allow you to see your friends even if you are living in different time zones. Find an online support group and share your story with others who may resonate with it.

Finally, it’s important to maintain a healthy point of perspective on your particular situation. It might feel like your life is all doctor’s appointments and insurance paperwork, but that’s not who you are. Your friends love you, not your role as a caregiver. It’s okay to vent and share what’s going on in your life, but remember that it’s important to talk about other stuff, too.

Caregiving is a time in our lives when we are concentrating on the wellbeing of others. In order to maintain our own wellbeing, we should do at least minimal upkeep on outside friendships. The day will likely come when our caregiving season ends, and we will need our friends more than ever at that time. If we take an interest in what our friends are doing now, they are more likely to be around when our caregiving days are over.



Nurture Your Spiritual Health

Having a healthy spiritual life means different things to different people. Chris and I are actively involved in our church, and our church family has supported us through many of life’s joys and sorrows. Churches, Bible study groups, fellowship or small groups and the like can provide accountability, encouragement, suggestions of resources and even respite care support when you need it…but you have to speak up and share your needs within these spiritual circles of trust. Our church family has celebrated one daughter’s wedding, our infant son’s death, the loss of Chris’s mother and many smaller milestones along the way. We love these people for how they have been family to us the last 20+ years, and we wouldn’t survive without them! Our church family takes care of us when we need them most, and we, in turn, take care of others out of the spiritual nurture we receive there.

Chris and I both grew up in Christian homes. We both accepted Christ at an early age, and began to grow spiritually from the time we were children. We both entered vocational ministry in our mid-twenties prior to our marriage. We have walked very similar paths in this respect. Today the nurture of our spiritual lives involves daily (at least most days) Bible study, prayer and meditation, regular fellowship with other Christians, mission or service projects, and stewardship of our gifts and resources to represent Christ to others we meet along our life journey.

None of us are perfect in our spiritual lives. My friend Kyle Matthews is a Christian singer/song writer who wrote a song made famous by Bob Carlisle some years back called We Fall Down. The chorus goes like this:

We fall down, we get up,

We fall down, we get up,

We fall down, we get up,

And the saints are just the sinners

Who fall down and get up.

I fall down…a lot! But when I accept God’s forgiveness for my shortcomings, and ask Him for help with challenges or extreme needs, I always find that His provision is exactly what I need to get up again. God’s provision may not be what I asked for, or what I thought I needed, but I can clearly see in hindsight why His way was perfect for my situation. And people who practice spiritual disciplines like prayer, meditation, Scripture study, journaling, and worship on a regular basis indicate that they experience feelings of hope, peace, and joy. They are generally not depressed and can cope with life’s challenges in healthier ways. Furthermore, many spiritual people are physically healthier as well! By nurturing your spiritual health, you will fortify your capacity to care for the people within your care.

What’s your best spiritual discipline? And how do you keep it fresh and vibrant in your life? Join the conversation and share your heart!



Alzheimer’s Awareness

Last weekend Chris and I participated in our local Alzheimer’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Along with hundreds of other people in our community, we raised money and raised awareness of this devastating disease. Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias impacts everyone in our community over the course of our lifetimes. Perhaps you are caring for someone with dementia, or have someone in your family who has the disease. Maybe you have noticed someone at church, or in your community, who seems disoriented or confused when they are in a social setting. You might see an older person become agitated or argumentative when they are eating at a restaurant, or shopping in the grocery store.

Many people who have undiagnosed or recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia still live alone within their communities. When the disease process is in an early stage, symptoms are often dismissed as normal forgetfulness, signs of old age, or they might even be camouflaged through humor or avoidance. As the disease advances, behavior changes cannot be hidden and the truth comes to light, but sometimes awareness comes too late. Early intervention through support services, medication management, and a progressive plan of care can make the difference between a high quality of life and a complete loss of quality of life.

Here are some things to look for if you are concerned about a family member, neighbor, or friend at church. While Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia may not be the cause, these are all indicators that the person you care about needs some help at this point in their life.

  1. Is the house that was usually kept clean and neat now cluttered and dirty? Does the exterior of the house need maintenance, and do the lawn and shrubbery need upkeep?
  2. Does the mail or paper sit uncollected in the box for days at a time, or do bills go unpaid until utilities get turned off?
  3. Has someone stopped attending church or social functions when they once regularly attended these activities and enjoyed them?
  4. Is your neighbor’s car showing signs of neglect, or damage from minor scrapes and dents? Has your neighbor forgotten to put the car in park and had it roll back into shrubbery or a tree?
  5. Is someone who used to be well-dressed and put together now wearing dirty clothing and neglecting personal hygiene?
  6. Does someone forget to take their medications, or exhibit uncertainty about whether or not meds have been taken according to doctor’s instructions?
  7. Is someone making poor nutritional choices or is there out-of-date food in the pantry or refrigerator? Have you noticed weight gain or loss?
  8. Has speech becomes repetitive or confused?
  9. Do you notice a marked decrease in physical activity levels from previous norms? Have you noticed a general decline in physical, mental, or emotional characteristics and ability?

To learn more about Alzheimer’s disease, visit www.alz.org. For more tips on caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, visit https://www.helpforalzheimersfamilies.com.

Chris and I hope you will join the conversation, and share your heart!