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December 5, 2016

The Caregiver's Holiday Survival Guide

by Amanda MacMillan

Taking care of an ailing loved one can be physically and emotionally challenging at any time of year. But the holidays can add travel, additional commitments and, sometimes, bittersweet memories to the mix -- and that can make them extra-stressful for caregivers, for all the joy and togetherness they bring.

If you’re a caregiver, either full- or part-time, the most important thing you can do this month (and any month) is to ask for help. “Nobody can be a caregiver 24/7,” says Barbara Vogel, LMSW, social work coordinator in Northwell Health’s Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine. “Reaching out is not a sign of weakness -- it’s a sign of wisdom and strength.”

That can be easier said than done, of course. So here are six steps you can take in the coming weeks to make sure that you and those you’re caring for get through the holidays as smoothly and happily as possible. 

Call in reinforcements. If a friend or family member asks what they can do, tell them – and be specific! “Ask for their schedule and figure out some days and times they can drop by to help. Or give them specific errands they can run,” says Vogel. You can also explore resources within your community, like an adult day-care center where you can take your loved one for a few hours, or a home-health aide who can tend to your friend or family member a few times a week. (Northwell’s Senior Care Services page has information about these and other local resources.)

Listen to your body. “Caregivers get all kinds of headaches, back pain, heart palpitations -- you name it,” says Vogel. Don’t ignore those problems just because you’re dealing with someone who’s really sick, or they could affect your ability to help. Talking to a doctor or a therapist about your symptoms can let you start to address them before they get worse.

Get away but stay connected. Getting someone to cover a caregiving shift is one thing – but using that time to really step away and relax is another thing entirely. What can help, Vogel says: installing a “nanny cam” recording device. Being able to check in on your loved one from afar can help you worry less about what’s going on at home.

Scale it back. “Big, loud family galas may not be appropriate for a sick loved one, especially if they’re cognitively impaired and can’t remember people they haven’t seen in a long time,” says Vogel. Instead of putting that person in a stressful or upsetting situation, consider a smaller-scale celebration with only close family this year.

Have a backup plan. Even the smallest of get-togethers don’t always work out as planned. “If you’re bringing your loved one to a family gathering, always have a Plan B so that you aren’t forcing them to stay somewhere that’s difficult for them,” says Vogel. Whether your escape hatch is a quiet bedroom or a nearby hotel, don’t feel bad about using it if you need to.

Join a support group. There may not be an easy way to remedy your current situation, but talking with others who are dealing with the same issues can help you cope. “It’s nothing short of magic when you sit in a room with your peers who validate what you’re saying,” says Vogel. “It helps us remember that we’re not alone.”