November is National Family Caregivers Month. This is a time to honor the contribution of those volunteer friends and family members who support a loved one with their health or managing a disability. There are over 44 million Americans who care for a family member, friend, or neighbor. Depending on the situation, they may provide medical and nursing tasks, as well as daily living care like helping with bathing, transportation, shopping, etc. Because the holidays—with the gifts, parties, baking, family (or perhaps the absence of these things)—can be extra stressful to both caregivers and care recipients, we’ve provided list of things that family caregivers can do to minimize the strain.
National Family Caregivers Month began in the 1990s as National Family Caregivers Week. In recognition of the invaluable services provided by family caregivers, it was extended to Caregivers Month in 2012. At the time, then-President Obama proclaimed:
“Family members, friends, and neighbors devote countless hours to providing care to their relatives or loved ones.… All of them give selflessly to bring comfort, social engagement, and stability to those they love. National Family Caregivers Month is a time to reflect on the compassion and dedication that family caregivers embody every day. As we offer our appreciation…let us also extend our own offers of support to them and their loved ones.”
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, over 44 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months. Close to 75% of all caregivers are female, and they provide over 20 hours of care on average per week. 46% perform medical and nursing tasks, and more than 96% provide help with activities of daily living such as personal hygiene, dressing and undressing, getting in and out of bed, taking prescribed medications, shopping for groceries, using technology, and more.
Typical caregiving involves round-the-clock activities, and since 60% of family caregivers work full or part time, life can become a tricky balancing act between caring for school-aged children still in the house, making sure the family care recipient has what they need, getting oneself to and from work, and managing normal household responsibilities.
Whether your loved one is a survivor of stroke or brain injury, or is living with aphasia, dementia, or other cognitive or communication disorder, you know caregiving can have many rewards. But the shift in roles and the increase in responsibilities commonly causes feelings of frustration, exhaustion, loneliness and stress. And when you experience caregiver stress, it can leave you more vulnerable to changes in your own health.
With the holidays approaching with the associated increase in responsibilities, we’ve come up with five tips to help caregivers not only survive, but thrive during the upcoming holiday season:
1. Give Yourself Permission to Say “No”: You are not obligated to attend every social gathering nor to host parties in your home. Trust your instincts—you know more than anyone else how much you as a caregiver and a loved one can handle without feeling overwhelmed. If an event or group of visitors feels stressful, give yourself permission to reschedule or decline. Discuss with your loved one ahead of time how they would like to spend their time in social situations during the season and try to honor their wishes. To that point, here’s a blog post that provides valuable tips for survivors for reducing sensory overload in social settings.
2. Maintain Routines: This can be challenging during the holidays, but try to keep your loved one on a regular routine so that holiday preparations do not become disruptive. Sticking with routines can increase a sense of predictability, help with behavior and emotional challenges, reduce feelings of anxiety, and stress, and ultimately allow caregivers to spend less time figuring out what to do next and more time creating meaningful moments.
3. Focus on What’s Most Meaningful, and Expect the Unexpected: Even if you maintain routines, expect the inevitable delay, crisis or disappointment. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed; you may have crammed too much into your already crazy schedule. Consider what is really doable and what’s most meaningful before you commit. If you find yourself NOT enjoying the season, take a step back and see what you can cut. Often, honoring traditions— for example, singing carols, eating special holiday foods, or lighting a menorah—can help you and your loved one better connect to the holiday.
4. Prioritize Self-Care: In all the craziness of the season, it can be easy to let your own needs slip. However, taking care of yourself can help you take better care of others. Watch for these signs of caregiver burnout: loss of motivation; feelings of disconnection with your loved one, other relationships, or work; feelings of losing yourself in caregiving or believing nothing we can do will make a difference. To prevent this, make time for exercise, healthy meals, and time outside, which are all good stress reducers. Consider journaling, talking with a friend, keeping an online blog of your experiences, doing yoga, or meditation.
5. Connect with Support: Support groups bring together people who are going through similar experiences. A support group can provide an opportunity for you to share personal experiences, feelings, and coping strategies with other caregivers. It can fill a gap between medical consultation with clinicians and the need for emotional support. You can find resources for local support groups here, or if there is nothing nearby, try online message boards. And don’t forget professional help from a counselor or therapist.