Helpful tips for family caregivers
December 2009/January 2010
With all the hubbub of the holidays, take some time for yourself to reflect and plan for the festivities. A little strategizing beforehand can make for pleasant memories later.
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If you have had a difficult relationship with the person you are now caring for, you may be wrestling with unresolved issues or harsh feelings. You may also feel stuck. This is especially common if the person you care for is unable to participate in a mutual discussion to resolve the past.
Fred Luskin, Ph.D., the lead researcher of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, says the way forward is to “practice forgiveness.” Forgiveness can be unilateral. And it brings with it many benefits:
- Improved heart health and blood pressure
- Reduced anger and depression
- Increased self-confidence
Forgiveness does not mean believing that no wrong was ever done to you. Instead, it means choosing a less stressful life for yourself by living in the present instead of the past. For example, in the practice of forgiveness, you
- Spend less time ruminating about what’s gone wrong and more time appreciating what’s going well.
- Accept that every life involves some hurt, and learn to manage healthily rather than feel victimized.
- Focus on the “big picture” and living your noble values rather than dwelling on others’ behavior.
In essence, forgiveness is about taking control of your life story.
One helpful task is to articulate a positive statement of your role or goal in taking care of your family member. You can then use this affirmation as a starting point each day or when old feelings get triggered. Some examples:
- “Life is full of opportunity for wonder and joy. I look forward to noticing what is beautiful today. I won’t dwell on what’s missing.”
- “Every life has challenges. I am determined to live my life without malice or blame. I find satisfaction in dealing patiently and skillfully with my [mother, father, uncle…], even when difficult situations arise.”
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Making the most of family visits
If you have family coming to visit this season, you may be feeling both excited and concerned—excited about brightening your loved one’s life with family gatherings and holiday events, and concerned that your loved one may become tired or anxious with the extra activity.
It is wise to think ahead about factors that could add stress and undermine the pleasure.
These tips can help ensure fond memories of the season.
- Set expectations. Update visiting family members about changes in your loved one’s health. Avoid awkward moments by having them adjust their expectations in advance. Let them know, for example, if Mom is no longer cooking, or Dad now dresses only in sweats.
- Maintain routine. You’ve created useful routines for caring for your family member. Don’t give them up! Instead, make your regular schedule known and ask others to plan around it. Your loved one will fare better for this stability.
- Avoid doing “business.” The season is stressful enough without heavy conversations about the “what ifs” of the future. If you and your siblings need to talk, schedule a conference call for later.
- Plan simple activities. Keep it low key and flexible. Although togetherness sounds good, your loved one may do better with short visits with one or two people at a time. Ensure that the day’s pace allows for naps.
- Provide tips. Especially where memory loss or dementia is involved, provide visiting family members with ideas on how to respond to behaviors, such as confusion or repetitive questioning.
- Take a break. This is your holiday, too! If your loved one needs ongoing care, ask another family member to take over for a while. Or, especially on a party night, hire someone for the evening so that you can enjoy the fun.
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When your loved one gets tired easily
Does your loved one seem to “run out of gas” quickly, even when doing simple things around the house? Help your family member learn to conserve energy—physical energy—so he or she has enough “fuel” to enjoy special activities and exercise according to doctor’s orders.
It’s a simple strategy: Consider that there’s a limited amount of energy each day. If you’re careful how you use it for the routine tasks in life, you will have enough left over for necessary exercise and life’s pleasures.
Plan for the entire day and pace activities. Encourage your loved one to:
- Allow ample time for what needs to get done. Rushing wastes energy.
- Alternate activity with rest. Divide large chores into smaller tasks spread across the day or week.
- Work smarter. Minimize trips up/down stairs. Shop with a list and in as few stores as possible. Cook in quantity and freeze the extra; soak dishes first for less scrubbing later. After a bath, slip on a terrycloth bathrobe instead of drying with a towel.
- Get help when you can. Have medications and groceries delivered.
Throughout the day, consider opportunities to reduce standing, walking, lifting, and bending:
- Sit down whenever possible. When cooking, cleaning, bathing, dressing, or grooming face and hair, have a stool or seat handy.
- Create task stations. Lay out supplies at waist height so everything is within easy reach before you start cooking, cleaning, bathing, or dressing.
- Wheel or wear; don’t fetch. Use a cart on wheels, a walker with a basket, a pocketed apron, or a fisherman’s vest to keep supplies at hand.
- Use extensions. To avoid bending and reaching, use an elevated toilet seat, a grabber for objects, and elongated handles on shoehorns, brushes, and dustpans.
By learning to operate on “cruise control” whenever possible, your loved one can get further on a day’s tank of energy.
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