By Sara McCloskey
Whether it’s saying thanks or giving gifts to show someone we care, November and December tend to be busy times for many families.
For those who are the primary caregiver for a chronically ill or medically vulnerable loved one, the additional planning and festivities can be especially exhausting. Caregivers already manage doctor appointments, medications, and countless other needs of the person they support. Vacations add another element to consider.
“Finding yourself in a ‘giving’ role during a season of giving can be difficult,” said Kerri Anderson, a licensed clinical social worker at VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Don’t forget to fill your own cup!” Make sure you give back to yourself to avoid burning out too quickly.
Anderson is one of several social workers who lead caregiver support groups at VCU Health and Massey, providing peer support and educational resources to individuals providing support to loved ones with specific medical needs.
VCU Health News spoke with Anderson about the unique needs of caregivers and how families can ensure they are supported during the holiday season.
For friends and family who may not know, what stressors do caregivers deal with on a daily basis?
Often, friends, family members, or neighbors who do not serve as the primary caregiver recognize that the caregiver provides assistance with daily needs, including managing medications and attending medical appointments to accomplish independently all household chores. However, there are many aspects beneath the surface that we often don’t recognize.
Caregivers play an important role in managing the emotions of their loved ones, family emotions and their own feelings. Caregivers are often the primary person who provides updates and history to medical providers and support systems, manages visitors and social activities, and constantly interprets their loved one’s verbal and nonverbal cues. Not to mention, many caregivers have a personal relationship with their loved one that deteriorates when they become ill, impacting their natural support system.
How can vacations change these stressors?
The winter holidays are often times for joyful gatherings with friends and family, but sometimes caregivers find little time to enjoy the much-loved traditions that make up much of the season. The caregivers I spoke with remember a holiday season when they were not caregivers and felt this ever-present lack of time. They may also feel frustrated when their loved one is unable to participate in the activities they enjoy or when their friends and family don’t realize how difficult participation will be for them.
What can individuals do to better support a caregiver amid all the hustle and bustle of the holidays?
Do not avoid calling on a caregiver for fear of overloading them. Help your loved one discover how celebrating the holidays can be different this year while creating meaningful memories.
Instead of walking around the neighborhood to admire the holiday lights like we always do, consider a drive instead. Isn’t it possible to have friends over to make decorations this holiday? Consider sending a craft package with supplies in the mail. But remember that not all caregivers feel the holiday spirit as strongly as they usually do — and that’s okay too.
How can caregivers cope and reduce stress during the holiday season?
I recommend caregivers set their expectations from the beginning. Rather than avoiding any conversation about vacation activities or travel plans, be proactive and let your loved ones know how much you think you can give this winter. Don’t expect to be able to juggle everything you usually do. Think about what is most important to you to spend your time on this holiday season, then think of creative ways to make that happen.
Also be aware of your emotional warning signs, such as fatigue, agitation, or fluctuating emotions. As soon as you see a red flag pop up, find time to refocus on an accessible (perhaps festive) activity. And of course, don’t forget to appreciate the little moments of joy found along the way.
Another tip I love: ask for help on your wish list. Rather than receiving 10 pairs of fuzzy socks and several bottles of wine, ask for help around the house, whether it’s repairs or respite. Don’t be afraid to ask for anything that helps you succeed.
What resources are available to caregivers through VCU Health?
VCU Health has two caregiver support groups, one for caregivers of adults and another for caregivers of children. Connecting with other caregivers is a great option to remind yourself that you are not alone. Many experienced caregivers have plenty of advice to share with you to help you through a difficult holiday season.