Thanksgiving is over—rocketing us full-throttle into the countdown to the New Year. Thirty-four days of unadulterated joy—or added stress, depending on how you look at it.
Because at CaringWise our goal is to help eliminate stress, we offer this post: An idea a day to beat stress, and keep the holidays a time for celebration.
- Forget perfection. Most people agree that Martha Stewart set us all up for failure. But this year you have a completely valid excuse to let yourself off the hook. Trust me, even your persnickety Aunt Mildred will understand.
- Eliminate traditions that you don't really enjoy. Traditions beget expectations that take on a life of their own. Many of these have outlived their season, or weren't that much fun to begin with; some actually drive us crazy. Now is the perfect excuse to stop.
- Make sleep a priority. When you are wrapping presents at 3 in the morning, you are grumpy the whole next day. No one cares that much.
- Don't feel the need to jam everything into a two week period. Plan some "holiday" gatherings for January, when you'll need the lift.
- Hire a neighborhood kid to do your shoveling this winter. Better yet, bribe 'em with cookies; your house will smell fabulous.
- Go to the cheesiest holiday performance you can find. You will laugh about it for the rest of the season.
- Dance to the music in the mall. The shopgirls will give you lots of attention and you'll be on your way before you know it.
- Organize a white elephant gift exchange—of things people already own. No shopping, lots of laughs. Isn't joy the point?
- Exercise! Remember it is the best stress-reliever around. And it just might ward off the traditional holiday weight gain.
- Put on your PJs, pile in the car and ride around looking at the lights. This is a fun activity for the whole family. (Kudos to my friend Isabel Fawcett for this idea).
- Hang twinkly lights in your loved one's bedroom. Nothing telegraphs the season better.
- Crank the tunes. Sick of mall music? There are lots of options—from country to humor to Celtic tunes.
- Drink 8 glasses of water each day. Dry heat makes winter a really dehydrating time, and dehydration, among other things, makes you tired.
- Read the holiday classics. Look at the pictures. Find the magic. (Two that should be classics: How Murry Saved Christmas and Santa Calls)
- Hang up some mistletoe. And enjoy those extra hugs and kisses!
- Get the same thing for everyone on your list. It can be a book, a photo, an ornament, a plate of cookies—or a contribution to your favorite charity.
- Get your picture taken with Santa. Bring your care recipient, too—Santa's happy to see kids of ALL ages...and talk about a cherished family memento...copies for everyone!
- Pop the bubble wrap that comes in your online orders. This is a fun activity everyone can enjoy!
- Hang a picture of the Grinch on the refrigerator as a reminder to smile.
- Buy a prelit tree. The point is for it to twinkle—and it will. Then spend some time just looking at it. We set up a card table and enjoy dinner in front of the tree for the whole season.
- Use Christmas cards to decorate the tree. That way you only do a little at a time. Supplement with old family photos.
- Remember to take at least 10 minutes a day just for you. Showers don't count. Bubble baths do.
- Cut your junk mail into snowflakes. This can relieve frustration while creating rather unique seasonal decorations.
- Don’t overdo it — you're allowed to say no to holiday parties. This is especially true of the ones that, on reflection, you don't actually enjoy.
- Rewatch the old holiday classics: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
- If you are traveling with an older person, read these tips first.
- Make someone else's Christmas bright by volunteering at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. You have enough to do? You'd be amazed how reaching out makes your life feel better.
- Burn the wrapping paper and the boxes. SO much easier than taking out the trash!
- Share stories about your best holidays ever. Record them for posterity (or just to share with far-flung family).
- Delegate at least one chore you hate. This will be a fine thing to continue in the New Year.
- Resolve to laugh hard at least once a day in the coming year. Figure out how to keep the resolution.
- Try to remember that snow is magical. This is easier when someone else is doing the shoveling (see item #5).
- Start taking a Vitamin D supplement. And turn on the lights. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is nothing to scoff at.
- In the coming year, resolve to take ten deep breathes every time you think you'll lose it, and ask yourself: In five years will this have mattered? Nine times out of ten, the answer is no—and you can lose the stress now.
Guest Post by Elizabeth Hanes, RN, author of The Cheerful Caregiver blog.
Family caregivers can reduce stress through meditation.
Family caregivers face a multitude of stressors every single day. Sometimes 24 hours seems like too short a day, while other times it seems too long. One thing is certain: of those 24 hours, every family caregiver needs to carve out a minimum of 30 minutes for herself. Otherwise, caregiver burnout will be right around the corner.
Here are six simple things you, as a family caregiver, can do for yourself to de-stress, recharge, and rediscover the joy that can come from caregiving.
- Use aromatherapy. Depending on the specific essential oils you choose, you can employ aromatherapy to boost your mood or calm you down. Diffusing lavender oil into the home environment, for example, promotes a calming effect. On the opposite end of the spectrum, applying peppermint scented lotion can energize you or your loved one. Choose bath salts that soothe your mind and soak away your stress regularly.
- Have a good cry. Go ahead. Some days, you can't help it. Caregiving can be a very frustrating endeavor. The 'good days' can be very good, and the 'bad days' can be overwhelming and depressing. If you've had one of the latter type of day, cry it out. Scientists have found that emotional tears contain a unique chemical makeup and that crying may literally be a way for the body to rid itself of stress hormones. So don't be afraid to have a good cry when you need to.
- Breathe. You know: it's that thing we take for granted. But don't just take any breath; when you're feeling stressed, close your eyes, lower your shoulders, and take a long, slow, deep breath. Then exhale slowly through pursed lips. When people feel acutely stressed, they tend to raise their shoulders and breathe shallowly. Long, slow, deep breaths promote oxygenation, which counteracts stress.
- Meditate. Studies have shown that just 10 minutes of quiet reflection can help a person regain emotional equilibrium. So, the next time your loved one dozes off for a nap, find a peaceful corner, close your eyes, and quiet your mind. Focus on something positive, and try to dismiss distractions. And remember to practice your breathing at the same time.
- Dance. You may think it's crazy, but give this a try. If you're having a particularly difficult day, turn on some upbeat music and dance energetically around the living room. The physical exertion will dissipate stress, and you (and your loved one) just might get a big laugh out of it! Which brings us to...
- Laugh. Laugh often. Laugh loudly. Laugh lovingly. Family caregiving places us in so many absurd situations. When you recognize one, it's OK to laugh about it. Laughter stimulates positive chemicals in the brain, which makes us feel better. Best of all, laughter is contagious. If you start laughing, chances are your loved one will, too. Then everyone will feel better and more positive. And isn't that what family caregiving should be all about?
Family caregivers too often put their own needs last. If you fall into that camp, don't despair. Just use one of these six techniques every day and discover the benefits of self-care. You'll be a better caregiver for it.
I grew up with a ton of animals. We had large dogs (Great Danes, St. Bernards). Small dogs (Toy Poodles, King Charles Spaniels). Cats. Horses. Cattle. Chickens. Ducks. A Myna Bird. The occasional goat. So I am pretty comfortable with the idea of critters running around the house. All that dirt and dander might strike some people as further cause for anxiety, but science actually says otherwise. Multiple studies show that pet owners are less likely to schedule a doctor’s visit, complain of poor sleep or experience depression.
To wit: three key health benefits of pets:
Exercise: A study of 2,199 adults showed that those with dogs were more likely to reach national goals for being physically active, specifically through walking. Consequently, they are also less likely to be obese. This breeds good health in all kinds of ways.
Stress reduction: Physically, loving on a pet lowers your blood pressure—coincidently lowering your risk of stroke and heart attack. Even watching fish in their tank creates these benefits. Emotionally, it is lovely to have that unconditional love and deep understanding in a tough time. In fact, studies show that pet owners can feel more capable of tackling problems. Pets are also the perfect confident; they are really good at keeping secrets.
Positive thinking: Believing that your pet enhances your quality of life can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what is real: they give you something to think about besides your problems, and the routine of caring for a pet gives shape to your day, a reason to get out of the house, and a way to bond with other people.
Caregiving is stressful. Moreover, it is more stressful when you fail to recognize that you’re a caregiver, when you think you are just “helping out,” and then wonder why you are so exhausted and worried and mad all the time. Spouses are particularly prone to this trap—and it can lead to dire health hazards for them.
Our advice: Don’t brush off what you (or your mother-in-law) are doing: make sure the caregiver gets care too. Here are five tips for releasing that stress.
- Channel your anger. Letting it out is actually healthier than keeping it bottled inside (which ups your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease). Next time you feel mad, punch a pillow, do 10 jumping jacks, or scream in the privacy of your car with the windows up. Call a trusted friend and vent – or write out your feelings (in a diary, not on Facebook!).
- Play mind games: Mentally put all your worries in a big box. Lock the lock. Send the whole thing to the bottom of the sea. Mail the key to China.
- Breathe. Slowly. Five counts in. Five counts out. Keep going for at least five minutes. Repeat as needed.
- Seek joy: Don’t focus on worrying about tomorrow—that’s borrowing trouble and adding stress. Enjoy the good parts of today, and if you can’t find any, find a snapshot in your mind of a happy memory and relive it.
- Be realistic: Control what you can—let the freezer be your friend, keep up with paperwork, get cleaning help—and let go of what you can’t control. This includes the temper of the person for whom you are caring.
Guest post by a Cambridge Caregiver
Back when I was a bride, and when my in-laws were the age I am now, the matriarch of my new family asked me to help her out with a “little project.” After more than two decades of diapers and scouts and sleep-overs and graduation parties and one grand wedding reception, she and my father-in-law were done raising their family and were moving on, leaving behind the big Victorian house that had been the center of their lives. There were books to give away and furniture to divvy up and loads to take to Goodwill, but what she wanted me for was to tackle the attic, and help her decide what to keep, what to toss, and what to give away.
I had all the enthusiasm of a twenty-something efficiency expert, and no experience with the minefields that are represented by a lifetime of attic-banished clutter. What fun! I thought. And really, how easy! There’s a big dumpster in the driveway. Most of what’s up there is mildewed and falling apart. I’ll encourage a lot of tossing, right out the window. She’ll be glad to have me there to keep her from saving stuff she doesn’t need, can’t use, won’t miss.
Needless to say, it wasn’t so simple. Everything had value, everything meant something. Boxes of old Kodak slides, carefully organized into metal boxes for projectors that no longer exist. Old curtains and fussy hand-me-down furniture that had been used as theatrical stage props until they’d given out, torn and frayed. Workbooks and check stubs and notebooks and three-ring binders, some filled with memorabilia from trips taken, routes followed, menus ordered from. Tattered photos of football teams, camp counselors, college outings, Christmas cards. Names forgotten, faces fading. What would it mean to just toss it all?
Needless to say, it couldn’t be done. Not, at least, without remembering some long ago stories. As it turned out, that’s where I became truly useful.
We’d open a box. My mother-in-law would thumb through it. Something would jog her memory, and off she’d set, Scheherazade-like, with a tale about that person, that day, that voyage, that vacation. Far beyond my youthful ability to lug and toss and forget, my role as the listener—and rememberer—proved to be my highest value.
Remarkably, the telling of the stories didn’t necessarily make the physical item more valuable to my mother-in-law. If anything, the telling of the story released her from having to own the thing itself. And with me there, as the willing vessel to fill to the brim with memories, the tossing away part became possible. Once the tale had been shared, and once we had the satisfaction of both knowing that the other owned that history, then, voila! The news clipping, the yearbook, the scrapbook—the whole box could be deep sixed.
Oh, we held onto some precious items. I had some ancient football team photos framed, and we saved some of her wedding day photo albums and honeymoon slides, the colors so Kodachrome bold, the skies so blue over Francestown NH, Yosemite, Diamond Head. Letters we kept, for the stamps and the penmanship and the snapshots of A Day in the Life. Most of what we took, down from the attic, we took in our hearts. And the gift I got, and the gift I gave, was to be present.
Now, two more decades later, my in-laws are down-sizing once again, this time to assisted living. With the passing of time has come more photos, more mementos, more accumulated stuff. This time around, though, the stories won’t be new ones to me, and the faces will mostly be familiar. This time, as before, I will be the vessel into which the stories flow. And I will be grateful to have figured out that being present to share the stories matters more than all the accumulated wealth of things. I will be richer for what I learn, as together, my mother-in-law and I edit her life down to what matters most, what will fit in their new cozy home, what goes in the dumpster, and what I will take with me in my heart, as memories.
Boston’s Huntington Theater Company has just staged a remarkable production of Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet. A man’s death leaves his two sons orphaned, and their uncle steps in to care for them. But the sons are 19 and 29, respectively, and clearly independent, while the uncle is sufficiently infirm that he can no longer climb stairs. Adding complexity, the elder brother is suffering from a mysterious illness—one that is starting to scare him.
Among other topics, the play dances around the issue of who is caring for whom. The older brother, who finds himself in a classic sandwich generation situation with a teen and an elder on his hands? The uncle, who moves in with the brothers, and tries to police what’s happening in second-story bedrooms he can’t access? The younger brother, to whom falls much of the practical caregiving for his uncle—and all the worry over his big brother’s health? Yes.
Ultimately, it becomes clear that, in fact, each of the main characters is caring for the other. And that that love, and outward-facing energy, is part of what keeps each moving forward through an emotionally turbulent time.
There are some powerful scenes and fine writing, which I would quote, if only I could find a copy of the script. But here’s the point:
Like it or not, we are all our brother’s keepers. It is core to our humanity. Irritating as it can be, for both caregivers and the care recipients, it is cause for celebration and gratitude.
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Caregivers can become immersed in an increasingly constrained world: The medications. The doctor’s appointments. The various physical needs that must be met. And the tendency—often self-imposed—to cater to the desires of the person being cared for.
Sometimes it’s tough to remember, but taking time for yourself not only isn’t selfish, it’s the only thing that will enable you to keep going.
I know. You don’t have time to do the things that are already on your plate. The routine is the only way to fit everything in, so you don't want to upset it; besides your mother finds it comforting. Don’t worry, not that much has to change. Just open yourself up a little.
Read an article you wouldn’t normally choose. If it’s interesting, good—you’ve found a new interest. If it’s not, ask yourself who would like it and why? Better yet, ask someone else.
Pick up a new vegetable. Then figure out how to cook it. Invite someone else to sample it too.
Find an actor or director whose work you like—and watch their whole oeuvre. Now you're a bit of an expert.
Wear your hair down. Or up. Or with bangs. Shake things up. If you don’t like it, you can always go back to the old way. The beautiful thing about hair: it grows.
Learn a new word. Then see how many times you can fit it in your conversation that day.
Spring clean. Even if it’s August before you get to it. A drawer a day takes just a few minutes. And you’ll feel so much lighter without all that stuff you never use.
Be curious. Ask questions. Make sure they include “Why?” And “Why not?”
Keep moving. Physically. Mentally. And emotionally. It keeps you limber, engaged, and energetic.
I went to a high school that I loved dearly. It was founded in 1915 by a very clever lady who was short on cash but long on imagination—and she created traditions that subtly taught her girls all kinds of things that a more well-funded institution might have hired specialists to instill.
Recently I have been spending a lot of time back on campus. And I am struck both by how firmly ingrained the traditions are—and how much they have evolved since my student days.
I laugh as the girls insist that something is the way it’s been done “since Miss Charlotte,” when I could show them pictures that prove otherwise. They are comfortable in their traditions, as they should be; after all, comfort is one of the main functions of tradition.
These shifting traditions hold an interesting lesson for the holiday season, a six-week period seemingly made from pure tradition. Of course
we have oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving. Of course
we have colored bulbs
on our Christmas tree. Of course
we spend a marathon session making gingerbread houses for everyone on an ever-growing list. Even if we are allergic to oysters, have a secret fondness for white lights and never could quite get the hang of getting a gingerbread house to stick together we find comfort in these traditions, so we hang on tight. But should we? Or can our holiday traditions evolve, too?
The composition of our families certainly does. There are new in-laws (and out-laws). Someone is pregnant and someone is in the hospital. And maybe, someone—chief architect of thousands of gingerbread houses of Christmases past—is only with us in spirit this year. With that shifting cast comes a choice: Do you soldier on, insisting on the same old, same old? Or do you embrace the possibility of change?
It doesn’t have to be radical. Mushrooms instead of oysters. Two types of lights. Gingerbread men, not houses. And the adoption of a “new tradition” that adds joy or simplifies something (dare we suggested buying the cookies?). It turns out that “tradition,” the most hidebound of activities, can actually be pretty flexible. And that new traditions, when born of love, bring just as much comfort as the old.
For more ideas on starting new traditions see Caregiver.com
Recently I read a very insightful article by Paula Spencer on Caring.com. The article addresses the need for caregivers to find a confidante, a point extremely well-taken. Often the person needing care had once filled that role. Spencer writes about how sad she was when her grandmother’s increasing deafness brought an end to their weekly phone calls. Yet, Spencer notes, in person her grandmother’s hugs felt exactly the same.
And that is what I want to explore a bit.
Spencer states: Reap what you can still reap from the person in your care. Yes, things change. Vision dims. Hearing dwindles. Weekly hikes become ambles become shuffles between bed and sofa. Maybe you’ll never win the rumba championship together again. But if you look hard, you’ll find that the person you love is still there—and maybe even in ways you had never before discovered. So don’t waste precious time mourning loss; look for life. Focus on what remains—like those hugs—and push ahead. Build new connections, new memories and new ways of being together. Seek joy.