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This Christmas, Don't Leave Caregivers Out in the Cold

Dec. 19, 2011
Many of us are stressed around the holidays, but those responsible for the in-home care of a family member with Alzheimer's or another serious ailment especially are at risk of suffering burnout at this time of the year. And because caregivers are used to taking care of others' needs first, they may not be likely to ask for help.

"Caregivers will say 'no' when offered help because they worry it will reflect poorly on them or because they don’t want to bother others. And some caregivers get so attached to their role that just can’t let go," said Nancy Alterman, a licensed clinical social worker with the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging at the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine. "The holiday season is a great time to put some gentle but persistent pressure on those caregivers you know who could probably use a little help."

Alterman offers the following suggestions to family members and friends who are interested in helping ease a caregiver's burden:

· Call ahead to schedule a visit that is convenient for the caregiver. But if the caregiver routinely declines offers of a visit, you may need to just show up … with special foods or an easy activity like a puzzle.
· Visitwith at least one other person to give the caregiver a chance to go out with a friend, knowing that another trusted person is there for the patient’s needs. Avoid bringing an entire crowd, however.
· Don't just ask, "What can I do?" Instead, offer to grocery shop, go to the post office, do laundry or cook a meal that you can bring over.
· Be a good listener. Whether in person or by phone, sometimes just having a contact to the outside world is all the caregiver needs to help cope with that day's burden.
· Be alert for signs of caregiver stress. These signs may include denial, social withdrawal, sleeplessness or lack of concentration.
· Offer to spend the night so the caregiver can get some rest. Lack of sleep can quickly lead to a deteriorating situation or a health crisis. Make sure the caregiver and the patient are discussing any sleep issues with their primary care physician.
· Research adult medical day services in your community and share that information with the caregiver. These medically supervised programs can actually help extend the time that the patient can remain at home.
· Give the gift of time. Watch over the patient so the caregiver can get away for a few hours, or help arrange in-home care so the caregiver can take a mini-vacation.

"If you are a caregiver, be prepared for the added demands of the holiday season and remember that you are not a failure if you accept an offer to help," Alterman said. "You can help family and friends help you by being prepared with some specific suggestions when they ask, such as appropriate gifts for your loved one or a task you routinely do."

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