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How to support caregivers over the holidays

Organizers of VCU Health caregiver support groups share ways to care for the caregivers in our lives over the busy holiday season.

A caregiver helps an older woman walk in front of her house Caregivers play a huge role in managing their loved one's emotions, doctor's appointments and countless other needs. (Getty Images)

By Sara McCloskey

Whether we’re giving thanks or giving gifts to show someone we care for them, November and December tend to be busy times for many families.

For those who are the primary caregiver of a chronically ill or medically vulnerable loved one, the extra planning and festivities can be especially draining. Caregivers are already managing doctor’s appointments, medications and countless other needs for the person they are supporting. The holidays add another element to consider.

“Finding yourself in a "giving" role during a season of giving can be tough,” said Kerri Anderson, a licensed clinical social worker at VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Don't forget to fill your own cup! Make sure to give back to yourself to avoid burning out too quickly.”

Anderson is one of several social workers who run caregiver support groups at VCU Health and Massey, offering peer support and educational resources for 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 members who may not know, what stress factors do caregivers manage on a day-to-day basis?

Oftentimes, friends, family members or neighbors not in the primary caregiving role recognize that the caregiver provides assistance with day-to-day needs, including managing medications and attending medical appointments to independently completing all household chores. However, there are many aspects underneath the surface that we often don't recognize.

Caregivers play a huge role in managing their loved one's emotions, family emotions and their own feelings. Caregivers are often the primary person providing updates and history to medical providers and support systems, managing visitors and social activities, and continuously interpreting verbal and nonverbal cues from their loved one. Not to mention many caregivers have a personal relationship with their loved one that becomes impaired when they are ill, impacting their natural support system.

How can the holidays change those stressors?

Winter holidays are often a time for joyful gatherings with friends and family, but sometimes caregivers find little time to enjoy the much-loved traditions that are a big part of the season. Caregivers I’ve spoken with can remember a holiday season when they were not caregivers and felt that ever-present time crunch. They can also feel frustrated when their loved one is not able to participate in their enjoyed activities or when friends and family don't recognize how challenging participation will be for them.

What can individuals do to better support a caregiver in the middle of all the busyness of the holidays?

Do not avoid reaching out to a caregiver in fear of overburdening them. Help the caregiver in your life explore how celebrating the holidays may look different this year while still creating meaningful memories.

Instead of walking around the neighborhood to look at holiday lights as we always do, consider a car ride instead. Is having friends over to make ornaments not possible this holiday? Consider sending a craft package with supplies in the mail. But remember that not every caregiver may feel the holiday spirit as strongly as they typically have — and that's okay too.

How can caregivers cope and reduce their stress during the holiday season?

I recommend caregivers to set their expectations early. Rather than avoiding every conversation about holiday activities or travel plans, be proactive and let those you care about know how much you feel you are able to 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 doing this holiday season and then brainstorm creative ways to make it happen.

Also, be aware of your emotional red flags, like fatigue, restlessness or fluctuating emotions. As soon as you see a red flag pop up, find time to recenter yourself with an accessible (perhaps festive) activity. And, of course, don't forget to appreciate the small moments of joy found along the way.

Another tip I love: Ask for help on your wish list. Rather than receiving 10 sets of fuzzy socks and several bottles of wine, ask for help around the house whether it's home repairs or respite. Whatever helps you succeed, don't be afraid to ask.

What resources are available for caregivers through VCU Health?

VCU Health has two caregiver support groups, one for caregivers of adults and another for caregivers for children. Connecting with other caregivers is a great option to remind yourself that you are not alone. Many experienced caregivers have lots of tips to share with you to help you get through a challenging holiday season.