12/10/2013 05:41 EST | Updated 02/09/2014 05:59 EST

Tips to Relieve Holiday Stress for Caregivers

Natalie Strouth is a nurse with Saint Elizabeth and the information specialist behind Ask Elizabeth, a free caregiver support service. Saint Elizabeth, a home health care company, has been a trusted name in Canadian health care for more than a century and is a national, not-for-profit, charitable organization.

In her weekly column, Natalie answers your questions about caring for a family member or friend who needs extra support -- and caring for yourself as a caregiver.

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Who doesn't love the holidays? While lots of fun, this time of year can be stressful for those of us who are caregivers too, looking after elderly parents or loved ones going through health issues.

That's why I'm sharing holiday stress management tips for the weeks to come. As a community nurse I've heard stories from families who, instead of checking items off shopping lists and going to holiday parties, were taking someone to multiple medical appointments. Or, they were worried and asking me how to keep their mom calm and comfortable at the busy family gathering as her dementia was taking hold. Having strategies to manage stress for everyone can help.

1. Talk to your loved one about holiday plans. Ask them what they would like to do and what is important to them.

2. Ask for more help than you think you'll need. Meal preparation, fitting in holiday errands and shopping can be challenging. Ask friends or family to contribute food, help while you shop, or to pick things up for you when they are out.

3. Try to schedule routines and rest times as usual. This may be tough during the holidays but it creates focus and security for the care recipient.

4. Preparation is key. Make weekly to-do lists and prioritize what needs to happen, and what can wait (or be skipped altogether). Consider setting aside days for certain tasks like giftwrapping or baking.

5. Weigh the pros and cons of having company vs. travelling to visit family. For example, do you feel like the house needs to look a certain way? Are there concerns about visiting a non-accessible house?

6. Falls prevention and safety are critical. Frequently shovel and salt stairs, walkways and driveways. Keep pathways and stair railings clear of holiday decorations. Have nightlights and flashlights ready for overnight visits.

7. Educate family and friends ahead of gatherings. Explain the care recipient's health condition. Give them tools for how to communicate effectively. This will help everyone feel more comfortable.

8. Set realistic expectations. Ask yourself, will this matter a year from now? In five years? You may feel pressure to maintain certain traditions or make the holidays extra special. Try to focus on people, and keep traditions flexible. Don't try to recreate "perfect" holiday seasons from the past.

9. Be aware of environments or situations that cause stress for your loved one and take steps to manage them. Noise, extra activity or difficulty remembering people's names at gatherings can be stressful for people with cognitive impairments such as dementia.

10. Be flexible. You may need to change some plans or make compromises, like turning one large family dinner into a few smaller visits. Don't try to predict or control how everything will unfold.

11. Take a deep breath, and remember to laugh.

12. Choose joy! Even if emotions and stress are running high, stay in the moment and celebrate what the holiday season is all about - love, home and spending time with the people we love.

How do you manage the holidays? Share your own caregiving stress-busters.

Send your caregiving question to Answers may appear in an upcoming weekly column. Ask Elizabeth does not offer legal guidance, nor does it answer questions about personal health issues.


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