December 14, 2012 | by Hiu Chung So
Caregiving for a cancer patient — or anyone with a serious illness — can be a full-time job for a patient’s family, friends or significant other, even under the most routine circumstances. Compound that with the activities and obligations of the holiday season, and a day’s schedule can seem Sisyphean.
But with some support, planning and self-awareness, the tasks this time of year can be manageable, says Matthew Loscalzo, L.C.S.W., Liliane Elkins Professor in Supportive Care Programs and the administrative director of the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center at City of Hope. Best of all, changes made now could lead to better coping skills in the long term, even after the holidays are over.
“There are times when caregivers feel more stressed than the patients do,” Loscalzo says. "It seems counterintuitive, but caregivers have the burden of taking care of the patients, themselves and possibly other loved ones too. So they can be more prone to the stresses brought on by holiday-related tasks and responsibilities."
The best defense against the potential burn-out is to be aware of the symptoms of being stressed, Loscalzo says. These can include:
• Fatigue and poor sleeping patterns • Being unusually irritable or depressed • Feeling aches and pains more frequently • Engaging in unhealthy habits such as consuming junk food, tobacco or alcohol
The next step for caregivers, obviously, is to de-stress themselves. Loscalzo offers the following tips:
1. Acknowledge and accept sadness. “Like cancer patients, caregivers often feel the pressure to show happiness and gratitude over the holidays — sometimes just for the sake of the patient,” Loscalzo says. “But it is an unrealistic and counterproductive expectation, adding even more stress to the caregiver without any benefit to the patient.” Instead, Loscalzo encourages caregivers to acknowledge, accept and calmly express any negative emotions they may be feeling.
2. Make a social connection. Loscalzo notes that caregivers face unique burdens and challenges over the holidays, so it’s important for them to connect with someone who can empathize with them and their circumstances. “This can be with a confidante, others who are close to the patient, a support group for caregivers or a professional,” Loscalzo says.
3. Be active and healthy. To help clear their minds, caregivers should be physically active on a regular basis, Loscalzo says. “Even a small amount, such as a brief walk or meditation every day, will do wonders for de-stressing the body and soul,” he adds.
4. Schedule in “me time.” “Caregivers often feel guilty and selfish about taking time out for themselves when their loved ones are fighting a serious disease,” Loscalzo says. “But I remind them that when they take care of themselves, they become better caregivers to the patients.” Opportunities for caregivers to take a break include reading a favorite book or magazine during the patient’s treatment, or engaging in a relaxing hobby while the patient is resting.
5. Tap into available resources. Caregivers often feel as if they have to do everything themselves, but help from others is often readily available, Loscalzo says. For the holidays, this can include enlisting friends and family to help with gift wrapping, putting up the decorations and preparing the feast.
Loscalzo also reminds caregivers that the supportive care medicine services available to City of Hope patients are there for them too. “We believe in a whole-system approach to caring for patients, and when they have a strong, healthy, well-functioning support network, they heal faster and better too,” Loscalzo says. Additionally, online resources and communities for caregivers are available at the American Cancer Society and CancerCare websites.