Sunday, December 14, 2008

Coping with Pain around the Holidays: Helping Your Loved Ones

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. But, the demands of the holiday season can overwhelm even the healthiest and most energetic among us. For individuals battling chronic pain, holiday stress and anxiety can be magnified, making symptoms even worse.

While it may be impossible to avoid holiday stress altogether, there are steps caregivers can take to minimize anxiety and help their loved one have an enjoyable holiday season.

Kris Robinson, a nurse practitioner from El Paso, Texas, is a caregiver to her husband, Troy Stone, who experiences debilitating chronic pain due to a
condition known as cystinuria.Robinson says that planning ahead and managing expectations are the keys to a pleasant holiday experience.

“You have to decide how much of a holiday you want to have and plan ahead for that,” she says. “Talk with your loved one about which traditions and rituals are most important, and focus on those.”

Robinson and her husband are planning to put up a tree, something they weren’t able to do last year due to her husband’s chronic pain. Stone has also decided that he will be able to decorate the house with lights.

“He wants to do it because it gives him that good holiday feeling,” she says. “What matters most is that we identify when he’s feeling well enough to do something, and allow him to make contributions as he is able.”

Robinson and her husband also work together to find ways for him to participate in seasonal festivities while also setting limits. In the past, attending holiday parties was a challenge. Robinson likes to socialize, but her husband often felt stuck, so they came up with an “escape plan.” They attend parties together, but he leaves when he reaches his limit, and she plans in advance to ride home with a friend.

Being in control and having the freedom to leave helps reduce his anxiety and may decrease the isolation and depression that can result from not being able to participate fully. Having a plan also helps ease the guilt either party might feel over their differing abilities.

Robinson says that chronic pain sufferers and their caregivers have an invisible plight. “People don’t always recognize the stress and strain on the chronic pain patient or their caregiver, especially around the holidays,” she says. So, it’s important to explain limitations to family members ahead of time to avoid disappointment.

Robinson recommends turning to a third party—a trusted friend or a professional counselor—to help caregivers, patients, and their families achieve a common understanding about what to expect from each other during the holidays.

According to Robinson, the single most important thing caregivers can do to help their loved ones is take care of themselves. “You have to make sure that you eat well, sleep and participate in some fun activities, even without your loved one, if necessary,” she says. “This will give you the energy, physical stamina and health you need to make sure you both have a good holiday.”

Robinson says that it’s possible to keep holiday traditions alive by reframing your experience, letting go of unreasonable expectations, and being grateful for the things you can accomplish, no matter how small.

“Being together is so important and by planning in advance, negotiating and setting limits, we are able to connect and do more as a couple,” she says. “It might mean that we only celebrate a little bit everyday, but we’ll ultimately have a better holiday experience.”

Here are a few tips to help you and your loved one meet the demands of holiday shopping, parties and family gatherings.

• Decide together which traditions and rituals are most important.
• Help your loved one identify and explain their needs and manage expectations.
• Plan ahead so you know can anticipate how this holiday season will play out.
• Help your loved one communicate to family members how chronic pain may limit his or her activities.
• Ask each person in the family to consider taking responsibility for some part of the holiday plans.
• Remind your loved one that it’s okay to say “no” without feeling quilty.
• If you’re visiting relatives, find a quiet space in their house or consider spending part of the time at a hotel, so your loved one can take a break from the festivities.
• If you’re hosting, consider ordering pre-made decorations and meals, and begin preparing several weeks in advance.
• Use an artificial tree and throw a tree-trimming party to ease the burden of decorating.
• Help your loved one get their shopping done ahead of time. Take them to the mall during offpeak hours when the stores are less crowded for better parking and shorter lines. Consider catalog and online shopping, or suggest giving gift certificates.
• Help your loved one address their holiday cards, or consider sending e-cards.
• Recharge. Give your loved one and yourself permission to recuperate between activities.
• Make sure your loved one has enough medication to get them through the holidays.
• Help your loved one resist the temptation to overindulge in food and alcohol, which can worsen chronic pain.
• Plan activities or travel during the time of day when your loved one generally feels best.
• Travel at off peak times, pack light and send gifts in advance.
• Increase physical activity and practice meditation and relaxation techniques with your loved one.

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