Barbara Kim Stanton
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

Returning to Hawai‘i to care for her mother was like a gift, a Christmas present, from Yuriko Vaughn to her mom.

“I came purposely before the holidays because I didn’t want my mom to be by herself,” Vaughn said. “When I came, she was happy to see me. She thought I would be leaving right after the holidays. But I told her, ‘I am here to stay, to take care of you.’”

Vaughn became the primary caregiver for her mother, who had suffered from dementia for five years.

The holidays were a time of increased stress for her, but also joy.

An AARP survey of family caregivers about the holiday season found that nearly seven out of 10 caregivers found the holidays emotionally stressful. We also found that eight in 10 caregivers changed a holiday tradition and four in 10 cut back on holiday spending because of their caregiving duties.

But the survey also found that about a third found greater joy in the holidays because they were caregivers.

“The holidays were more meaningful,” Vaughn said. “My purpose was to make her (mom) happy and I know I did that. I know it was better for her. I built new memories with her. That meant a lot to me.”

Stress around the holidays came from sacrificing time with Vaughn’s own family, who live on the mainland, and from the long and demanding work of being a caregiver.

“You just cannot do it (caregiving) all alone,” Vaughn said.

AARP’s experts say if you are a family caregiver, the most important thing to do during the holidays is to take care of yourself first. Do things to recharge yourself, because if you don’t, you won’t be a good caregiver.

Be flexible about traditions, meals, holiday decorations and gift-giving. Just because you’ve always cooked doesn’t mean you can’t go out or ask someone else to cook. If it’s too much work or costs too much, you don’t have to redecorate your house for the holidays or spend the time and money to get the perfect gift.

It’s also important to have someone with whom you can talk. Join a support group to find someone, or rely on a friend or a family member who can listen to your fears, stress and frustration. Go to AARP.org/Caregiving for more tips.

If you know a family caregiver, this is the time to give the gift of your time and encouragement.

Phone calls from friends and family helped, Vaughn said. She was also able to volunteer with AARP to keep busy and had friends who took her out for activities.

“People would tell me, ‘Your mother’s so lucky,” Vaughn said. It caught her by surprise because she was so wrapped up in the chore of caregiving.

“I never really looked at it that way,” Vaughn said. “I felt good because I was doing something good.”

So, to all the family caregivers out there, we wish you the happiest of holidays with manageable stress, a flexible attitude, and the joy of being with and helping someone you love.

Barbara Kim Stanton has been the state director of AARP Hawai‘i since 2005. She writes about living a life of real possibilities, where age is not a limit and experience equals wisdom.

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