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Caregiving is a front-burner issue for families during holidays

By Nancy Abrahamson, coordinator and Rhonda Johnson, outreach coordinator, St. Croix County Aging and Disability Resource Center

Getting together with family and friends is a tradition around the holidays. But family gatherings can also lead to major worries over the well-being of an older or disabled family member and the person caring for him or her.

"People who don't live near their parents but visit around the holidays are often startled to see that Dad's health has declined and may be even more shocked to see Mom struggling to take care of him at home," said Barb Thoni, president of the Wisconsin Association of Area Agencies on Aging. That makes the holidays a prime time for families to recognize the signs of caregiver stress and know where to find help for caregivers.

There are several tell-tale signs that family caregivers may be in trouble, according to Thoni. Changes in demeanor or personality are often warning signs. Do caregivers seem socially withdrawn (don't spend time with friends or do things that they used to enjoy doing)? Are they in denial about the health of the person they are caring for or the reality of the situation?

Do the caregivers exhibit mood changes or signs of depression, anxiety, anger or irritability? Do they have short-term memory problems, poor concentration or unnecessarily repeat actions or chores?

Answering "yes" to these questions is a strong indicator of caregiver stress. In addition, people who experience their own health problems as a result of caregiving (back problems from lifting or turning the person they are caring for) or who have difficulty sleeping or are constantly exhausted may also need someone to step in and help.

One barrier to caregivers seeking help is that many don't identify themselves as caregivers, and even when they do, they may not be open to accepting help. Conversations with family and friends about the challenges of caring for someone can help a caregiver better relate to the role and be more receptive to assistance.

"More than 25 percent of the population is, or will be, a caregiver at some point in their lives, so many families will face the dilemma of acknowledging and communicating about the challenges of caregiving," said Thoni. "Talking about the difficulties and showing support and understanding is a great first step in getting a caregiver who is feeling stress to accept assistance."

But recognizing the symptoms of caregiver stress and starting the discussion are only part of the equation -- finding help is crucial in supporting struggling caregivers.

In Wisconsin, the Family Caregiver Support Program is a link to information, resources and services for family caregivers. A Web site and toll-free phone number, operated by the Family Caregiver Support Network of Interfaith Older Adult Programs in Milwaukee, connect people with local resources and assistance in their own county or tribe.

Callers can speak with program specialists who provide comprehensive information and assistance on services such as adult day care, case management, home health and personal care, living options, respite care, support groups, financial and legal matters related to caregiving, home-delivered meals, transportation and much more.

In addition, the Web site offers visitors a chance to e-mail questions to program specialists and find information about local services and caregiver-related events as well as state and national resources for caregiving.

With the hustle and bustle of the holidays, stress can be more pronounced for a family caregiver and may be more recognizable to family and friends.

Anyone directly caring for or concerned about the well-being of someone over 60 or someone with Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder can find their local Family Caregiver Support Program by calling the St. Croix County Aging and Disability Resource Center (formerly the Department on Aging), (715) 381-4360; or call (866) 843-9810 or visit

The program also serves grandparents or relative caregivers 55 years of age and older who are caring for children under age 19, or who are caring for a relative with a disability who is 19 to 59 years of age.

"We know that help isn't always easy to find," says Thoni, "especially when family members don't live in the same community or even the same state as their loved one who needs care. The Wisconsin Family Caregiver Support Program is the light at the end of the tunnel for caregivers who need assistance."