Holiday traditions, such as planning meals, shopping for gifts, making travel plans and hosting company, can be cheerful, but stressful.

For Barbara Mulholland, who is the primary caregiver for both her elderly parents, she and her family have had to adjust to the progression of illness and age, letting go of some traditions and making new plans so everyone could enjoy the holidays.

As the senior citizen population grows, experts say people such as Mulholland and the other estimated 43.5 million caregivers in the United States must find ways to navigate the changes in their lives and mitigate ongoing stress, especially around this time of year.

“Last year, it was just too many people, and (my mom) didn’t want people to know (about her dementia),” Mulholland said. “But we’re going to make it smaller this year with our family. I’ve been taking her out to visit my brother and sister, too, which gets her used to being around more people.”

Family caregivers are often adult children, siblings, spouses and parents who take on the responsibilities of helping their injured or ill loved one with daily tasks. Some of their loved ones live independently with additional care, but others depend on their caregivers 24/7, every day of the year.

It’s why many caregivers say it’s important to find support within their communities. On a recent Wednesday, Mulholland and her mother, Patricia Conlan, went the Alzheimer’s Association Memories in the Making program, held monthly at Royal Suites Healthcare and Rehabilitation in Galloway Township.

There, Mulholland, of Mays Landing, attended a caregivers support group where she and others were able to talk about how their loved ones were progressing, how things were changing and the emotional roller coaster of grieving for what their lives used to look like.

“You have to adjust, adapt and alter what you do,” said Diane Conover, program director. “There’s a lot of stress about how the day will go and the expectations you have at the family table, but you need to create new traditions. Ask, ‘What’s a tradition we can start today?’”

Lisa DiTroia and Joanne Hankin know these concerns all too well as director and coordinator, respectively, of the Center for Family Caregivers at Shore Medical Center.

“Holidays are not the same as what they used to be,” DiTroia said. “Maybe they usually made dinner for 20 people or baked 10 dozen cookies. They struggle with, ‘How am I going to do all that while taking care of my husband or mother?’ It’s OK to let go of some traditions and make new ones.”

The two women, along with four caregiving coaches, are often available at the new center to help people go over their concerns and worries. Open to the public, the center was designed to help people relax, with a living room atmosphere, calming music, low lighting and educational resources.

DiTroia and Hankin said caregivers may feel guilty about giving up some of the things they have done in the past around Thanksgiving and December holidays, but both said changes may lessen the stress on caregivers and make sure their loved ones enjoy the time, too.

“They also want to make sure to share with their family about what it’s been like at home and how they may see changes when they visit this year,” Hankin said. “That way, other family members can step in and help, maybe even by offering to host or bring more things to dinner this year.”

Alysia Price, administrator and director of social services at Seashore Gardens Living Center in Galloway Township, focused on some stress-relieving tips and discussion at a recent Alzheimer’s disease support group for caregivers.

Group members talked about cutting down on traveling long distances, looking at alternative meal options, such as ordering dinner from local markets or hosting a brunch or luncheon instead, and suggestions for gifts of comfort, such as clothes, blankets, photo albums and other helpful things.

Price said the important thing is for caregivers and families to learn how to communicate and connect with their loved ones and create new plans that will allow everyone to have a good time.

“Sometimes there’s guilt. A lot of caregivers try to take on so much, and it’s kind of a loss for them when they aren’t able to do something,” she said. “But there are things they can change a little bit and still keep the important components.”

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Contact: 609-272-7022 Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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