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Navigating Health and Aging: Dealing with holiday stress when caring for yourself or others

As Christmas approaches, we take the opportunity to acknowledge those we appreciate and love with cards and gifts and surround ourselves with family, friends and colleagues for holiday gatherings.

During the holidays, while many are enjoying celebrations, others not so fortunate to have the gift of good health may be struggling with illness and others may be mourning the loss of a loved one. It can be a joyous time, but for many it can be a time of great loss and sadness.

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The holidays come with high expectations for joy and the "perfect" celebration. These expectations combined with health issues and/or loss can lead to depression in those who do not chronically suffer with depression or exacerbation in those who already suffer from this often-debilitating disease.

Recognition that you or a loved one is feeling blue, sad or depressed and accepting that holiday stress — shopping, buying, entertaining, financial constraints — combined with life events such as illness and loss can be overwhelming is the first step in making a change. Once you accept that you are on the hamster wheel, it's often easier to give yourself a break and get off. Allowing yourself or others to take a break is essential to getting through a time that can feel like "too much." Give yourself permission to do less and do away with the "shoulds" of the season: "I should be happy," "I should be getting gifts, baking, having people over," whatever your "shoulds" are, they will just weigh you down.

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Taking time to take care of yourself during the season is important. It's OK to disconnect from the "shoulds," but if your sadness is overwhelming and debilitating then it's time to seek help. Reaching out to a health care professional such as a primary care physician or mental health counselor for support and guidance is recommended. Unfortunately, mental health is undervalued and undersupported by insurances in many cases and the availability of providers is limited.

During this season it is sometimes just too overwhelming and difficult for those who feel hopeless and the despair becomes too much to bear. Suicide rates increase during this season and it is important to know about resources should you or a friend or loved one be in need of help. In Maryland the suicide hotline is 1-800-422-0009, and this number is also for the Youth Crisis Hotline. Locally the Grass Roots Crisis Invention 24-hour hotline serves Howard County and surrounding areas at 410-531-6677. Reaching out to a hotline if you are concerned about someone can be a means of getting direction on how to help yourself or another, even if you're not sure if there is reason for imminent concern.

For those experiencing loss, support groups can help with the holiday struggles and create a lasting network of support. Hospice offers support to those who have had loss of a loved one while in the hospice system.

The most important tips are to keep connected to a support system, relax with all the "shoulds" and take it easy on yourself , give yourself permission to grieve, reflect and know that the holiday demands are time limited.

While my intention when I began this article was far sunnier, I felt the need to address the sadness and grief that I see at this season which often goes unnoticed .

I would also like to take the time to acknowledge the gifts of others that sometimes go unnoticed and thank those in the business of caring for others. Whether you are a health care professional, physician, nurse, aide, support staff, therapist or family caregiver, caring for those who can't care for themselves is the noblest of gifts.

I am continually amazed by my colleagues in the health care field who devote their lives to caring for and about their patients. Recently while visiting the Dove House inpatient hospice, which holds a special place in my heart, I was once again reminded of the compassion and grace of my fellow nurses, the aides, volunteers and support staff. The staff is always warm, comforting, caring and always had a smile or a hug. Thank you for touching the lives of all you care for and leaving the world a better place in which to live.

Jill Rosner is a registered nurse, certified geriatric care manager and owner of Rosner Healthcare Navigation. She provides patient advocacy and care management services to clients with health and aging issues. Contact her at JillRosnerRN@aol.com.

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