Family and Relationships


What's The Real Cause Of Caregiver Stress?

by Christine


This June it will be one year since my mother died. As I have opened up about the final years of her life, others have shared with me the difficult journey they are on with their aging parents. I watch as one-by-one my friends and extended family are being initiated into a club none of them wanted to join. They work to be kind and loving children as they navigate the healthcare system on behalf of their parents, take over chores and tasks that were once routine for their mom or dad and manage not only their own finances but the finances of their parents. In short, they double their workload while living in an increasingly emotional environment.  

As I listen to the heartbreak in their words, I want to offer comfort and encouragement to my friends. I caution them to take care of themselves because the stress they are experiencing is real and can be physically damaging. But how do you take care of yourself? There are many websites that discuss Caregiver Stress and how to manage it but it is not so easy. I lived a 1000 miles away from my mother but that did not lessen the stress. When I was in town participating in her care, I was exhausted and at times frustrated but when I returned home, I felt worried and guilty. Yes, when she was in the rehab center, the pressure was off a little. But then I worried whether she felt isolated and if she was getting good care. (Indeed her care was excellent but that still did not stop me from worrying.)

For me the real stress came from my inability to stop the mental and physical decline that my mother was on during her final years. I knew she did not want to give up driving but she had to. I knew she did not want to wear Depends but as her body started to fail, she had to. I knew she did not want to have strangers in her home to care for her but she had to. It was not easy for her and it was not easy for those who loved her.

Years ago I came to the understanding that the good times don't last but more importantly, the bad times don't last either. During particularly difficult times in my life, I have actually said this out loud as a reminder. As you walk this journey, capture those moments of laughter and joy when you can and know that there will come a day when the good times will return and your heart will no longer feel so heavy.




Decorating With Mom's Christmas Ornaments

by Christine

{Matthew, my son, and me shopping for a Christmas tree}

Unlike the multitude of retail stores in the mall, I don't decorate for Christmas until after Thanksgiving. I want to experience and rejoice in one holiday at a time. The colors of Thanksgiving are the warm shades of autumn. Decorating with burgundy, yellow and orange mums along with the traditional and not so traditional pumpkins evokes a cherished atmosphere. I wouldn't want to miss it by rushing the season.

Now that the last of the Thanksgiving turkey is simmering in the stock pot and my mums have started to fade, it is time to climb into the attic and pull out the Christmas decorations. Trimming my tree is not just about decorating my home but it is also a time to remember. Now keep in mind that my memory in general is spotty. Marty is forever asking me to recall various life events and I just go blank. On ocassion I wonder if he has me confused with someone else because I got nothing, a clean slate when it comes to certain events. But as I unpack and place each ornament on my tree, I can give you its entire history. I know where I purchased it, what city I lived in when I found it, who came for Christmas dinner and other assorted facts like the color of my hair that particular Christmas.

Decorating this year will be no different from the past except that now I have my mother's decorations.  Of all her belongings that I inherited, her Christmas decoration hold the most memories.  Each Christmas as part of my gift to Mom, I would give her a Christmas ornament. She received a dozen or so lovely artisan crafted decorations. The blue hand-blown glass tear drop triggers memories of Christmas 1977. That was the year that my daughter Kathryn was born and the first time she met my parents and sister. We drove in from Alabama to spend the holiday with my parents. My mother and sister rushed up to us as we parked the car, took Kathryn from my arms and swept back into my parent's home. They barely acknowledged us. I smile today thinking of their excitement over meeting Kathryn and their total indifference to her parents. 

Some of Mom's ornaments are old; they are my age. One of my favorites is the aluminum Christmas bells. I am sure many families of my generation owned these mass produced muted gold and silver bells with the tinny sound. The fact they were made of aluminum symbolized the strength of the times as families moved into the suburbs. 

I love the addition of Mom's ornaments to my own and while there is a little sadness mixed with the joy of decorating this  year, I know I will cherish the memories. I would love to hear about your decorations. Do you have the same sentimental attachment to your decorations? Or do you change the "look" each year?  


Honoring Those Who Came Before Us

by Christine

Tomorrow I am beginning a new tradition in our family. As we gather together, we will take a moment to acknowledge those who came before us and are now no longer with us. Nothing overly dramatic or maudlin, just a gentle reminder that who we are today was built on the foundation of our parents and grandparents. Whatever your Thanksgiving traditions, take a moment to remember those who made you who you are today. 

Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours. 



How to Avoid Stress and Enjoy Thanksgiving

by Christine


My excitement level is topping the charts. This year I am hosting Thanksgiving at my home. I will not be making the annual pilgrimage to my parent's home in Florida; those days are over. My kids and grandchildren are coming for their first Thanksgiving in New York; I hope the first of many. I plan to prepare our family's traditional Thanksgiving meal with all our homemade favorites. Marty and I have been discussing kid friendly activities as well as how to "entertain" the adults while caring for twin grandbabies. However my number one priority of the holiday is to enjoy the time with my family. 

I know for many preparing a holiday meal is a tradition and can feel like a personal challenge. One that can be lonely and result in a feeling of "Oh, all that and over in 20 minutes".  I recommend the following three steps to avoid the pressure of creating the "perfect holiday meal" while spending the day alone in the kitchen.

First, start early. I assembled the menu and shopping list, designed my table centerpiece, pulled out the holiday dishes and table cloth and ordered the turkey last week. All the shopping was done this past weekend so that I could start baking pies. In short, everything that can be done will be done before the kids arrive. 

Next, the preparation and cooking of our Thanksgiving meal will be a family affair or as we say in our family, "All hands on deck". I am already planning for my granddaughter Lucy and me to make the table centerpiece together. It involves pumpkins, glue and glitter...what three year old wouldn't like that? My son excels at most everything he does, including making an apple pie. His name is next to that task. Everyone will be asked to help make our Thanksgiving meal special.

Third, set realistic expectations. I am not Martha Stewart (though I admire her work and use her as a resource regularly). Thanksgiving is about coming together with family and friends and sharing a good meal together with a thankful heart. If you forget the dinner rolls, save the rolls for Friday and prepare miniature left-over turkey sandwiches. Give yourself a break; you would do the same for a friend. 

Finally, enjoy the day. At the risk of sounding like a cliche, life goes by fast. Take the day to hugs those you love, laugh together and maybe even play a little touch football.





Making Halloween Memories That Truly Matter

by Christine

The new favorite tag line of the Madison Avenue world of advertising seems to be "let's go make some memories". The camera follows a zealous 30 something Dad who is bounding out the door as he declares it is time to take the new car and go make some memories. Or better yet as a bunch of hyperactive kids put on their best I can't believe I just won the Miss America contest face as an announcer declares it is time to go to Disney to make some memories. The whole spectacle just annoys me. The scenes feel contrived and controlling, subliminally guilt inducing. We can no longer just head out the door to have a good time, our experiences now have to be memory worthy. It is a whole lot of pressure on Mom and Dad and the kids. If memories aren't made, did we fail?

Annually during summer break my grand kids come to visit for a week and Marty and I are always surprised at their reminiscences after each visit. They have yet to bring up the time we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge or went to Coney Island to have a hotdog at Nathan's. The moments they remember are the quieter times, odd snippets of life that at the time seem mundane. The books that we read together at bedtime, the fact that I made a "tasty" homemade chicken salad for lunch, or the first time they were allowed to take the canoe out on the lake alone are their memories of time with us. There favorite landmark in Manhattan is not the theater district or the Empire State Building but Hippo Park, a playground on the Upper Westside. 

Autumn signals the start of the holiday season, which can be a mixed blessing. It is fun to decorate our homes, prepare our favorite holiday meals and shop for the perfect Halloween costume for the kids. But it is also a time when the stress of each one of those activities strains an already packed life. I encourage you to take the time to find the balance between maintaining family holiday traditions and actually enjoying the holiday. As you head out with the kids to go Trick or Treating this evening, turn off your cell phones. Resist the urge to text your friends, check your email or talk to your BFF while walking with your kids; just be in the moment. I am not guaranteeing that you will create lasting memories. I am suggesting that you give yourself and those you care about a chance to have a good time.


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Inheritance: Your Place in the Family

by Christine

{the view from our lakehouse}

My father's philosophy was clear, inheritance was all about your place in the family. So it was no surprise that my parent's estate was split evenly between my brother, sister and me. My sister and I did joke that if my mother had her way all their worldly goods would go to the dog, her favorite in the family. But in the end, we knew that my parents were sending a message that we were all equally valuable to them. My parents could have taken one of several paths when it came to the final distribution of their property. They could have left it all to my brother, the only male in our family, left it to the oldest, me or included their grandchildren in the inheritance. They did not because dad believed it was our responsibility to take care of our children.

Dad had given this a lot of thought because of his experience with his own family. He was the oldest and was responsible for executing his parent's will. The added twist to my grandfather's will was that he had remarried late in life after my grandmother's death and he left the use of his home to his second wife. She could legally remain in the property until she chose to vacate or her death. Pretty standard stuff and my father and his siblings had no problem with this arrangement. They liked her and did not want to cause her any discomfort. They were surprised and more than a little annoyed that when she chose to vacate the property she took my grandmother's furniture. My father was the first to admit that the furniture was not wanted by any of the sibling but it felt like a stranger had come in and taken family property that did not belong to her. As my father stated, their response was solely emotional, without logic. But it reinforced that Blanche had unknowingly taken a place in the family that was not her to take. 

I have listened as many of my friends have shared their sadness and anger over the decisions their parents made about property distribution after their death. One friend listened as her parents explained that all their money was going to her brother and his grown children because she owns her home and has a good income and they do not. Her parents made her executor of their will so she will spend her time making sure that their last wishes will be carried out; wishes that exclude her. Another acquaintance's father started selling off valuable items even after he told his father how much he treasured the family grandfather clock. His father's response was clear, it belongs to me and I can do with it what I wish. Still another friend's parents shared with the family that they were leaving the bulk of their estate to the two younger boys because they were not as competent as the older two siblings. Even though all the money and property was gone by the time the will was executed, the intent of their parents remain a bone of contention between the siblings today.  

I recognize and honor the reality that each of us has the freedom and right to give our estate to whomever we wish at our death. But to avoid pain and contention between family members after your death, I encourage the following:

1. Don't punish competence. Doing so has multiple repercussions. It can cause dissension in the family as well as negatively label family members. The younger brothers I mentioned earlier, each reacted differently to their parents reasoning that they weren't as competent as their older siblings. The youngest laughed it off and built a million dollar business, the other brother who is also financially secure only has bitter words for his parents as he mentally defends his life choices against their vision of him. As for the older two, they have trapped both their brothers in a mental paradigm of incompetence that their parents created. 

2. Don't try to manage from the grave. Unless your wealth is along the lines of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and you are trying to avoid your major heir being the state and federal government, give freely and without strings. I would even suggest give before your death particularly those items boxed up in the attic and closets. I am now lovingly using dishes and other household items that mom had packed away years old and forgotten. I would love to tell her how much pleasure her things are adding to my life and how they make me think of her.

3. Do take time to think about what your gift is saying to others. This goes along with the concept of unintended consequences.  As my father said, this is about each individual's place in the family. If you choose to single out one person over the other, remember others may assign their own reasoning for your actions. This could cause dissension in the family that you did not intend to create. Think about what you are trying to accomplish.

4. Do talk to your heirs. Once you are clear on your goals, share what you are thinking with others. The idea that the reading of the will is a Perry Mason moment where competing family members sit around in a conference room glaring at one another is a TV writer's fantasy. Keep in mind that your children may resist a serious conversation. My father tried to talk to me after his first heart attack and I couldn't bear to think about him dying. Candidly, it has all worked out fine but I wish I had given him the opportunity to share with me his thoughts. 

This is about taking time to think about your goals, putting in place your plans and sharing your vision with your heirs. I would love to hear your ideas on inheritance and what to do and what not to do. Let me know what you think.