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I used to think about that Christmas I was ill from a kid's point of view — how it felt to be isolated from all the activities that healthy children enjoy during the holiday season. And the days! To quote the French, they were as long as a day without bread.

But as I've gotten older, I think more about my parents — especially my mother — who had the relentless responsibility of caring for an invalid daughter. I thought about my mother again last Saturday while having lunch with a warm and funny friend who has been her husband's primary caregiver ever since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

It occurred to me as I listened to her describe the landscape of their altered lives together that all of us should make a huge effort to take care of the caretakers this holiday season. So I emailed my friend and asked for specific suggestions. How do you best help the person who is busy helping someone else? Here is her list of do's and don'ts, which (for the record) I pretty much quote verbatim.

• Don't ask open-ended questions, such as "Is there anything I can do for you?" (My friend says the caregiver "wouldn't know where to begin and you couldn't do it anyway.")

• Don't assume you know exactly what the caregiver is going through. You probably "don't have a clue."

• Don't drop by the house for an unexpected visit. Call first.

• Don't offer unsolicited advice. (Author's note: Because, come on! Unsolicited advice is never a good idea anyway.)

• Speaking of which, don't suggest that a caregiver somehow magically get more help. "If she could have, she would have. She's thought about it a million times, especially at 3 a.m."

• Do offer to go grocery shopping or to run errands.

• Do offer to spend time with the caregiver's loved one so she/he has time to take care of other matters.

• On a related note, do take the loved one on an "outing," if at all possible — a ride, a walk, anything for a brief change of venue.

• Do continue to extend invitations for social occasions. Even if the caregiver (or couple) can't always attend, invitations make them still feel connected and valued.

• Do allow the caretaker "the opportunity to vent." My friend says the caregiver should be able to "talk and talk and talk (uninterrupted) without feeling guilty! Listen and learn. She cannot tell you everything because it is too private and painful. But she does need to emote and relieve her frustration."

• Do be as generous as possible with the caregiver. Treat her with "a massage, a wonderful movie, her favorite cologne, candy, cookies a lovely plant — anything to brighten her day, to remind her that she is still appreciated and loved."

My friend concluded by saying that "generosity of spirit is invaluable … a phone call, a letter of encouragement, photos, interesting articles, books" are always welcome. And humor helps. "A good laugh dissipates more heartache than any other thing."

So there you have it — suggestions for taking care of the caretaker this holiday season.

And all year long.

(Thanks, J., for your wisdom. Best wishes to you and yours.)

Ann Cannon can be reached at or

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