One issue that family caregivers don’t often talk about is how cranky everyone can get living under one roof — especially if the person you’re caring for is sometimes or often cranky. You know the toll that it can take on the entire household — and how that person’s mood can rub off on you. But how do you go about making your home a happier place?
First off, make sure that the person in your care isn’t suffering from depression or a more serious mood-changing disease. After that, try these simple ways to cheer up a home — and everyone in it.
1. Reach out and touch someone
Jenny is a caregiver who lives in South Dakota. When she’d get home from work, often with hands full of grocery bags, she use to holler out a greeting, “Hi, Ma,” let the screen door shut behind her, and head straight into the kitchen. After one particularly trying day at work, Jenny walked in, hugged her mom, and then walked back to the car to get what she needed.
“I just hadn’t thought about it before,” she says. “I went in for that hug for myself, but I saw that it caught her off guard in a good way.” It only took a few seconds, but Jenny realized she’d previously been sending her mom the wrong message: She was another chore on Jenny’s to-do list. But the offer of a simple hug was that little bit of warmth her mom needed.
Touching those we care about releases oxytocin, a powerful hormone that helps us bond with others, lowers blood pressure, and reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Postmenopausal women often have low levels of oxytocin, but these hormones can be raised with a simple touch. If you’re caring for someone who’s battling disease, touch is a powerful healing agent.
How to get started: Every family has different ideas of what’s normal touching. Some people are huggers and some aren’t. If giving a hug is too out of character for you, then a simple remark such as, “Your hands look dry. Let me put some lotion on them” could lead to a soothing hand massage. Combing someone’s hair or touching his or her arm can also be relaxing. Look for little ways to make physical contact every day.
2. Play some tunes
A house can seem loud when there are a lot of people living in it — especially with everyone’s electronic devices turned on. But don’t dismiss the mood-enhancing power of choosing some of the sounds that fill up your home. The right kind of music can change the heartbeat of a household: Dixieland jazz gets most people tapping their toes, show tunes can bring back memories, bluegrass can evoke a larger American landscape, and the sound of ukuleles or to reggae can transport listeners to a distant and exotic place.
Senior editor Paula Spencer tells a story about the time her teenage son’s guitar playing changed a “blah” day at his grandfather’s assisted-living facility into an afternoon of residents and staff tapping their toes and swapping smiles. She also notes that music can bring back positive and deep-set memories even in those with advanced dementia.
How to get started: Just start playing the music you think everyone will like. Or try free Internet radio services, such as Pandora, which you can program with stations based on a favorite artist, song, or genre. It’s best to introduce music when the person you’re caring for isn’t agitated or already preoccupied, since excess stimulation could have a reverse effect.
3. Eat together
The simple acting of eating can be a powerful mood booster. The mood-enhancing properties of dark chocolate have been touted for years, but sitting down with someone to an afternoon cup of tea and a piece of chocolate packs a double punch: It gives you the chance to take a physical break and helps you make an emotional connection to the person eating with you.
How to get started:Start by putting together a list of foods the person you’re caring for likes and try to integrate them — or healthy versions of them — into your weekly meal planning. Keep healthy snacks on hand, such as carrots, yogurt, or nuts. If eating problems have created historically unhappy mealtimes for the person in your care, try having a sit-down chat at the main table — without food. Just open up the paper and find some headlines to talk over.
4. Find the hammer that cracks a smile
People get cranky for a lot of reasons: physical aches or chronic pain, an unhappy life situation, having too much to do and not enough time to rest and recharge. And some of us just have a less-than-upbeat personality. But most people will crack a smile over something: babies, dogs, cats, or children — even if they’ve been in a bad mood for what seems like forever. And here’s good news: A recent study found that even in people with memory loss, the feeling of happiness often lasts longer than whatever triggered it. When a person with memory loss watches an old episode of I Love Lucy, for example, the smile lingers long after the show has ended.
One San Francisco Bay Area family, whose grandmother has Alzheimer’s and lives with them for a few weeks at a time, enjoys sitting down to watch Two and a Half Men. Even though the grandmother often doesn’t quite hear or understand all the dialogue, she cracks up just watching as the rest of the family laughs to tears over the week’s antics.
How to get started: Try playing classic comedies, such as Abbot and Costello or the original Pink Panther movies. Bring in visitors who have a way of making everyone feel good. Or consider getting a pet. (If that’s not an option, turn on your computer and download some slide shows of puppies, an aquarium screensaver, or other smile-inducing shots.) If grandchildren can’t get home to visit, consider buying a digital photo frame and upload their photos so their grandparent can see what the kids are up to.
5. Keep things positive
This can get hokey, but once you find what works for your family, it has the potential to become tradition. Next time you’re at the store, pick up some birthday candles and a pack of matches. You can turn anything into a celebration by dimming the lights, sticking a candle in a piece of food, and presenting it to someone who could use an emotional boost.
One caregiver in Fresno, California, says she does this quite often with her mom, who has Alzheimer’s. She sings a quick ditty to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”: “We had a good day! We had a good day! Hi-ho the dairy-o, we had a good day!” She says her mom’s face lights up, she claps, and it’s an easy way to change her mood, especially if they’ve been having a less-than-stellar day.
How to get started: If your household is large, a good way to check in at the dinner table could be to take turns saying what each person is grateful for. Or just remind yourself: A woman in Boston who’s caring for her aging father says she keeps little post-it notes next to her mirror that remind her of all the good things she has in her life. She says it’s a helpful way to remember that starting the day off with a smile is really the only way to do it.