Dealing with Mental Stress During the Holidays

November 22, 2023

For most people, the best parts of the holidays, extravagant decor, rich foods, gift-giving, and additional time with friends and family, can also be the most stress inducing. While the holidays are thought of as the most wonderful time of the year, it is in fact viewed by many as the most stressful time of the year.

Neverending to-do lists, added expenses, and the desire to achieve a perfect holiday are just a few of the ways that the season brings on an overwhelming amount of stress. Plus, if you have an existing mental health condition, the holidays may accentuate it. “There are a lot of stressors in life without the holiday season,” says event planner Courtney Lutkus. “The holidays can be triggering and make it worse.”

In order to have a more relaxing holiday season, it’s important to choose some strategies ahead of time that will help you combat seasonal stress.

Exercise is Often the Best Medicine

During the holidays, prioritizing regular exercise can mitigate stress before it happens. Whichever exercise you choose, taking the time to move your body will guarantee a healthy dose of holiday cheer.

If you tend to feel restricted during the holidays from being spread too thin both physically and mentally, dance therapist Erica Hornthal recommends what she calls joy workouts. Take a break from the festivities, find an open space, and spend eight minutes moving through six expanding moves, including reaching, swaying, and jumping, that are designed to boost happiness. “Shake your hands, shake your head — kind of like an animal after it gets wet,” she says. “You can make a game out of it if you have kids.”

Alternatively, if you feel the need to slow things down, then yoga might work best for you. Even a fifteen minute session can lower levels of stress and anxiety. With a focus on breathwork and mindfulness, yoga can be especially effective for alleviating the feelings of nonstop commotion that often come with the holidays.

If you find yourself wanting to get away, a walk or run around the neighborhood may be just what you need to reset. You could even plan a “microadventure,” which could be as simple as a bike ride in the dark or a daytime hike at a nearby nature reserve. Viewing things in a new light and admiring your surroundings can create a sense of awe, which has been proven to lower stress levels. Plus, spending time outside, even if it’s just a walk around the block, can lower cortisol levels, blood pressure, and muscle tension.

Schedule Breaks

If you’re having difficulty finding time for yourself  during busy days, then reclaiming your mornings might be the best way to fit in a break. “I encourage everyone to develop a daily habit of starting their day with their own voice as the primary driver for how they want to engage the day,” says therapist Chanel Dokun. “This is an easy way to pre-schedule ‘me-time’ amid a busy holiday season where you can check in with your own needs, set your own priorities, and move into your day feeling centered and in control.” Plus, research shows that waking up just one hour earlier lowers an individual’s risk for depression by 23 percent.

In addition to making time for yourself in the mornings, simply saying no to yet another social obligation could help you avoid the burnout that comes from overdoing it. The sheer volume of things to do during the holidays can make it difficult to prioritize what’s most important. Sometimes, taking care of your mental health can be more important than attending yet another event, so give yourself permission to choose your festivities wisely. Not only will saying no to some things ease your stress, but it can also reinforce healthy relationship boundaries, which will leave you feeling empowered rather than burnt out.

Honor Your Routine 

With all of the added hustle and bustle, it will be easy to fall out of your usual routine, but sticking to your routine might be the simplest solution to seasonal stress. Dr. David Spiegel, director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University, says that our stress responses are far more flexible when we are resting and nourishing our bodies. “Mitigate stress by taking care of your body first,” says Spiegel. Give your body something to depend on during the holiday rush by getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly.

Ditch Perfectionism

It would be impossible for every part of the holiday to be perfect, so why place that standard upon yourself? Think about what traditions matter most to you, such as cooking a specific meal for your children or visiting family. When you take the time to think about what matters most, you can either ditch the items that fall down on your to-do list, or you can ask other family members to take some tasks off of your plate.

“You have a lot going on,” reminds psychologist David Rakofsky. “You can’t possibly do it all. Instead of lamenting your ‘losses,’ congratulate yourself on the everyday victories, like leaving the bed, smiling, and putting on pants.”

Whether you’re counting on your travels to go just as planned, finding the perfect gifts, or hosting the event of the season, having an idealized approach can set you up for disappointment. When you let go of your vision for the perfect holiday, you may find that you have far more joy this season, as well as far less stress. 

Stick to a Holiday Budget

The best way to manage financial stress is to set a realistic budget. Since nearly 1 in 4 people feel financially burdened by the holidays, there may be no better time to employ a budget than this time of year. “Be realistic when creating a budget by using real prices, not ballpark figures,”  says Family and Community Health specialist Joyce Cavanagh. “Don’t forget to include travel, food and entertaining costs in your holiday budget. And remember to jot down what you’ve bought so you don’t lose track of how much you’ve spent.”

Due to inflation, lower-income households may experience more financial stress this year. 29 percent of consumers say they’re stressed about the cost of holiday shopping, and 14 percent feel pressured to spend more than they’re comfortable with. Talking with your loved ones about minimizing holiday spending and gift-giving could take the pressure off of everyone and put the focus back on celebrating with loved ones. “Try managing your anxiety through transparency and planning,” says psychiatrist Dr. Georgia Gaveras. “You may end up being a hero this holiday season if you propose limiting the number of gifts everyone buys.”

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While you concentrate on the most wonderful time of the year, Insureyouknow.org can help you keep track of everything from financial records to travel itineraries and schedules. This season, stay organized when things get chaotic, and give yourself space to be present for all of what the holidays offer.

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Legal and Financial Planning for Those with Alzheimer’s and Their Caregivers

November 1, 2023

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, then there are certain things that you will need to plan for legally and financially. An estimated 6 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and it is currently the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. Alzheimer’s is a brain disorder that slowly decreases memory and thinking skills, while dementia involves a loss of cognitive functioning; both cause more and more difficulty for an individual to perform the most simple tasks. Though a diagnosis can be scary, the right planning can help individuals and their families feel more at ease.

Putting Legal Documentation in Place

Christopher Berry, Founder and Planner at The Elder Care Firm, recommends three main disability documents that should be in place.

First, there needs to be a financial power of attorney, a document that designates someone to make all financial decisions once an individual is unable to do so for themselves. If an individual lacks a trusted loved one to make financial decisions, then designating a financial attorney or bank is an option.

The next document that needs to be in place is the medical power of attorney that designates someone to make medical decisions for an individual. In many cases, it may be appropriate to appoint the same person to be the financial and medical power of attorney, as long as that person is well-trusted by the individual. In the event that something happens to the original power of attorney(s), successor (or back-up) agents for power of attorney(s) should also be designated.

The last document is the personal care plan, which instructs the financial and medical power of attorney(s) on how best to care for the individual in need. For instance, those entrusted to the care of an individual will need to make sure they sign medical records release forms at all doctor’s offices; copies of the power of attorney or living will should also be given to healthcare providers.

These three documents provide a foundation to make decisions for the individual diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia when they no longer can themselves. It’s ideal to include the individual in these conversations in the early stages of their diagnosis, so that they may be a part of the decision-making process and appoint people that they will feel most comfortable with during their care.

How to Pay for Long-Term Care

Since Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, the level of care an individual needs will increase over time. Care costs may include medical treatment, medical equipment, modifications to living areas, and full-time residential care services.

The first thing a family can do is to use their own personal funds for care expenses. It’s important for families to remember that they will also pay in their time, as many children of loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia will become the main caregivers. It may be wise to meet with a financial planner or sit down with other family members, such as your spouse and siblings, to determine how long some of you may be able to forgo work in order to provide full time care.

When personal funds get low or forgoing work for a period of time becomes difficult, long-term care insurance can be a lifesaver. The key to relying on long-term care insurance though is that it needs to be set up ahead of the Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnoses, so considering these plans as one ages may be smart.

Veterans can make use of the veterans benefit, or non-service-connected pension, which is sometimes called the aid and attendance benefit. This benefit can help pay for long-term care of both veterans and their spouses.

Finally, an individual aged 65 or older can receive Medicare, while those that qualify for Medicaid can receive assistance for the cost of a nursing home. If someone’s income is too high to receive Medicaid, then the spenddown is one strategy to know; under spenddown, an individual may subtract their non-covered medical expenses and cost sharing (including Medicare premiums and deductibles) from their available income. With the spenddown, a person’s income may be lowered enough for them to qualify for Medicaid.

Minimizing Risk Factors During Care

Research published recently in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that nearly half of patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia will experience a serious fall in their own home. Author Safiyyah Okoye, who was at John Hopkins University when the study was conducted, recommends minimizing risks such as these by safeguarding homes early on in diagnoses. “Examining the multiple factors, including environmental ones like a person’s home or neighborhood, is necessary to inform fall-risk screening, caregiver education and support, and prevention strategies for this high-risk population of older adults,” she states.

The good news is that since the progression of Alzheimer’s is often slow, families have plenty of time to modify the home for increased safety.

In addition to fall prevention modifications, other safety measures may include installing warning bells on doors to signal when they’re opened, putting down pressure-sensitive mats to alert when someone has moved, and using night lights throughout the home. Coats, wallets, and keys should also be kept out of sight, because at some point, leaving the home alone and driving will no longer be safe. Conversations about these safety measures, such as when an individual will have to stop driving, are ones that caregivers should have early on with their loved ones. Including individuals in their future planning while they are still cognitively sound will help both them and their caregivers feel more comfortable with the journey ahead.

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It’s important to remember that even though receiving an Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis can be devastating, it is not the end. People with Alzheimer’s can thrive for many years before independent functioning becomes difficult. Both patients and caregivers will feel more calm through planning ahead. Insureyouknow.org can help caregivers stay organized by storing all of their important documents in one place, such as financial records, estate planning documentation, insurance policies, and detailed care plans. Above all, there is hope for those with Alzheimer’s; research is happening every day for potential therapies and future treatments.

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Paying for Early Childhood Intervention Services

October 1, 2023

Over three million children in the United States had a reported disability according to the 2019 U.S. Census, and that number has risen 0.4% since 2008. Children experiencing developmental delays, not reaching developmental milestones, or those at risk may be eligible for early intervention services and supports.

When to Screen for Developmental Delays

If a child is born prematurely or with a genetic condition, then that child may qualify for early intervention as soon as birth. Early screening is part of the services that should be offered while parents are in the hospital for their child’s birth. However, if a parent becomes concerned about their child’s development after birth or notices any changes, they should refer their child for an early intervention evaluation. Eligibility for services is based on an evaluation of a child’s skills and abilities. A doctor’s referral is not necessary for an evaluation. It’s important for parents to educate themselves on which milestones their children should be reaching and not rely completely on their doctor’s recommendations; it is parents who spend the most time with their children, so they may notice something that a pediatrician won’t catch during a routine check-up. Emma Fitzsimmons, a New York mom who claims early intervention saved her son’s life, tells other parents, “If you’re worried that your child has delays, I would encourage you to seek out Early Intervention services and to ask for recommendations to find the best therapists in your area and a good service coordinator, the person who oversees your case.”

Know What Your State Offers

If eligible for early intervention, children may receive services to help with physical skills (crawling and walking), cognitive functions (thinking and learning), communication (talking and listening), adaptive skills (eating and dressing), and social-emotional development (play). Services are wide-ranging and can include speech therapy, physical or occupational therapy, psychological services, home visits, nutritional services, audiology (for hearing issues), vision therapy, social work, assistive technology, and even transportation.

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, covers early intervention and school-aged services. Under Part C of IDEA, funding is made available to each state and requires services to be made available to eligible children with disabilities. While all states offer early intervention, the screening processes and services offered vary state by state. The first step in finding out what your child may qualify for is learning about what your state offers. The CDC offers links for each state in order to learn about the benefits your state offers. Each state has its own guidelines around how families qualify, but generally, a child must exhibit a developmental delay or have been diagnosed with a specific health condition that is known to lead to delays, such as a genetic disorder. The Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (or ECTA) also outlines the services each state offers. In some states, children may be eligible for services if they are at risk and not yet exhibiting any delays, such as having been born at a low weight. If a child is found eligible for services, a care team will develop an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which will outline the services a child will receive and the desired outcomes for those services. For instance, physical therapist Tonya McCool explains, “If a child presents with a delay that limits their abilities to complete age-appropriate milestones, a provider will assist by guiding the child into appropriate positions, providing them opportunities to experience new opportunities or helping them try new things so that their families can continue to work with them throughout the week to meet their goals.”

Who Pays for Early Intervention Services?

Under IDEA Part C, Child Find services, which include the initial referral, evaluations, the development of the IFSP, and service coordination must be made free to families, but depending on your state’s policies, some services may be provided at a cost or on a sliding scale. In addition to the federal education funds provided through IDEA, Medicaid and private insurance can also help cover the costs of interventions, such as speech therapy and hearing services. Finding a provider that is familiar with Early Intervention funding will know best how to help families cover the costs of these services. Although early intervention is mandated by IDEA and designed to meet the needs of children, it often requires a combination of resources to cover the costs of services. The ECTA’s website offers contact information for each state’s lead agency, who will be able to provide parents with the resources they’ll need to secure services and funding. If your child qualifies for interventional services, it will be important to become educated in what services must be provided at no cost to you through IDEA Part C.

What Happens When Services End?

Once a child is three, if they are still experiencing delays or require supports, then services will continue and transition into special education services. These are often provided through a child’s school at no additional cost to you. The age at which a child begins schooling also varies state-by-state, which is why it’s important for families to work with their initial early intervention team in order to ensure children continue receiving the supports they need. When an IFSP is developed, it should include any support for the transition to preschool when a child turns three. Plans should be reviewed every six months, as children change quickly from birth to age three.

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Early intervention services can have an enormous impact on a child’s ability to meet developmental milestones. These services are provided not only for a child, but also so that their caregivers have the tools they need to create a healthy environment for their entire family. Insureyouknow.org can help you keep track of medical records, interventional resources, and your child’s IFSP, as well as their progress. When it comes time for your child to start school, having this paperwork organized in one place will help you provide their school with everything they require in order to ensure the necessary continued supports.

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Health and Economic Costs of Dealing with Chronic Illness

September 1, 2023

While the diagnosis of a chronic illness is upsetting enough, the financial ramifications of needing ongoing care often hit the hardest. Medical issues account for two-thirds of all US bankruptcies, making them the number one reason people file; forty percent of people who are diagnosed with cancer are bankrupt within four years of their diagnosis. For those who are chronically ill, healthcare is the number three line item for budgeting, while it’s number 10 for healthy individuals.

The costs of living with a chronic illness is not limited to financial burdens though; a chronic illness can also lead to even more health and interpersonal issues. 

A Decline in Mental Well-Being

Health impairments can exacerbate existing mental health conditions, like depression, or cause new issues to arise, such as anxiety. Being diagnosed with an illness that’s incurable or being unsure about whether or not the symptoms will improve is going to cause an immense amount of stress in patients. People who feel ill often may also end up feeling guilty for not being able to fulfill their personal responsibilities and show up fully for their loved ones.These mental and physical chronic conditions can lead to harmful degrees of social isolation and perpetuate a cycle of declining overall health.

When considering the connection between physical and mental health, it has been shown that those who report feeling lonely suffer from higher rates of morbidity, infection, depression, and cognitive decline. Living with a chronic illness doesn’t have to equate to a lonely life though, and may even lead to more meaningful relationships, according to Caroyn Hax, an advice columnist for the Washington Post. In her response to a reader with multiple sclerosis, she stated “Although your illness will deter some potential companions, your ability to plan it into a full, rewarding and well-managed life will attract others — specifically those people who appreciate that circumstances change but character does not.”

An Inability to Work and Losing Health Benefits

Many people suffering from chronic health issues may begin to find it difficult if not impossible to go to work consistently. Many people who deal with chronic health issues––such as Charlene Marshall who is a Pulmonary Fibrosis patient–– find it difficult if not impossible to go to work consistently. “Whether the fatigue I feel is from managing the disease or the disease progression, daily activities become exhausting and hard to manage,” she shares. Unfortunately, many people suffering from a chronic condition may begin to be viewed as unreliable by their supervisors, leading to termination, while others may need to resign as they find it impossible to keep working.

For many, losing their job also means losing their health benefits. Those who can no longer work may become reliant on spousal coverage or public assistance, which is likely why 99 percent of Medicare and 80 percent of Medicaid spending goes toward the treatment of chronic disease. Not only does the inability to work affect individuals and their families, but lower labor force participation rates affect society as a whole and are linked to slower economic growth, a higher dependency ratio, and higher tax rates.   

Straining Personal Relationships

The inability to work due to chronic illness can lead to financial strain on an individual’s entire family. Not only may family members need to help pay for care, but they may also need to take time from work to care for their loved ones who are undergoing treatment that makes them ill, need help with daily activities, or have just had a major surgery. Between new bills and extended care, the financial struggles of the chronically ill can spread easily to those who care for them most.

People who have a loved one that is suffering from a chronic health condition may also experience stress, concern, and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Battling a chronic illness doesn’t always have to come with negative interpersonal effects though. Many people actually find that their relationships are strengthened through their health struggles. Marshall, for instance, shares that she is grateful for a strengthened social circle. “I’m blessed to have a network of great friends who support me despite IPF and who are always willing to listen.”  

How We Can All Fight Chronic Disease

By working together, we can help build up the next generation for a healthier life through education about the prevention of many chronic diseases. Eating well, regular exercise, and avoiding substance abuse are all behaviors that may reduce the risk of becoming chronically ill. On a societal level, we can address the underlying determinants of health, including one’s environment, education, and access to healthcare. For instance, since many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis, are associated with poor diet and obesity, the FDA is currently working to make sure US eating patterns are meeting federal dietary guidelines.

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If you or a loved one are struggling through a chronic illness, know that you are not alone. The CDC estimates that 6 in 10 adults living in the US have at least one chronic disease, while 4 in 10 suffer from at least two or more. Insureyouknow.org can help you keep track of medical records, doctor’s appointments, financial planning, and other important documentation regarding your health and finances. Getting organized and keeping a plan are easy ways to get more peace of mind on your life’s journey through a chronic illness.

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