Family Files Facts for All Ages Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 Holiday Blues? I want jolly and merry to describe my holidays! Tue, 12 Dec 2017 05:15:00 +0000 We are in the midst of the holiday season, and many of the songs we hear are joyous and happy but this may not be a happy time for all. For some, the holidays are sad due to the absence of a loved one (because of distance or loss), a change in family life due to divorce or unresolved family issues. For others, the demands of the holiday season cause such stress or unrealistic expectations that they start feeling anxious, overwhelmed or depressed.

The first thing to do in order to help your mood and well-being is to identify how you feel. Do a body scan and think about your mood. Are you showing any of the typical signs and symptoms of someone who is stressed? Here are some common signs and symptoms:

  • Neck ache or tension in shoulders
  • Frequent headaches
  • Stomach/digestion issues
  • Excessive anxiety, worry or guilt
  • Increased anger, frustration, or hostility
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling overwhelmed or sad
  • Increased irritability
  • Increased/decreased appetite

We can all handle everyday stressors for a couple of days when trying to get through a stressful stretch. However, unmanaged stress wreaks havoc on our health and well-being. People who have chronic stress are more prone to cancer, heart disease and accelerated aging. They often have more marital problems and family dysfunction and are at higher risk for clinical depression. Chronic stress also negatively affects the brain by altering brain structure and function, which leads to impaired thinking and emotional regulation. Not so holly jolly, eh? So during this bustling time filled with holiday shopping, parties, musical performances or whatever fills your calendar, how do we maintain our health and holiday spirit?

Start with having a plan and looking ahead. Managing your calendar will help you carve out time to do the things that need to be done but also make time for your health. If you have noticed that you have neglected your physical health, budget time in your schedule for it to happen. If you are like me, if it is not on my calendar, it does not happen. Find time for your health, such as scheduling in a 15-minute walk on a work break or over a lunch hour if your evenings are packed. Another suggestion I heard a co-worker say she takes a day off from work to catch up on some things. Taking some vacation time, if available, may be worth the amount of things that you can get accomplished.

Another tip is to scale back or be okay with saying, "No." We do not have to do everything we have "always" done. Whether this be as much decorating, baking, buying, events attended. This can feel hard at first, but once you reclaim some time on your calendar and in your life for other priorities, you will find it easier.

Find the stress relievers that help you feel better. I mentioned physical exercise already; making sure to get activity in is important, but you can also do other stress busters, like simply taking three deep breaths, getting out in nature, reciting a mantra or practicing some mindfulness techniques. There are website, books and apps to learn about many of these practices.

Other ideas include talking to a friend to share what is on your mind as well as getting in some good laughs. Sleep is also vitally important. Lack of sleep lowers our tolerance for stress, and when we get our daily 7-8 hours for adults, it is like a reset button for our brain and is when our bodies heal themselves.

Keep things in perspective and do not worry about what could happen. We often worry ourselves sick over things that will never happen or over things in the past that we cannot change. Keep things in perspective. Do your best to have a plan to manage the stressful moments as well as have techniques on hand for those time when you feel your body reacting to a person or situation that may arise over the holidays. It is always ok to take a little break from a family gathering if you need some space or down time.

Here's wishing you and yours a happy holiday season and hoping that you can manage your stress over the holidays in order to enjoy the season as well as come through with good health.

Making the Most of Holiday Meals Wed, 22 Nov 2017 16:00:00 +0000  

With the holidays rapidly approaching, I wanted to re-share an article published a couple of years ago that was written by Extension colleague Janice McCoy.  She points out the benefits of sharing meals together:

Family mealtimes during the holidays can be memorable not only for the food that graces the table, but for the chance to reconnect with relatives, whether they're siblings scattered across the country or kids home from college. Family meals are important year round because they provide an opportunity for conversation and connection between parents and children. But, when extended families eat together during the holidays, the story telling and reminiscing that occurs often casts a warm glow that travels through the years. Holiday meals that stretch across generations and households provide a sense of security for children and create a powerful ritual for young and old alike.

Family meals are an opportunity to shape family culture and identity, develop respect between the generations, and encourage positive communication skills. Sharing intergenerational mealtimes can be mutually beneficial for young and old alike. Children feel important and have a sense of belonging when adults other than their parents care about what is important to them. Grandparents say that spending time with young people keeps them young and gives them an opportunity to pass on family values and traditions.

When gathering your family, small or large, the following communication tips can help keep conversations positive and helpful during mealtimes.

  • Pay attention to what is being said, even if it seems trivial. You will seem interested and improve your relationship with the other person at the same time.
  • Remove distractions. Turn off the television, lay down the newspaper, and make eye contact with the speaker.
  • Listen to the other person and comment on what is being said.
  • Give the speaker a chance to finish their comment before responding.
  • Accept what is being said even if you don't agree. Accepting the person does not mean that you accept the idea.

Here are some tips if conflicts should arise:

  • Stay calm and try not to get too emotional. Keep your voice even and steady.
  • Stick to the subject. It might be tempting to bring up everything that has happened in the past but resist that temptation. Comment about the issue, not the person. Regardless of the situation, refrain from blaming, shaming, or name calling.
  • Talk about your own feelings. When stating a different opinion, speak with "I" not "you." For example, say "I don't see it that way" rather than "you are wrong."

Done right, your family's holiday mealtimes will be remembered not only for the turkey and dressing and delicious desserts. Each person can leave the table feeling loved, respected, and part of a family that knows who they are, what they've been up to, and what some of its members' individual goals and aspirations are. Family mealtimes are too good to save just for the holidays. When your relatives go home, be sure to continue the practice with your children at least three times a week. U of I research shows that family meals are associated with many positive benefits for both younger kids and teens.

November is National Family Caregiver’s Month and Alzheimer’s Awareness Month Tue, 21 Nov 2017 06:00:00 +0000 November is National Family Caregiver's Month. In 2016, the Alzheimer's Association reported that over 220,000 people in Illinois are living with Alzheimer's disease (AD). In honor of all of the caregivers out there helping someone with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, this article is for you and your loved ones as we enter the holiday season. I could speak for a long time on this topic, or even write a book, as the saying goes. So how does one choose what is the most important information when they believe that, of course, it is all important!

The holidays can be tough for both families of and the individual with Alzheimer's for many reasons. This week, I want to focus on having a plan and suggestions for conversations. The first thing to do if having a loved one with dementia is new territory for you is to prepare your family for your new normal. Your loved one may have changes in ability, appearance and behavior since family members were last together. Without preparing visitors, you may cause them to be anxious around the individual with Alzheimer's. Your loved one may feel this anxiousness or uncomfortableness and react. One way to prep family members is to send out a letter, email or text and let them know what the individual with Alzheimer's can or cannot do anymore. You can also talk about some conversations that they like to have and suggest how to be prepared for repetition of information or questions.

As a family, it may be important to think about traditions and adjust your expectations in light of the current situation. For some with Alzheimer's, too much noise and stimulation can just be too much and should be avoided. If it cannot be avoided, there needs to be a plan or a place in the home where they can be where there is less stimulation. Another option is to have a low-key place they can be where people can come visit one on one or in small groups. Keep in mind routines that work and schedule holiday gatherings around that when possible. For example, you may have a lunch gathering instead of a later evening meal in order to keep a normal daily schedule as best possible. Set limits as to how many gatherings there are or how close they may be so there is ample time to rest between for both the individual and the caregiver.

Be aware of triggers for the individual or signs that they are tired or need down time in order to manage or minimize possible behaviors. We all get grouchy or grumpy when tired, hungry, anxious or overwhelmed. We just have better coping strategies that we can use compared to someone with Alzheimer's. They are just trying to manage in that moment. We can help them by anticipating needs, planning our best, giving them the best environment possible and doing our best to communicate effectively.

Therefore, thinking about communicating effectively, here are some of my favorite tried and true tips for family members. Do not worry about what you are going to talk about or how it might go. Take that stress off yourself and just be yourself with just a couple extra things in mind. For the best scenario, limit distractions in the environment when possible. Remember that their short-term memory is affected, so asking about recent events is not the best idea. Instead, talk about things from the past. Pull out a photo album and look through memories together. People with Alzheimer's typically have their long-term memory through most of their disease process. Ask them about things that you know they are passionate about or have always enjoyed. Even if they can no longer travel, they may still want to hear about your trip and see your pictures, though it may be better to give the shorter version, not the detailed, long version. Since it is the holidays, ask them about their favorite holiday memory or holiday tradition or sing some holiday songs together.

It is important to be a good listener, but you also must have patience and understanding when communicating with someone with Alzheimer's disease. If they get frustrated when they cannot find the word or lose track of what they were saying, offer a guess as well as comfort and reassurance. Give them time and be comfortable with the time that it may take for them to communicate. Do not ask memory questions, as they can be confusing and difficult. You can simply share and let them chime in, as they want. Avoid criticizing or correcting if they say something that is wrong; just be in their world and with them where they are in their disease process. If they think that it is 1955, then it can be 1955. It is best to focus on their feelings and what they are telling you, not the facts. You will not win an argument with someone with memory issues. If you do not let things slide, you both with walk away from the interaction upset and frustrated.

Some things that you can do for the best communication is speak clearly and slowly and use short, simple sentences with familiar words. Use non-verbal communication to help if you communicate when you can by using props, pointing or hand signals as appropriate. Finally, please never talk about the person as if they were not there.]]>
Fun Family Thanksgiving Ideas Wed, 15 Nov 2017 12:09:00 +0000 Help for Holiday Grief Fri, 03 Nov 2017 08:50:00 +0000 Several of my friends have already made the comments.  "Things just won't be the same."  "I don't know how I'm going to make it through this season."  "I wish I could just skip ahead to January." With so many that I know experiencing loss this holiday season, I thought it would be timely to re-post this blog on Holiday Grief from 2015.

"What will I do this holiday season?

Weep for you. Miss you.

Be kind to a stranger because of our love.

Invoke your name so others will honor you.

Stand in awe at the beauty of all you are.

Meditate on your life and death.

Carry you in my heart wherever I journey.

Show mercy to children and animals.

Ask for your forgiveness. And presence.

Unfold your love into the world.

Remember. Your. Beauty."

~Dr. Joanne Caccitore

While the holiday season brings about joy and celebration, it can also be a time of great sadness and pain as traditions and family memories can intensify grief. The season is truly bittersweet – sweet memories of a loved one combined with the reality of loss.

The holiday season after my grandfather passed was pretty typical. The family carried on, celebrated, and enjoyed the holiday just as much as any other. It was as if he was still there. I remember his empty chair at the table, the lack of his warm smile and even warmer hug, but where I really noticed his absence was at, of all places, the kitchen sink. My grandpa – the decorated POW and WWII veteran – humbly, even joyfully assumed his position at the kitchen sink after every family or holiday meal. I can still see him standing there, doing the dishes, humming quietly to himself and serving his family (and wife) in the simplest way he knew how. That Christmas, I missed and even grieved his quiet act of service. To this day, when I have the opportunity to do the dishes after a holiday meal, I envision my grandpa from so many years ago. It's as if I'm able to connect with him again.

Grieving the loss of a loved one is a difficult experience at any time of the year, however, during the holiday season, we're often reminded of our loss through family traditions and celebrations as well as the ubiquitous push to get into the "holiday spirit." We associate holidays with good times and special memories, making us all the more likely to miss our loved one even more at this time of year.

There are nearly endless blog posts, articles, books, support groups, and seminars that focus on the topic of holiday grief. There is not one way to grieve or one way to cope with loss around the holidays. Even so, the following suggestions may be helpful in coping with loss during this time of year.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, has identified 10 ways to help healing during the holidays:

  1. Express your feelings by accepting and communicating about them.
  2. Be aware of both your physical and psychological needs.
  3. Avoid overextending yourself and reduce unnecessary stress.
  4. Surround yourself with friends and family members who are caring and supportive.
  5. Remember and honor your loved one by including his or her name in your conversations.
  6. Assess what you need to do during the holiday season and refrain from pressure from well-intentioned friends and family members on what you "should do."
  7. Evaluate your family traditions by considering those you want to continue and identifying new traditions you would like to begin.
  8. Share the treasured memories of your loved one with others.
  9. Reflect on the meaning and purpose of your life.
  10. Express your faith, if important to you, through attending holiday services or ceremonies as well as spending time with those who share your same beliefs.

To read Dr. Wolfelt's full article, click here.

Supporting a grieving person can also be difficult during the holidays. Well-meaning friends and family members are often at a loss of what to say or do to help. The National Hospice Foundation recommends the following suggestions to help a grieving person during the holidays:

  1. Support the person in the way that they choose to celebrate the holiday.
  2. Offer to help with daily chores and errands or holiday preparations.
  3. Include the person in your holiday celebrations and religious services.
  4. Encourage the person to volunteer with you during the holiday season.
  5. Honor their loss by making a donation in their loved one's name.
  6. Avoid passing judgement on their grief by telling the person that they should be "over it."
  7. Give the gift of active listening if the person wants to talk about his or her loved one.
  8. Remind the person that they and their loved one are in your thoughts.
  9. Check in with the person after the holidays to assist with any post-holiday grief that may occur.

To read the full article from the National Hospice Foundation, click here.

Even though the holiday season can be a difficult time when dealing with loss, it can be a time of reminiscence and love – a time to honor the memory of a loved one while healing from their loss. May you be comforted in your grief this holiday season.

Effective Communication Fri, 20 Oct 2017 11:45:00 +0000


I originally wrote this article back in 2015, but felt like it was worthwhile to publish it again. People are highly passionate in their beliefs, and in our current culture, differing beliefs or views are creating quite the stir. Difficult topics can make it a challenge to get our point across the way we intend to - whether we are talking with professionals, supervisors, family members or friends. Practicing some of these tried and true communication strategies may make the difference between having a meaningful discussion as opposed to an argument that accomplishes nothing but hurt feelings.

Here are some tips in speaking clearly:

  • Remember the goal of your conversation. Be specific and avoid going on tangents or bringing up old issues.
  • Resist urges to attack with words or actions such as sarcasm or put-downs. If you feel yourself losing control of your emotions, you may want to take a little break by getting a glass of water, leaving the room for a moment, or take a few deep breaths.
  • Try to see things from the other person's perspective. This will help you to be more empathetic and will promote mutual respect.
  • Use those "I" messages – when you communicate what you are thinking and feeling and not pointing the finger at the other person making them feel defensive.
  • Give constructive criticism by focusing on the behavior and not on the person.
  • Know what you want to say, and then stop once you've said it. Continuing to rehash your points over and over is not effective.

It is essential that you also be a good listener. Here are some tips in listening carefully:

  • Be an active listener by giving the person your full attention and eliminate any distractions.
  • Let the person know you are listening by changing expressions, nodding your head, asking clarifying questions and making brief comments.
  • Maintain eye contact and pay attention to your body language – don't give mixed messages.
  • Do not interrupt – hear them out.
  • Receive criticism with an open mind by filtering out the emotions and sticking with the facts.
  • Summarize in your own words what you think you heard from the speaker to eliminate any misunderstandings.
  • Acknowledge to the person that you appreciate them talking with you and you know it may not have been easy.
  • Also, acknowledge what the other person said, even if you don't agree with them.
Communication skills take time and effort to cultivate and refine, but have a great payoff when practiced correctly. Contact any of our family life educators for more information on effective communication.]]>
Fall Into Learning Fri, 13 Oct 2017 15:12:00 +0000  




Natural Illinois: Leaves Are All Around

A tip sheet from the Illinois Early Learning Project

You don't have to go to exotic places to find interesting plants and animals to study at home or in the classroom! From violets and bluestem to oak trees and pines, Illinois plants are as close as your local park or schoolyard. Preschoolers can learn a lot about plants by studying leaves

Start by taking children outdoors to collect leaves.

  • Give each child a bag to fill with leaves. Even if your neighborhood seems to have only crabgrass and dandelions, children can still learn about leaves on their walks.
  • Invite children to look high and low to see leaves on the plants in parks, in gardens, and in the cracks on the sidewalk! Keep in mind that trees may drop leaves all year round, not just in autumn. In spring and summer, carefully trim leaves from grasses, shrubs, and flowering plants. In winter, take leaf or needle cuttings from evergreens such as boxwood, pine, or fir. (Ask permission before collecting on private property.)
  • Be sure that you and the children know which leaves can hurt them, such as poison ivy or thistle. If you are not sure whether a leaf is safe to touch, tell children to avoid it. Have children wash hands thoroughly after handling leaves or cuttings. Someone may be allergic to one of the plants.

Share resources about leaves.

  • Invite a guest speaker to help the children learn more about trees and other leafy plants. Check with your local community college, nature center, Audubon Society, or master naturalist group.
  • Ask a librarian to help you find resources related to leaves: nonfiction picture books, nature magazines, puzzles, or classroom kits.
  • Contact the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to obtain its beautiful posters, includingIllinois Woodland Wildflowers, Fall Colors, andTrees: Seeds and Leaves.

Invite children to study the leaves they collect.

  • Ask children what they think about leaves. Make a list of their comments and questions.
  • Show children books featuring leaf designs of artists such as Andy Goldsworthy or Lois Ehlert. Encourage children to make their own leaf designs.
  • Keep in mind that you can learn about leaves along with the children. Help them look up differences between simple and compound leaves. Introduce words for the parts of leaves, such asmidrib, vein, blade,andmargin.
  • Invite children to think of ways to sort their leaves (such as by color, size, or shape).
  • Point out that people can look at a plant's leaves to figure out what kind of plant it is. Show children how field guides help identify plants. Help them notice leaf shape, size, and structure.
  • Look up easy ways for children to press leaves to preserve them for display.

The Illinois Early Learning Project is located in the Children's Research Center at the University of Illinois.

For more tip sheets on other topics, please go to