For some family caregivers, the holidays can be a joyful time when spirits are lighter. It feels good to care for loved ones and enjoy time together, celebrating with family traditions. But for many the holidays also bring added stress — an already busy caregiver finds there’s even more to do during the holidays. Something’s gotta give! It’s OK to give yourself a bit of a break this year. Here are some tips to help you make it through the holiday season with more joy and less stress.
1. Focus on what is most meaningful
As much as we’d like to create the perfect holiday experience, remember that perfection is not the goal of the holidays — meaning and joy are. There are many factors we can’t control when it comes to our loved ones’ health and abilities, so adjust your view of a successful holiday. Talk about prioritizing the holiday activities that hold the deepest meaning. Focus on what feels necessary to produce a holiday feeling and create good memories.
2. Simplify your holiday activities
If going all out for the holidays will push you over the edge this year, remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you can’t put out all of your decorations, choose a few items that are most significant. You might ask a friend to decorate, or pay someone to do so; you can always rearrange decorations once they are out. If going to all religious services feels like too much, choose one service that means the most. If sending greeting cards is too time-consuming, try sending e-greetings. Many family caregivers also adjust the location of celebrations or postpone holiday travel to accommodate loved ones in their care.
3. Start new traditions
Instead of focusing on losses and what you and/or your loved ones aren’t able to do this year, try doing something new. If your care recipient has trouble getting around, drive through a holiday light display or watch a holiday concert on TV. If you can’t make it to a holiday gathering, have a video chat. Are your loved ones unable to participate in decorating this year? Invite a friend over to help, with your loved ones nearby to watch and cheer you on. Start a home holiday movie night tradition — or watch old home movies so everyone can participate.
4. Adjust meals
Food is a big part of many holidays, so it’s especially difficult to think about changing mealtime traditions. But meals also require a lot of time, money and coordination. Over many years of caregiving, I found doing holiday baking and meals so exhausting that I couldn’t even enjoy them. So rather than canceling holiday meals entirely, I’ve learned to make adjustments like these:
- Simplify the menu. Try fewer side dishes or one dessert instead of three.
- Split up the grocery shopping and cooking among other family members and guests. There’s nothing wrong with a potluck.
- Pay someone to cook meals at your house ahead of time or on the holiday.
- Purchase all or part of meals at a local grocery store or restaurant — either fully cooked or ready for you to cook at home.
- Eat at someone else’s home, or at a restaurant.
5. Approach gift-giving more efficiently
Gift-giving is a part of many traditions, but it can be costly and time-consuming. Try shopping online (many online stores will also gift-wrap). You might ask a friend or relative to do your shopping and wrapping for you. You can always fall back on gift cards, too. Family caregivers are often financially stressed, so it might be necessary to lower your gift-giving budget this year and scale back the number of presents. Try giving the gift of time or attention, like scheduling outings or helping with a project. If your family is large, draw names and exchange with just one person. Have a regifting exchange, sharing items you already have. Order a photo gift — like a photo mug, pillow or calendar — or write a meaningful letter that can be enjoyed throughout the year.
6. Anticipate holiday hot buttons
Are there holiday activities or toxic relatives that trigger stress or unhappy memories? Perhaps feelings of grief or loss overcome you at certain times of day. Do unhelpful relatives arrive for the holidays and criticize your caregiving? Maybe old family issues inevitably flare up at gatherings. It may be best to limit your exposure to — or even avoid — certain places, events, conversations or people. If you can’t do that, prepare yourself. Minimize the drama; don’t try to resolve problems over the holidays. Instead, try short encounters and develop quick exit strategies. Mentally put yourself in a protective bubble, letting negative energy bounce off without hurting, annoying or distressing you.
7. Mind your mindset
Negative thinking actually activates your body’s stress response, so steer your mind to the positives when you start down that slippery slope. Try to stay mindful, concentrating on the present moment. Think about what you can accomplish instead of what isn’t getting done; celebrate what your loved ones can do, rather than dwelling on what they can no longer participate in; revel in the holiday joys you experience instead of focusing on those you bypass; appreciate the help you are receiving rather than resenting those who aren’t supportive.
8. Keep self-care at the top of the list
As caregivers, we give and give and give, and during the holidays we give even more. All that giving can leave you running on empty, with high stress levels or even full-on burnout. Be aware of emotional ups and downs, fatigue, foggy thinking, inability to sit still or the opposite — feeling frozen and unable to get anything done. These red flags have to be dealt with, but when we’re busy it’s easy to let self-care slip — just when we need it most. Find ways to fill your tank. Get plenty of sleep. Walk with loved ones in a decorated shopping mall, dance to holiday music, stretch or do jumping jacks while watching holiday movies. Enjoy holiday goodies, but be aware that too many sugary treats can make your energy crash later. Be aware of unhealthy coping skills, like overeating or drinking too much. Get outside for some mood-elevating vitamin D from sunlight, or consider therapeutic lighting if you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Relax with some holiday-scented aromatherapy to soothe and boost your mood.
9. Connect with other caregivers
Other caregivers are feeling many of the same emotions you are, even when others don’t understand. Connect to share your feelings and get tips for holiday survival. If it’s difficult to get to a caregiver support group due to holiday business or weather, try online message boards or social media groups.
10. Ask for help
Even if you don’t normally do so, the holidays are a great time to get some extra help — even a few hours can be a huge relief. Family and friends can help with holiday preparations. A personal assistant or concierge can complete items on your holiday to-do list or handle personal things like organizing mail or running errands. Get someone to clean the house or catch up on laundry. Ask family and friends to help with direct care for your loved ones, or try community resources like adult day care centers, in-home or facility-based respite care, or paid home health aides/caregivers.
Remember, you’ll be happier if you can go with the flow and expect that there will be some delays, a crisis or two and maybe some disappointments. Our family spent Christmas in the hospital with my dad one year when he was sick. We made the most of it with decorations and music and festive hats and antlers. The hospital prepared a darn good holiday meal for us, too. The bottom line is that this time is precious. Savor the moments with your loved ones and make good memories you can cherish forever.