Caregivers Don’t Get Holidays

If you take care of loved ones, the holidays can be more stressful than fun.

Posted Nov 19, 2018

Carolyn Franks/Shutterstock
Source: Carolyn Franks/Shutterstock

Even for those of us in consistent and comfortable circumstances, the holiday season tends to be hectic, stressful, and exhausting. You know the drill — shop, eat, wrap, work, visit, cook, chat, decorate, socialize, and repeat. And so it goes. So, as much fun as the holidays are, they can also be stressful. If you happen to be negotiating this supposedly joyful time of year while an ailing or troubled loved one is depending on you for care and support, it can feel like double duty and double the stress.

Consider Jack and Miriam. Married 13 years with two young children, the holidays have always been a joyous time of play and frolic for them and their kids. Unfortunately, this year Miriam’s beloved 88-year-old grandmother fell while grocery shopping and broke her hip. The family has happily taken her in while she recuperates to make sure she gets the love and assistance she needs during this difficult time. So Jack and Miriam, in addition to caring for their kids and prepping for the holidays, are caring for Miriam’s ailing grandmother.

Across the street, Steve and Naomi’s 27-year-old son is home for the holidays. Normally, this would be a happy experience for them, but this year their son is home after being dishonorably discharged from the military courtesy of his out-of-control opioid addiction. He just spent 30 days in a rehab that Steve and Naomi paid for, and now he’s living at home and struggling to adjust and stay sober. His return and paying for his rehab has placed a financial and emotional strain on both Steve and Naomi, but they love their son and are determined to put his welfare first.

For families like these, the holidays are not just the holidays. Jack and Miriam and Steve and Naomi find themselves caretaking for a needful loved one while also trying to navigate their own lives and the standard stress of the holiday season. Needless to say, their task is incredibly difficult. The good news is that there are things that the people around them can do to ease their burden.

If you know someone in the difficult position of caretaking an ailing or troubled loved one during the holiday season, consider engaging in one or more of the following actions. Your efforts will mean a lot. Remember, these loving caretakers have more than gifts and holiday parties on their minds.

  1. Make Imperfection OK. Holiday expectations can be overwhelming. We all feel like we have to cook the perfect meal, create the perfect decorations, and give the perfect gifts, and if we don’t, then we have failed and the holidays are a disaster. Unfortunately, life is not a Norman Rockwell painting. Cookies burn, our crazy neighbor hangs 40,000 twinkle lights and our three strings won’t work at all, and the directions for assembling the kids’ new bikes might as well be in Greek. If we can accept, with good grace, the holidays as they happen, however they happen, then we make it easy for others (especially stressed out caretakers) to also accept that imperfection is OK. So laugh about the burnt cookies and eat them anyway, be glad you’re not paying your neighbor’s electric bill, and post pictures of the not-assembled bikes on Facebook. Because it’s all part of the holiday fun.
  2. Remember What’s Really Important. We’ve all seen the holiday specials on TV. And they’re always about realizing what’s truly important. Whether the hero is George Bailey, Ralphie Parker, Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty, Virginia, or even the Grinch, the message is always the same. The holiday season is about love. The holidays are about celebrating our connections with family and friends—even if they’re struggling (and maybe especially if they’re struggling). If we make this our theme for the holidays, the people around us will pick up on that. With a caretaking friend or loved one, of course, we may find that we need to make a little extra effort in this regard. If so, we can try to help them with holiday preparations and even a bit of caretaking, making sure they and their ailing or troubled loved one consistently feel as if they are ‘a part of’ rather than ‘apart from’ the festivities.
  3. Do a Daily Check-In. Even for people who don’t get stressed out by the holidays, a daily check-in can be useful. For those who do get stressed out, daily check-ins are an absolute necessity. One thing you can do to help a stressed-out caregiver is to find a few minutes each day to ask them the following questions: Are you feeling stressed out, sad, angry, or isolated? Are you keeping any secrets? Have you told any lies? Do you have unrealistic expectations of family, friends, and holiday gatherings? If you ask these and similar questions, your friend or loved one will feel that he or she has a place to turn when the stress is too much. Plus, you will likely find out ways you can help him/her with the holiday and/or caretaking burden.
  4. Take a Time Out from the Holidays. Yes, the holidays are supposed to be a non-stop run of dinners, events, parties, shopping sprees, and decorating jags. And those activities can certainly be a lot of fun for everyone who participates. But we all still need some downtime. We need to get enough sleep, to exercise, to eat healthy foods (while still enjoying the cookies and pies), and to generally take good physical and emotional care of ourselves. Reading, meditation, support groups, yoga, going to the movies, watching fun TV shows, and just plain napping are highly recommended during the holiday season. We need to engage in this type of self-care for ourselves, and we need to engage in this type of self-care to set an example for our caretaking friends and loved ones. If a caretaking friend or loved one sees us relaxing, he/she will feel better about doing the same. If we invite that person to join us, even better.
  5. Schedule Some Fun. One of the best ways to help a stressed-out caretaker is to schedule some fun holiday activities with him/her. Decorating a holiday tree, baking cookies and other sweets, shopping for gifts, and planning for and cooking a holiday meal are things that can be enjoyed together. Or you can schedule a special movie and popcorn night to watch Prancer and Die Hard. (Yup, Die Hard is a holiday movie.) Or a holiday-themed game night. Or caroling. Or creating handmade decorations and gifts. Or whatever. All you need to do is find a time when the stressed-out caretaker is free and schedule some fun that he/she needs to only show up for.
  6. Get Grateful. Researcher Brené Brown has studied happiness for nearly 20 years, conducting in-depth interviews with thousands of individuals. Over the years, she has identified one significant difference between happy people and unhappy people: Happy people are grateful for what they have. Whatever they have, they are grateful for it. Instead of focusing on what they don’t have, or what they might not have, or how dreadful their future might look, they focus on the present moment and the blessings in their lives. So, anytime we (or a caretaking friend or loved one) feel stressed or blue, especially during the holiday season, we (and they) can pause and create a 10-item gratitude list. Nothing changes a down mood faster that gratitude. Better yet, creating a gratitude list together can be a bonding experience that lifts the spirits of two people simultaneously. If we practice gratitude in this way, we inevitably see that it’s impossible to be grateful and unhappy at the same time. If we can help a struggling loved one practice gratitude in this way, we’ll make two lives better.  

Whatever we do during the holiday season, it is vital that we stay connected with friends and loved ones in prodependent ways, no matter how much they’re struggling or focused on caretaking an ailing or otherwise troubled person. The best holiday gift we can give to ourselves and those around us is to maintain our bond with them by doing things together, staying grounded in a process of self-care and gratitude, and gracefully (even joyfully) accepting the imperfections of the holiday season.