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Family Caregivers: How to Avoid Holiday Traps

Family Caregivers: How to Avoid Holiday Traps

Caregivers can rewrite the holiday rulebook to reduce stress, increase joy

From Vicki Rackner, MD, 

Holidays, meant to be a celebration of shared joy and connection with family and community, can quickly become a time of burden and a reminder of alienation and loss.For caregivers, holidays can bring an extra measure of activities and caregiver stress1. “I wish the calendar would flip directly from November to January,” said Fern, 67. “We just got settled into a routine now that Mom moved in with us, and all I see are a longer to-do list and disrupted schedules.”Holiday celebrations can destabilize any family, and family caregivers know this better than most because people who attend to the needs of aging parents, a sick spouse or family friend already live on the edge of a delicate equilibrium. As Gary, 59, so colorfully said, “Since Dad had his stroke, my life is held together with rubber bands and bubble gum. I’m concerned that Christmas will herald its collapse.”

For self-preservation, many caregivers let go of rules about how holidays should be celebrated. “Being a caregiver for my sick wife offers many gifts,” said John, 73. “Maybe the most important is the invitation to look at our life in a new way. Almost out of necessity, I stripped down our holiday celebrations.”

5 Holiday Traps for Caregivers
There are several common holiday traps that family caregivers fall into, but they can be avoided. Just follow a simple concept: Free yourself from ideas about what shouldhappen, and give yourself permission to celebrate holidays in a way that works for you and your family.

    • Trap #1: Planning for the worst. Many caregivers think, “This could be Dad’s last Christmas, so I want to make it really special.” Wouldn’t it be great if we came into the world with an owner’s manual that included the expiration date! We do not. I have seen patients defy all medical odds and laugh about the doctor who gave them six months to live—20 years ago. Then there are the tragic untimely deaths. We should all celebrate as if this is our last holiday season!
  • Trap #2: Creating Norman Rockwell scenes. The idea of a picture-perfect holiday has an emotional tug that’s particularly seductive to family caregivers who may long to return to earlier, carefree days of health and vitality.While there is no perfect holiday celebration, you can create holiday rituals that are perfect for your family. Say at a family meeting, “Our lives are different this year, so we need to think about how our holiday celebration will be different. What are the two or three things that make the holiday special for you?” For most people, it’s the little things that make a big difference, like the Russian Tea Cakes, the special hand-embroidered tablecloth, or playing board games. Create a montage of your family’s perfect holiday.
  • Trap #3: Buying your way out of guilt. For people in the sandwich generation2, caring for both children and parents, the guilt that someone is getting shortchanged looms large. Who doesn’t wish for more hours in the day so that children and friends, even the person in the mirror, would get more time and attention? The life of a caregiver leaves big gaps. If you try to fill the gaps with gifts, you will undoubtedly find that it does not work very well.All family members, including children, need to know they are loved and treasured. Gifts are one way to say this, but what most kids of all ages really want is more of you. Consider a different kind of holiday gift, like a coupon for 10 minutes of undivided attention each day, a trip to the ice cream store, or a visit to the zoo.During a holiday dinner, how about shining a “spotlight” on each person at the table, with each guest offering a story that demonstrates why this person is special? You could write the comments on 3×5 cards and give them wrapped in ribbon or mounted in a collage.

    Consider inviting your kids to give rather than receive by touching the lives of those less fortunate. Serve a meal at a shelter. Invite a lonely neighbor to your house. Look for a chance to give a stranger a $20 bill, or whatever you can afford.

  • Trap #4: “Smile!” This instruction, given before every photo, captures the tone for holidays. Over and over, we’re told there’s a right way to feel during a holiday, and that’s happy. Family caregivers have a spectrum of feelings that rise to the surface during holidays, like sadness or anger or disappointment. It is sad that it’s not safe for Dad to live alone any more, so set aside some time to acknowledge those dark feelings. Suppressing the feeling does not make it any less real, and adds to your holiday burden. [Note: For help with handling feelings of grief and loss, see 5 Steps to Help You Through the Grieving Process3]
  • Trap #5: Party On!If you are an extrovert—someone who gets recharged from being in the presence of others—you are in your element during holidays. Party on!For introverts who get recharged by spending time alone, or those who have limited pep because of illness, holidays can be emotionally depleting. There is still hope for a joyous holiday celebration, it just requires some advanced planning.Plan a social calendar that’s reasonable for you as a caregiver and for your loved one. Be realistic about your energy limits before you make endless commitments, and ask family members to do the same. If either you or your loved one is an introvert, it’s perfectly reasonable to respond to some invitations with, “Thanks for the lovely offer. Unfortunately, we have other plans. I’m sure you’ll have a terrific time, and I’m sorry to miss it.” The host does not need to know that your other plans are a nap.

Your life became different when you became a family caregiver, and it’s time to do things differently. Free yourself from the idea that there’s a right way to celebrate a holiday. Look at your family and decide how to make holidays work for you, and then adjust the family expectations. That’s the recipe for celebrating the blessings in your life, and the joy and love you share with others.

Vicki Rackner, MD, FACS, is a surgeon who left the operating room to help patients and family caregivers enjoy better health. A noted expert on the doctor-patient relationship, Dr. Vicki serves employers through Medical Bridges4, and welcomes everyone to join her Caregiver Club5.

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