Caregiver’s Holiday Survival Guide
Let’s face it. Caregivers don’t get to participate much in the holidays. While everyone else is planning trips and parties, shopping for gifts or decorating the house, caregivers are still muscling through their daily grind.
If you’re taking care of a parent or loved one, you know what I mean. It’s hard to avoid feeling especially deprived this time of year. Whether you’re sitting in the ER again, dealing with frustrating dementia behaviors, or worrying about your mom’s depression, the misery of it is all just magnified this time of year. One of the hallmarks of caregiving is that it leaves you feeling like you’re missing out. Missing out on fun everyone else is having, missing out on your old life – before you were a caregiver. Of course, Holidays make this feeling even worse.
The simple fact is, whatever makes us sad, makes us sadder in December. Everything hard is harder. We feel the passage of time more acutely and our losses more profoundly. If your family member has dementia, it’s extra painful. This time of year is, after all, loaded with memories.
And then there’s family. holidays bring people into your orbit who stress you out. No one pushes our buttons quite like family. Caregiving with them in your space (or vice versa) is just that much harder. And if you have kids, well, of course their expectations are bananas this time of year.
There’s just so much to do, piled on top of an already way-too-much set of responsibilities and obligations. Most of the year I’m already barely making it work and NOW YOU WANT TO ADD CHRISTMAS ON TOP OF EVERYTHING?
So, to survive the holidays, we obviously need some strategies. We need a plan and a pact. Here’s what I think we should pledge to each other and ourselves.
Focus on Rituals, Not Responsibilities
Holiday to do lists are endless. Martha Stewart could be making a documentary praising your holiday preparations and you’d still be thinking – yeah, but I forgot to get the cat a jingle bell collar. The point is: you could work from sunup to sundown and never achieve the perfect holiday preparation picture you have in your head.
So, knowing that, how about instead of focusing on holiday responsibilities, we focus on holiday rituals.
We all have lots of lovely traditions; like baking cookies for our neighbors. But tradition is different from ritual. Tradition is something we commit to doing over and over to emphasize what doesn’t change. But rituals are the acknowledgement of what is changing (think here: weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs). The difference is rituals are inherently spiritual. They connect us to each other and the human experience. They give our hearts a place to process change, to acknowledge and normalize what’s hard, and to create community around shared experiences.
Think about what your holiday rituals could be. Religion actually offers many pre-packaged options; the lighting of the Menorah or an advent wreath, for example. Now if you aren’t religious, you can create your own holiday rituals. The key is to set aside some time, bring loved ones together and talk about what’s different in your lives. Express grief you have over what’s gone and hope for what’s to come. Rituals are so helpful and especially powerful and important when you’re going through a change. It’s a way of creating your very own mental health safety net.
Set Priorities and Boundaries like a Ninja
Now I’m going to give a very hard assignment. I want you to give some thought to what you really want from the season, prioritize the two or three things that will get you closest to this goal, and let everything else go.
This may seem impossible. But, believe me it can be done and it can save your sanity during the holidays. For example, this year I’ll be eliminating the tyranny of putting up outside lights. Because what I really want from my holiday is to spend as much time with my daughter as I can. And even though she’s the main instigator of outside lights, I usually end up wrestling with the shrubbery and dangling off a ladder all alone. So, I’m taking this off my list, even though I know she’ll be disappointed.
That’s an easy one, though, compared to disappointing your parents or siblings because you can’t meet their expectations. It often feels like we can’t do enough, it seems that folks are always asking for more, and we can’t do any of it well enough. Like running on a treadmill where the faster you run, the closer you are to falling off the damn thing.
My friend, Gretchen, is my boundary-setting coach and she has explained that people get to ask for whatever they want. And your best boundary-preserving response is to tell them what you can do. Rather than saying “no,” you can say, “here’s what works for me.” At first, it will feel really uncomfortable until you realize that no one actually thinks you’re as bad as you think you are, and then it gets easier.
But the motivation here is this: You have no choice. You are taking care of another human being all the time. And, by the way, that’s the relationship where boundaries are MOST important.
Make Yourself a Priority
I know. Everyone says this. If you’re like me, when someone says, “take care of yourself,” I want to yell at them, “I already have too many people to take care of! Why can’t someone else take care of me?” Gah!
But by creating rituals, prioritizing your to do list and setting boundaries, it may be possible for you to get to bed on time, take a walk and/or get coffee with a friend. But no pressure.
There seems to be a natural temptation during the holidays to squeeze in some “important conversations” with your siblings or other family members because you’re all in one place. There’s so much to talk about and decide. Does Mom seem okay? Should we move her to assisted living? Who’s the power of attorney?
I’m not a fan of trying to do this over the holidays. It just takes an already challenging time and makes it more challenging. These difficult conversations are not one and done. Think about how you want to relate to your family and put in place the supports you need to make it happen all year long. If that’s hard for you, and it is for most families, try giving yourself the gift of family counseling! Now that’s a holiday gift to yourself that you’ll appreciate all year round!
Most of all remember that this time of year dumps the messiest parts of your life into one big pot. Be gentle with yourself, put one foot in front of the other and let go of perfect pictures and unrealistic expectations. That’s the surest way to survive.