A Caregiver's Guide to the Holidays

These eight caregiving tips will help make the holiday season a happier, simpler season for all.

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Caregiving Holiday Christmas Guide

Nearly seven in ten caregivers say it is emotionally stressful to care a loved one during the holidays, according to an AARP Family Caregiver Survey. What's more, over 85% of caregivers plan to make at least one adjustment this year to their typical holiday routine, like cutting back on holiday spending, adjusting the meal served, or scaling back on holiday decorations and activities. However, despite the stress involved during the holidays, the survey also reported that many caregivers felt more positive about the holidays since caring for their loved one. Here are a few ideas to help you thrive as a caregiver during the holidays.

  1. Adjust your expectations.

Christmas songs like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” don’t help keep our expectations in check. As a caregiver, there are many things you can control—like communicating clearly with family members, self-care, and connecting with your loved one’s care team. But there are many more things that you can’t control, including your loved one’s health, his or her symptoms, and the family drama related to that. Make sure your definition of success for the holidays is realistic given your situation and adjust your expectations accordingly.

  1. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

Forget about the 200 Christmas cards to family and friends that you used to send out. Don’t worry about the holly and ivy over the fireplace. Consider a smaller, simplified tree. Seventy-percent of the caregivers interviewed in the survey made meal changes, like purchasing meals, eating out, or reducing the menu. If you choose to cook, make something easy that doesn’t require hours of preparation. Whenever possible, take a shortcut and simplify.

  1. Forecast difficult emotions.

The holidays are full of triggers and sensitive family issues that flare up and cause drama. Try to identify the holiday hot buttons before extended family arrives so that you have a game plan as to how you'll respond. Protect yourself as best as you can by taking preventative actions: design a seating chart, hold the dinner at an earlier hour so it doesn’t go on too late, serve wine and beer in limited quantities to avoid alcohol-induced quarrels.

  1. Stay mindful.

Anxiety is often rooted in the anticipation of an event, not the event itself. Depression can be triggered by memories of the past, not the actual situation. When we keep our attention on the present moment, we suffer much less. Mindfulness involves being present to the moment without judging or coloring it with the past and the future. We need to prepare for the holidays, of course, but trying to predict the outcome—and especially fretting problems before they occur—will only add to our stress. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I was given by a friend that can be adapted for every situation is this: “Do the thing in front of you.” Don’t think ahead. Don’t think behind. Be present as much as humanly possible.

  1. Practice self-care.

You hear it every time you board the plane: Be sure to fasten your own oxygen mask before securing someone else’s. Do it the other way around and you lose air. During the holidays, it is important to take concrete measures to take care of yourself, starting with making sure you are getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising. In her book, The Conscious Caregiver, Linda Abbit encourages caregivers to create a happiness LIST (LIST stands for likes, interests, and satisfying things). These are personal pleasures that are current passions or things you loved to do in your childhood. Self-care might be getting back to the guitar, taking a ballet class, or playing tennis.

  1. Get support.

In another AARP Report, Caregiving in the U.S., it is reported that only half of caregivers say another unpaid caregiver help their recipient. How you get the support is a delicate issue, one that needs some careful strategizing. However, it’s important to recognize that you can’t do it by yourself. You require a team of support, including your loved one’s treatment or medical team, his or her friends, and relatives that may want to help but don’t know how. The holidays are a perfect time to enlist that support. You may also benefit from a caregiver support group or trying online forums dedicated to the specific kind of caregiving that you are doing.

  1. Choose your words carefully.

Cooking a turkey dinner and streaming tinsel around the house aren’t usually the primary sources of stress for caregivers during the holidays. It’s interactions with other family members—handling outbursts, tolerating ignorance, and diffusing drama. While it’s impossible to totally protect yourself from it, you can be very deliberate with your language and choose your words wisely. You might plan what to say beforehand, creating a script on how to educate family members in a way that does not make them defensive. In his AARP article Barry Jacobs lists what caregivers should and shouldn’t say at the holiday dinner to keep the peace and make a plea for more help. For example, swap, “Why aren’t you helping out with Mom more?” with “I would really appreciate it if you could help take care of Mom during dinner.”

  1. Create a new tradition.

There may be plenty of traditions you can no longer do together given your loved one’s health: making pumpkin pie, picking out a Christmas tree, serving dinners to the local homeless shelter. However, there may be other traditions you could start instead. Try watching a holiday movie together, go through old photos, or sing favorite songs. Focus on creating new traditions instead of wallowing on the losses.

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