If you are caring for an elderly family member, you are not alone. A 2015 report by National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP (2015) shows more than 34 million people are providing significant care to an adult over age 50. Most of this unpaid care is provided by women. Further, most of these women are doing double and even triple duty, caring for their own families and children and working while also providing care for a parent or parent-in-law. Balancing all those responsibilities is a huge challenge.
Studies show that the average caregiver spends 20 or more hours a week doing everything from basic hygiene care to administering medications to cooking and cleaning to taking their loved one to appointments to running errands. It’s exhausting. It is stressful. But if they didn’t do it, it could well be that no one else would.
And then — here come the holidays. In a season that puts additional stress on many women who traditionally have the responsibility of “making Christmas”, for care-givers, the Christmas holidays add yet another layer of expectations and tasks to an already over-filled schedule.
You may love Christmas. You may really, really want to do what you imagine everyone else does for their families to make the season bright. But tasks that should be pleasures (holiday decorating, parties, taking the kids to see Santa) can seem like impossible demands when you are already stressed to the max.
Burn out is common this time of year but doesn’t have to be inevitable. If this is your first holiday season as a caregiver, the following list of suggestions may help you think about how to take care of yourself. If you are an old hand at it, these ideas won’t be new information but they may remind you of things you can do to make it more possible to enjoy the holidays instead of resenting them.
Simplify: You don’t have to create a winter wonderland out of your home to create a Christmassy mood. Think about what means the most to you and the person you care for. Some mini-lights? A small tree? A wreathe on the door? Pick one. If you have the energy, pick another. Only do as much as you genuinely have the energy to do. Don’t even try to compete with the latest issue of your favorite home and garden magazine.
Know you own limits: It is can be hard to say no to what extended family may see as “tradition”. If this is your first year as a caregiver, it may be tempting to try to do everything you used to do, Stop and think about whether you can really manage it. If, for example, you have been the one to host the family dinner, maybe you simply can’t do it this year. If you’ve done care-giving for awhile and the person you care for has declined this year, you may need more help than people realize to bring him or her to a family gathering. You know better than anyone else what you and the person you care for can handle. Don’t stretch beyond your capacity to take care of yourself and your elder if others won’t pitch in.
Make self care a priority: Self-care is always necessary when doing other-care. It becomes even more important during the holidays. Make sure you pay attention to your needs for “alone time”. Get some exercise every day. Eat right. Do your best to get 8 hours of sleep each night. It may seem selfish. But it is only self-ish — an acknowledgement that if you don’t take care of your “self”, you won’t be much good for anyone else.
Use local resources: This is always a good idea but it becomes a great idea during the holidays. Check with your local senior center to see if there is any special holiday help available. In my town, for example, there are two places that will pack up a complete holiday meal for a shut-in and their family at low or no cost. Look into it. There is no rule that you have to do it all.
Ask for practical help: Family members may not be able (or willing) to take a “shift” with your sick or aging parent. They may not know what to do. They may not be able to handle it. Ok. But they can still do things for you to make your holiday easier.
People tend to respond most willingly when a request for help is specific and time limited. Instead of asking generally for help, give others a specific task. For example: “I need two hours from you to set up Dad’s tree.” “Can you take my kids for a couple of hours on Saturday so I can do some baking?” “It would really help if you would sit with Mom for a few hours one evening this week so I can do my holiday shopping.”
Ask for emotional support: Yes, ask for it. Especially if you are the kind of person who always or even usually puts on a happy face, extended family members may not fully appreciate your need for validation and emotional support. Choose the people who are most likely to be empathetic and ask them to, well, empathize. Really. It will help.
If you are a caregiver who finds the holiday season stressful, you are in touch with reality. It is difficult. It is especially difficult if you are taking care of a parent or in-law who has had a stroke, is battling a debilitating disease or has dementia. It is not only okay, it is essential that you set realistic expectations for yourself and ask for whatever help from family members that would be helpful. Remember, your well-being and your willingness to take on care is a huge gift for everyone in your family.