Old age, illness and injury don’t take time off, even during the holidays. Who has time to trim a Christmas tree? Who is going to bake the cookies and plan Christmas dinner? Who has time to get the spare room ready for out-of-town relatives? (Who is praying that the relatives will go to a hotel or stay with some other family member?)
Don’t forget shopping for gifts – somebody has to do that, plus wrap and mail the presents. A home caregiver’s job is already stretched to the limit without the added burden of the holidays. Even if she has paid caregivers from an agency to help out, the odds are good that the hired help will not show up on Christmas Day.
A primary caregiver determined to “carry on as usual” with hosting Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner might want to have a backup plan, especially if he or she uses paid caregivers to help care for a loved one in the home. Caregiver agencies often do not have enough staff on hand during holiday periods to meet the demand. Agency caregiver employees and privately hired helpers typically want holidays off and those scheduled to work sometimes call in sick at the last minute. That’s why primary home caregivers need to be flexible and prepared for last-minute changes and cancellations.
A caregiver also can’t always count on family to help out, no matter how close the members are. The holidays are a busy time for most people – especially for couples with young children. Caregivers are encouraged to get out as much as possible and take the elderly family member along; however, this can also present a problem. Elderly person may become less tolerant of crowds, the noise, and people (family and friends) he or she may no longer recognize. Some elderly persons may even become agitated, verbally abusive, or combative at home or in public.
Prepare for Holiday Changes
Caregivers should learn to expect and accept changes in family holiday celebrations as the disease progresses. Giving up hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the entire family may be tough, but there is no joy in being overworked and overwhelmed for the sake of tradition. Accepting early on that changes are in the best interest of both the caregiver and the elderly loved one is just one more step in learning to cope with a debilitating disease.
Dealing with family members can add more stress to the caregiver, especially when someone expresses doubt about the difficulties and odd behavior of the elderly loved one. Getting through Thanksgiving and Christmas holds difficult challenges for primary caregivers, but establishing some measure of preparation helps them cope with the difficulties.
Be Aware of the Burnout
Caregiver burnout can strike at any time of year, but is particularly common at Christmastime. The holiday season is a time of joy – a time to partake of family traditions, share memories with old friends, and celebrate the beginning of a New Year. Not so for many grown sons and daughters who are caring for an elderly parent or other family member. A caregiver never seems to get a break from all the work or find time for her own needs.
Christmas and the holidays produce high levels of emotional stress. Isolation, depression and guilt can lead to a caregiver’s breakdown. To properly celebrate special days, caregiver usually have neither the time nor the energy because they have to devote so much of her time to caring for Grandma or Grandpa. Disappointment looms like a dark cloud in every room of the house when holiday decorating and family traditions are set aside. It’s plain to see why a caregiver suffers an enormous amount of guilt during what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.
A single caregiver with no spouse or family can feel guilt, too. Missing out on traditional holiday fun – like braving huge crowds at the shopping mall or hosting the annual New Year’s Eve party for relatives and friends – is depressing. Longing to have things the way they used to be – and feeling guilty because of it – only exacerbates the situation.
Why Holidays Mean Extra Stress for Caregivers
Only the person who has walked in a caregiver’s shoes for months at a time can know what the job of a caregiver is like. The caregiver that has no outside help and no support system is a sure candidate for burnout. Any one of the most common caregiver duties can weigh a person down both mentally and physically:
- Doctor appointments
- Transportation issues
- Therapy schedules
- Elder care legal matters
- Housekeeping chores
- Business duties
- Constant personal help and attention to the ailing elderly family member
Try managing three or four these duties on any given day. Add the needs of a spouse and young children. Add a paying job that the caregiver needs to pay bills and help support her family. Caregiver responsibilities add up to an impossible amount of work.
Emotional Implications of Christmas
For family caregivers, Christmas can be a painful marker. There may have been deterioration in the loved one’s condition since last Christmas. Caregivers may wonder how many more Christmases will be left. It’s alright to have these thoughts that may bring up legitimate feelings of sadness, grief and loss. This is the inescapable part of holiday blues.
All of the advertised joy of the holiday season can make people who have the holiday blues feel even worse off than they actually are, simply because of the contrast. If caregivers watch a lot of television, it may appear that the whole world is healthy, young and happy, and the caregiver may feel isolated and alone. It is important to learn how to create small moments of happiness for yourself.
In addition, caregivers may try to suppress these feelings in order to “fit in” or not to put a damper on Christmas. This is not recommended, as it will most surely lead to Christmas depression.
The time leading up to Christmas is a perfectly legitimate time to face feelings like these, and to seek emotional and spiritual support in dealing with them. In fact, many people consider Advent, the time leading up to the birth of Christ, to be a time of solemnity.
How Spiritual Practices Can Help Caregivers Cope with Holiday Blues
Many people take the time leading up to Christmas to connect with God and seek spiritual sustenance by attending church more often, praying more, and engaging in spiritual disciplines like fasting and alms-giving. Spiritual nurturing is especially important for caregivers.
Taking time to feed the soul and reach out to others helps caregivers remember that they are not alone in their suffering, that many are worse off. It helps people connect with God and gain spiritual strength, which promotes holiday health.
It can help caregivers feel hope and joy over the birth of Christ when Christmas day arrives. Even though there is sadness around Christmas for caregivers, it can also simultaneously be a time of joy and hope. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
By tending to one’s own emotional and spiritual needs, caregivers can prevent Christmas depression and cope with holiday blues in a productive way that promotes holiday health.
Relatives Can Help Reduce Caregiver Stress and Burnout
A primary caregiver is usually too caught up in her role to celebrate the holidays. She feels guilty for not upholding family traditions like baking cookies and decorating the house. Knowing her family’s (and her own) disappointment gets her down until depression takes hold. How can relatives help when they don’t live in the same house – or even the same town as the caregiver?
Out-of-town company should plan to stay in a nearby hotel or at another relative’s home. Few things are more stressful than a houseful of company, especially for the caregiver of a dependent elderly person.
It’s a thoughtful idea to let the caregiver know well in advance that travel and visiting plans won’t disrupt her household. Guests will stay in a hotel and have plans to eat out. Good communication will save a lot of wear and tear on her nerves.
Avoid criticizing the caregiver’s home. Whether it’s a living room that needs dusting, dirty dishes still in the dishwasher or some other fault, don’t say anything (unless of course there is a real health concern). Pitch in and do a little housekeeping – mop the floors, empty the garbage cans or dust the living room – if the gesture will be accepted without putting more guilt on the caregiver.
Don’t expect to be fed or entertained. A primary home caregiver rarely has time to go to the grocery store, much less make a big holiday dinner. Why not take the caregiver out for a meal? Or, if she can’t leave the house, then why not bring dinner already prepared to her home? Do whatever works best with the least amount of work for the caregiver.
Caregiver Gifts of Time and Appreciation
Offer respite time to the caregiver. A few hours of valuable respite time allow the primary caregiver a chance to do whatever she wants – go shopping, catch up with a friend, get her hair done, go for a jog or even take a long luxurious bath. Relatives who live close by should note that respite is a gift of time that’s welcome any time of year.
Ask if there are any duties another family member could do to alleviate some of the caregiver’s work. Ask if the caregiver or the elderly person needs anything. The less isolated a caregiver feels, the less chance there is of her burning out. Treat her to things she loves – music, a favorite movie on DVD, a book she’s been dying to buy but doesn’t have the money for, or some other treasure. Surprise her during the year with tokens of appreciation for the work she’s doing.
A Word About Caregiver Gifts
Use common sense when choosing a gift for a caregiver; some items are unsuitable because of her position. For example, tickets to a current dinner theater show are useless if the caregiver doesn’t have someone to take her place at home for several hours. Getting her something she can’t use or enjoy only intensifies an already difficult situation. It’s insensitive and depressing, to say the least.
A caregiver’s free time and energy are largely determined by the level of care for the elderly person. A grown daughter who is caring for her mother in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease is going to have her hands full day and night. On the other hand, if Mom is able to manage most of her care herself, and is looking forward to the annual Christmas bash with family, food and all the trimmings, then go along with tradition.
Christmas and the holidays in general are tough on the caregiver who has no time or motivation to celebrate. Burnout, depression and even resentment toward the ailing parent are common. Relatives can help a caregiver avoid holiday burnout and depression. Family members can show understanding for the difficult job a caregiver has by being sensitive to her needs. Most of all, relatives can cheerfully pitch in wherever help is needed. The little bit of extra effort is sure to make the holidays a joy for everyone.