How caregivers can cope when the holidays are not so merry

Throngs of people are descending on the shopping malls, gallons of eggnog are flowing, the children in your life are bouncing off the walls awaiting Santa, and you… well, the holiday spirit is just not taking hold.

This time of year can be difficult for many people — whether it be the stress of extra social engagements, the impact of the giving season on your wallet, or the feelings of loneliness which can be prompted on by the season branded as that of “togetherness.”

For caregivers looking after seniors, the typical stressors of the holidays can be amplified by feelings of loss, struggles to negotiate changing family traditions, and pressures to participate in holiday activities when your time is already stretched beyond thin. For many caregivers the holidays are not just stressful but can be downright overwhelming.

So, what to do? Binge on shortbread? Hide like a hermit until the New Year? Renounce the holiday season entirely and fly to Mexico?

While those options might work for some, here are some practical holiday season coping tips for stressed out caregivers.

  1. Set a realistic list of priorities. You might not be able to do everything this year and that is okay. While baking 10 varieties of cookies, hosting the neighbourhood holiday mixer and writing hundreds of personalized holiday cards might be what you have done in years past, this year might look a little bit different. Try writing down the 3-5 holiday traditions and activities that are most important to you and focus on those. Chances are that your college roommate will forgive you for not sending out your annual holiday card.
  2. Communicate honestly about why you are doing things differently this year. Imagine that one of your good friends says to you, “Hey, I’m spending a lot of time looking after my family member this year, and I just don’t have the energy to go to your holiday party this year,” or “I know that we like to do a gift exchange, but I’m trying to prioritize over the holidays to manage my energy, can we skip it this year?” Would you a) immediately stop speaking to them, b) demand they participate regardless of how they are feeling, or c) offer your support and let them know that it is totally understandable that they are doing their best to look after themselves. By being open and honest about responsibilities, priorities and energy levels you position yourself to receive the compassion that you would likely very gladly provide to others.
  3. Set aside some “do nothing time.” Whether it is a weekend, a day, or an hour, integrate down time into your holiday plans. Depending on where you are in your caregiving journey this may mean making alternate plans for the person you are providing care for (see below).
  4. Ask for help. That might mean speaking to family members and friends about how they can support you in your caregiving this holiday season. Perhaps that means asking a family member to spend some extra time with the person you are caring for, or maybe it means seeking respite services or having a home support provider come in to help.
  5. Get support. Sometimes speaking with a family member or friend about what you are feeling can help. There are also more formal supports available – consider reaching out through your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if you have access to one through your benefit package, or reaching out to an organization like Family Caregivers of British Columbia or the Alzheimer Society of B.C.
  6. Allow yourself to not be in the holiday spirit. If you are feeling that the best you can do is to aim to get through the holidays rather than enjoy them, that is okay. Allow yourself the space you need to feel a little bit grinchy. Taking the pressure off yourself to be merry, joyous and bright can help make the season more bearable.
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