For caregivers, the holidays may feel more “oh, no” than “ho, ho, ho.”
Whether you’re a husband, wife, adult child, parent or a friend who cares for someone who can’t take care of themselves, it’s hard not to feel the extra stress of the holidays piling onto the daily weight of caregiving.
But caregivers can take steps to protect themselves and their loved ones against holiday burnout, said Kathy Hallman, LICSW, who has worked with the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod for 39 years. In her role working with caregivers, she provides counseling and helps them find support and resources.
Holidays can be tough for caregivers, she said, partly because it’s so hard to let go of how things have always been.
“Let’s say that traditionally holidays always happen at mom and dad’s house, and mom and dad want that to continue. So, you end up with the family showing up on the holidays - and, I’ve seen this especially with wives caring for their husbands - trying to do everything like it used to be: decorating the house, going out and grocery shopping, trying to prepare the food.”
But that’s a perfect recipe for holiday overload. Instead, Hallman has five suggestions for caregivers who want to make the holidays easier. Her advice, in fact, might be good for all of us during this over-the-top season.
- Step back and allow (or ask!) others to help out. There’s no question, Hallman said, that it will feel like a loss to give up how you’ve always done things, whether it’s beautifully wrapping presents, baking dozens of Christmas cookies or decorating the house to the limit. But it’s important that the caregiver, as well as family and friends, understand that life has changed and, so, tradition must change as well. Maybe this is the year a grandchild loves to learn how to make those special cookies. Don’t assume that friends or family will think you are being a burden, she said.
- Lower your expectations. “If you are one of those people who, like me, shops for hours looking for stocking stuffers, maybe that’s not something you do this year,” Hallman said. “We want things to always be the same. Sometimes they can’t be and that’s OK. It’s OK to do something different and lower the bar.”
- Make time for yourself. “The important thing for the caregiver is to make sure they take care of themselves,” she said. That could include medical appointments, or just a haircut. Caregivers who need a few hours respite can reach out to agencies such as their town council on aging, Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands or, if they are a client, to the VNA, she said. And if someone asks you for caregiver gift ideas, suggest the gift of time, such as an hour or two of staying with your loved one or running errands for you. Families, she said, might offer to pitch in and pay for respite care for a few hours a week or month.
- Keep up your connections. “I think it’s very easy, especially for our elder community, to become isolated in the caregiving role,” Hallman said. “And that leads to depression and anxiety and resentment towards the person you’re providing care for. It’s important to keep up contacts and to keep a routine.” One option is to find a support group, either based around caregiving or a particular condition, such as cancer, she said. If getting out seems overwhelming, online or phone-based support groups offer connection and support, she said. The Cape Cod Healthcare Dementia and Alzheimer’s Caregiver Support Program offers free support and can be reached at 774-552-6080. Another Cape-based program is the Alzheimer’s Family Support Center, which also offers free services. They can be reached at 508-896-5170.
- Take care of you. The holidays are a time for caregivers to eat healthy, stay hydrated, avoid alcohol, and get as much rest as possible, Hallman said. And, again, be open to the possibilities of help even from technology. Something as simple as a baby monitor might make a difference in keeping track of a patient. Or, a caregiver might find a personal response system – one of the emergency buttons that people can wear – either helpful or reassuring. If a caregiver falls, for example, their loved one may be incapable of calling for rescue. And remember that asking for help is a way to guard your own health. As Hallman tells her clients: “It allows you to be your husband's caregiver or your mother's caregiver or your child's caregiver longer."