For millions of Americans who find themselves in the role of caregiver to an older frail, ill, or disabled relative, the holiday season can add to an already heavy load of responsibilities and cause feelings of stress to soar.
Stress occurs when we work too much, sleep too little, try to cope with difficult or troubling situations, and when we neglect to take good care of ourselves—all of which are typically everyday state of conditions for the millions of Americans who find themselves in the role of caregiver to an older frail, ill, or disabled relative. The added physical and emotional demands that are involved in celebrating the holidays can add to an already heavy load of caregiving responsibilities and cause feelings of stress to soar.
The holidays are traditionally a time when we reflect on past memories. For those who are caring for a frail and elderly family member, these reflections often deepen the awareness of the extent of the older person’s losses (for example, memory loss for those with Alzheimer’s) and how much life has changed for them. Holiday-time reminiscing can also underscore the loss caregivers face in the altered quality of their personal relationship with the older person. The emotional pain of confronting such losses can heighten feelings of stress.
The holidays are also a traditional time for family gatherings. While this can be tremendously enjoyable, when tensions among family members or unresolved conflicts surface, it can become a source of extreme stress. Caregivers too often find themselves in the middle of family discord as they try to mediate the needs of the older person as well as express their own position.
If you are a family caregiver, consider the following suggestions and think about which ones you can put in place during the coming weeks to help ease your feelings of stress during the holidays:
Set manageable expectations and limits for yourself. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do—as well as what you want to do and don’t want to do.
Try not to set yourself up for disappointment by comparing this year’s holiday season with the nostalgia of past holidays. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way.
Ask for and accept help! It’s so often the case that, while people want to be useful, they may not always know what to do. Let other family members and friends know what they can do to share in the responsibility of caregiving. Don’t forget to consider asking people who live at a distance, as well as neighbors and people from faith-based groups or clubs, to pitch in and help.
Maintain or establish social interaction with friends and other family members. Isolation can further increase feelings of stress. Having the chance to have fun, laugh, and focus on something other than your at-home caregiving responsibilities can help you keep stress at bay and maintain emotional balance.
Remember the holiday season does not banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely. There’s room for feelings such as sadness, grief and/or loneliness to be present along with other more joyful emotions. If you do feel down, avoid critical self-perceptions, and, instead, try to articulate the understanding you need from those around you. Consider seeking the help of a therapist to help you sort out your feelings and deal with your concerns and troubling issues.
If the elderly person you are caring for has dementia, avoid overly stimulating environments since that can add to their anxiety and end up increasing your stress level.
If including the elderly person in large family gatherings creates added work and stress for you, consider alternatives, such as suggesting family members plan to spend individual quality time visiting with their elderly relative.
Don’t abandon healthful eating and drinking habits. While it’s certainly okay to treat yourself during the holidays, avoid giving in to stress-driven urges for overeating or for overindulging in alcohol.
Exercise regularly. Even if it means finding someone else to take over your caregiver duties, getting regularly-scheduled exercise—for example, walking, swimming, yoga, biking, or aerobics—can be of tremendous benefit to both your physical and emotional well-being.
Seek emotional and moral support from other caregivers—there is great strength in knowing you are not alone. Many communities have support groups for family caregivers of elderly persons through local hospitals, churches and/or community centers.
Use community resources such as meal or shopping services, home-care aides, adult day services, and/or volunteer help from faith-based organizations or civic groups.
Try to find time for yourself to do something you especially enjoy such as reading, walking, listening to music, gardening and/or visiting with a friend.
Find ways to ensure you get enough rest. Sleep deprivation can sap your energy, distort your thinking and lead directly to making your mind and your body feel stressed to the maximum.
If you experience any signs of depression (for example, extreme sadness, trouble concentrating, withdrawal, or hopelessness), don’t delay in getting professional help for yourself. Depression is a serious, but very treatable condition. If left untreated, depression does not “just go away,” instead, the symptoms progressively worsen and can even become debilitating.
Throughout the holiday season (as well as year-round!), remember to be good to yourself. As a family caregiver, you’re doing a very hard job and deserve understanding, support and quality time for yourself to help ensure you meet your own emotional needs. Many caregivers have found that therapy offers life-strengthening help in dealing with the many challenges of caregiving. Therapy can provide a time and place that is devoted exclusively to your feelings, needs, and concerns—and can result in a healthy perspective that allows you to devote your best efforts to your older loved one while also making sure you take the very best care of yourself.