Thriving Through the Holidays: Tips for Caregivers

What comes to mind when you hear the question, “So, what are you doing for the holidays?” The holiday season offers an opportunity to celebrate and gather, whether cooking and sharing meals with loved ones, participating in faith-based services, volunteering for local community organizations, or exchanging gifts. Yet for those who identify as caregivers to someone with a serious, chronic, and/or progressive illness during this season, this seemingly innocuous question may prompt mixed emotions. The same goes for someone in the grips of chronic, physical, or mental illness themselves; who feels isolated or lonely; or who recently experienced the loss of a loved one.

The holidays also tend to bring about a long list of obligations and expectations around how this time of year should look and feel, underscored by often-unrealistic commercial and social media standards. For anyone who might be overwhelmed with caregiving responsibilities, decisions, and unknowns, the holidays—and all their expectations—might be accompanied by a heavy heart.

If holiday overwhelm resonates with you, consider the following tips to help restore some peace and rest amid this hectic time of year.

  1. Set reasonable expectations. Embrace clear boundary setting. Decide whether or not to travel or remain at home. When it comes to cooking, consider limiting the number of dishes you are responsible for, even if you find joy in the process. You could send an email / survey allowing guests to indicate what they will make or bring. Alternately, place an order with a local grocery or restaurant offering holiday catering menus and forgo cooking entirely this year.

    This might also look like placing a time limit on how long you choose to spend at a gathering. If you are celebrating at someone else’s home, for example, this may be especially important if you are caring for someone with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or other dementia; the longer and later someone may be away from their usual routine, behaviors may surface as fatigue sets in.

Maybe let someone you trust, know of your decision in advance and prepare to make an early exit from the party.

Holiday Tip
  1. Avoid Known Triggers. If your emotional center is fragile or out of balance for whatever reason, take care to avoid people, places, or things that may trigger difficult or painful emotions. While this may be easier said than done, by  bringing awareness to yourself of those known triggers you may be able to disengage from the person, place, or thing more quickly and restore a sense of control and peace for yourself. 
  1. Find ways to give back. The holiday season offers many ways to look beyond yourself and your own situation. If someone in your life has been a particular source of support and comfort, send them a handwritten card or reach out to express your gratitude. This may also take the form of donating to a community organization you care about in honor of someone you love, or participating in a toy or food drive as your financial situation allows.  
  1. Share your wish list. If you identify as a caregiver, let others know what is helpful to you beyond material gifts, such as respite. Ask a family member to help out in a specific way once a month, for example. If someone asks what they can ‘get you’ this holiday season, offer a tangible action of support they can take, instead, whether supporting on a long-overdue home repair or cooking a meal once a month.   
  1. Schedule one-on-one time. The dizzying pace of the holidays, combined with the regular tasks of personal and life care, is often a recipe that yields fatigue and irritability for caregivers. Know that it’s ok to take a break and recharge, emotionally and otherwise. Consider scheduling time to sit quietly in nature and revisit a photo album with your loved one. Even if only for 15 minutes, the reward (and stress relief) will far exceed the time.  
  1. Decorate for comfort. Perhaps in years past, you decorated every inch of your home inside and out. If this year you find yourself with less energy and motivation to do so, let it be. Perhaps choose one object or room to focus on and decorate it in a way that brings you comfort and joy when you look at it. Invite loved ones to collaborate with you in the decorating process and take a moment to appreciate the beauty you created together.
  2. Be extra giving to yourself. If this year holds cares and commitments too big to bear, put a wish out into the world for yourself and others this holiday season—then let go of the need to control the results. In this way, you offer yourself a gift that cannot be found on the store shelf or online: the gift of showing yourself care and kindness, grace and patience, as you find your own unique path through the holidays.
laura aylmer lcsw social worker elderhealth team member

Laura Aylmer, LCSW, APHSW-C

Laura Aylmer, LCSW, is a clinical social worker certified in Palliative and Hospice Social Work at the advanced practice level. With over 20 years of experience, Laura brings an empathetic and holistic approach to supporting patients, families, and caregivers as they journey through various stages of chronic and progressive illness. She values time with her family and uses walks in nature, journal writing, and music as paths to peace and well-being.

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