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10 tips for coping with caregiving blues during the holidays

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

The holiday season is fraught with stress for most folks, even if it's good stress. Expectations of a "perfect" holiday, fed by advertising and media coverage, can contribute to depression for those who don't feel their holiday is measuring up. Add caregiving for elderly family members to this seasonal hoopla, and the result can be overwhelming negative stress. How can caregivers cope with the demands of creating a nice holiday environment for their loved ones and stay true to themselves?

Many people suffer from "holiday blues," even without the stress of caregiving. The shorter days with less sunlight affect some people. The expectation - often unfounded except in advertising and fiction - that everyone else is having a perfect holiday while you are not, can bring on depression severe enough that there are often increased suicide rates during the holidays.

If we add the significant obligations of caregiving to an existing risk of holiday blues, we can have a recipe for trouble. During this season, caregivers need to be especially vigilant in recognizing their own, perhaps unrealistic, expectations for a "perfect" holiday, as well as the possibly excessive expectations of others.

Tradition frequently plays a starring role in holiday stress, since many family traditions date back years, if not generations. Sometimes, it can seem as though not following through on every traditional holiday food, activity and decoration would be slap in the face to the whole family. Some caregivers are responsible for elders and children at the same time, a situation so common these days that these folks in the middle have been designated the "sandwich generation." We have children who want each holiday done like the one before because they are used to routine. We have elders who say, "This is the way we've always done it." The caregiver in the middle can feel overwhelmed.

What can caregivers do to minimize this stress and have at least a chance at enjoying the holidays?

  1. Put first things first. If you've always felt depressed during the holidays, caregiving won't make things easier. If you get depressed from the lack of sunlight in the winter months, see your doctor. There are therapies that can help this syndrome, which is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If you don't have a problem with the sunlight, but still suffer seasonal depression, talking with a counselor to learn to cope with this depression is often a good idea.
  2. If you have always enjoyed the holidays, but now find them overwhelming because of too many demands on your time, you will need to learn to simplify the season. Yes, that will mean disappointing a few people, perhaps elders and children alike, but simplification is often the only choice you have, if you are to remain somewhat sane.
  3. Learn to detach from the negative feedback you may get from others because of changes you are making. Detaching simply means that you recognize the other person's feelings, but you will not allow yourself to react or be controlled by their feelings without considering your own needs, as well. You set boundaries by telling others what you can and can't do. You look at the situation with open eyes, perhaps get some feedback from people you think can help you, and then make your own decisions. Acknowledging your loved ones' views, and telling them you love them, but simply can't do it all, generally helps. If your mom says, "But we've always done it that way," you say, "Yes, we have, but now our holiday has to change a little, since our lives have changed." If your kids lay on the guilt because you can't bake every kind of cookie they want, let them know that you want to please them, but that your time is limited now, so they can help you by being flexible. If you offer to let them help you, they may feel part of the decision, rather than brushed off. The main idea is that you don't react to their negativity. Generally, when you stop reacting, other people will calm down.
  4. Use music as a soothing tool for all. If you have elders in nursing homes, bring them a CD player and CDs so they can play old songs they enjoy. Around the house, play Christmas tunes your kids like, but don't forget your own needs. If you have some favorite holiday tunes on CDs, play those too. However, if you get a sick feeling every time you enter a mall because the Christmas music reminds you of all you have to do, then play other types of music at home. Do consider music of some kind. Classical music can be very therapeutic, religious music helps many, and old rock and roll or country songs may give you a boost.
  5. Soothing light can help most people relax. Obviously, candles aren't allowed in nursing homes and likely aren't a good idea for elders or kids. But there are many softly lit holiday decorations you can safely use, or get some indirect lamps for atmosphere. Soft lights, combined with good music, can help calm nearly anyone, including a caregiver. Try it while you bake treats, decorate your home or the elders' homes, or do other holiday duties.
  6. Meditation can be as simple as getting up early or going to bed late. The idea is to have some quiet time for yourself. Some people like guided meditation, where music or soothing words on CD or DVD help them relax in a progressive manner. Other people prefer going outside, maybe to a park or sitting near water, if possible, to enjoy natural calm. Some folks concentrate on their breathing pattern while they repeat one soothing word. This helps them calm their overactive brain. There's no right or wrong way to meditate, but numerous studies have shown mediation can have a healthy effect on mood, as well as physical wellbeing. Also, try to eat right and exercise. This is extra hard during the holiday season, but you can feel better if you treat your body right.
  7. Ask your spouse, a friend or relative to take over some of your duties for a time. It's amazing how many of us think we have to do everything ourselves, even though others would help if we only asked them. When we don't ask for help, people often don't know we need help, or else they simply don't know what to do.
  8. Take a trip down memory lane. Remember your parents when they were young and healthy. Remember your children when they were tiny. Remember the good times before these difficult times. When you do that, you'll likely find a better balance in your life, because you'll start to recognize that life is cyclical, and better times will come again.
  9. Allow yourself to feel the pain of your aging parents' losses. As my elders aged and grew frail, I was deeply saddened by their physical and psychological pain. The holidays threw a spotlight on all the things they could no longer enjoy. This pain is real. Allow yourself to feel it. Write it down. Talk about it with other caregivers, a religious leader, or a good friend. Get it out. It's natural, human and okay to feel the loss. If you feel bitter or angry, say so. Get it all out and don't allow shame to enter into the equation. You have a right to all of your feelings.
  10. Let go of perfection. It's likely that all of those holidays you remember as being so wonderful really weren't that perfect. Every human being looks at events differently. Time skews our memories. Life wasn't perfect thirty years ago, twenty years ago or ten years ago. It's far from perfect now. Do your best with what you have. Take care of yourself along with the others, and your holidays will be as good as they can be. Let that be good enough.