Lauri Scharf, LSW, MSHS, is a Care Consultant & Master Trainer at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging
‘Tis the season for extra effort. As Christmas and the New Year approach, you shop, wrap, clean, socialize, and plan and prepare elaborate meals. While many people find themselves busier at this time of year, it can be an especially challenging time for those caring for a loved one. If that loved one is a parent or older relative, it can be difficult to manage traditions, some of them decades old, with the responsibilities of caregiving.
If you find yourself a bit overwhelmed juggling caregiving responsibilities and trying to live up to expectations and maintain all the holiday traditions, there are practical steps you can take to address the situation. Some simple things, like streamlining the celebrations, communicating with relatives before the big events and even creating new, traditions may allow both you and your loved one to relax into celebrations with joy and peace.
Look at holiday preparations from a new angle. You might begin by preparing those family and friends who have not seen your loved one lately, and alerting them that there has been a significant change to his or her condition. Depending on the situation, the annual holiday letter sent to everyone on your list may or may not be the ideal way to do this. Whether or not you opt for this approach, you may want to consider writing a brief note to those who are particularly close to you and your loved one. The note could also include some tips on how to speak or interact with your loved one to allow for positive communication. For instance: “John needs time to process what you are saying, so try to limit what you say to one topic at a time.”
As a caregiver, you are highly focused on the needs of your loved one, but it is important to address your own needs, as well. Because it is routine that helps to stabilize the environment for both yourself and your loved one, any changes to that routine can trigger stress. To keep stress at bay, try giving yourself and your loved one some special gifts this year:
· Streamline. You don’t have to display all your decorations, even though you have done so in past years. Pick out the ones that are especially meaningful, and put them up. Think about what in particular makes them stand out, like who they came from or what they symbolize.
· Modify. Traditions build from successful and happy celebrations. So what’s wrong with trying something new? Can you modify a current tradition by simplifying how, where or when it takes place? Try turning the holiday dinner into a delicious brunch.
· Receive. Let other family members and friends prepare dishes for everyone to savor. Try hosting a potluck dinner rather than cooking everything from hors d’oeuvres to desserts by yourself. Transform your gift suggestion list from material things (like socks or gift cards, fancy toiletries or books) to requests for help with chores to be performed throughout the year. You might ask for help with mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, driving to appointments or even taking down the decorations.
· Simplify. Offering your usual lavish spread is great, but consider limiting the number of side dishes and desserts. Think in terms of increasing the serving size of a couple of dishes rather than preparing various smaller dishes. If it isn’t placed in front of them, people won’t even know what they’re missing. Not only will this give you a break, you may even help your guests to eat healthier portions.
· Retreat. Stake out a retreat room or area that is away from the center of the action for you or your loved one. You could set up a comfy chair, with a lap quilt and subdued lighting. Try to find a place that has a low level of incoming noise. Go to the space whenever you feel stressed, and encourage your loved one to use it as well, if he or she needs to get away.
· Respite. Allow yourself to spend quality time with the people that you enjoy. Give yourself permission to stay as long as you need. If you have to schedule a paid caregiver to come in while you’re away, be sure to do so well in advance, to make sure you have someone in place during this busy time.
Even though you do everything you can to support your loved one in his or her wellness journey, things can go awry even at holiday time. Unexpected situations can arise from an uncomfortable symptom, pain or the idiosyncrasies of a disease. Your loved one may respond with an outburst or other challenging behavior. Remember that you are not the cause of the behavior and you are not responsible for your loved one’s emotions. If you prepare an emergency plan in advance, you’ll be able to stay calmer and act more quickly if a crisis does occur. The situation may be resolved by taking your loved one somewhere quiet and attending to his or her needs. If it’s a serious medical emergency, don’t hesitate to call 911 to get your loved one support from emergency responders.
And remember to breathe! By making small but significant alterations to your holiday approach, you and your loved one can take in the joy and peace that the season is meant to bring.