Holiday Help: Relieving Caregivers’ Stress
by Cheryl Smith

Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed sometimes by the bustle of the holiday season? Add to that the responsibility of caring for a frail elderly loved one, and burnout is simply a concept waiting to become reality. But wait. If you’re one of the 22 million households providing care for a family member or friend, there is hope. Stress doesn’t have to take the starring role in your family festivities this year.

If you’re like the increasing number of Americans who are trying to offer a sense of dignity to your parent(s), include them in seasonal events and help them stay in their own home, safety is your number one priority.

Most accidents happen at home in unsupervised situations. This season, enlist the help of older children or a spouse, playing games with (Great) Grandma and (Great) Grandpa while you change beds, do the laundry and other chores. Instead of decorating to the hilt, keep holiday décor simple. Eliminate the need for extension cords on the floor and “declutter” your notion of decoration: use colorful paper garlands strung high instead of breakable objects placed within reach. Remove anything a child or a frail elderly person may stumble over. Replace candles with bright centerpieces of fruit or flowers. Keep candy to an absolute minimum to prevent sugar highs and lows.

With the emphasis on “good cheer” during the month of December, the options are many. But don’t wear yourself out trying to make the holidays “happen” for everyone. If you don’t get yourself in a situation where you “overdo” you’ll be more alert to hazards—even emotional ones. Holidays bring emotions to the surface because they hold the most intense memories for your loved ones, and some may not be pleasant. You may find that tears fall for no apparent reason, or that a frail elderly parent suddenly seems gruff or annoyed just when you think everything is fine. Sometimes, the emotional stress of the season makes a frail aging parent seem distant, just when you want to draw them close. We never know what precipitates these reactions; we only have to deal with them. That’s not an easy task, but first and foremost, a caregiver must keep her own emotional balance.

Set a few guidelines as to what you expect from yourself. From the very start, set your intention to be positive during the holidays, and to respond with calmness to upsetting scenarios. Sure, things may come to the boiling point at times, but the resolve not to react in like manner will bring the most effective results. People don’t intend to be grumpy, distant or to give you a hard time. These behaviors may simply be a way of asking for help. The best way to give it is by remaining patient, offering consistent encouragement, and setting safe boundaries. 

You cannot make everyone happy at all times, but you can take responsibility for your own emotional highs and lows. Preserve a few moments each day all for yourself. Take a half-hour break while your children entertain the frail elderly with Christmas music from the 30s, 40s and 50s or interview their grandparents about favorite holiday memories. You might enlist the services of a home-help organization to do some of the household chores while you go grocery shopping or simply take a walk. Professional caregivers can also help alert you to signs of stress or special needs that you might not recognize on a day-to-day basis, curtailing accidents or emotional spills.

Keep in mind that a frail person may tire more easily during the holiday season, need more sleep as the days grow shorter, and also need their own “space.” Ask for their help; ask them to let you know what they need and how they want to celebrate. Their answers may surprise you. Above all, an older frail person may crave our respect and our admiration. When we praise the good things they’ve accomplished in life, make certain they know that we appreciate their legacy, and tell them we’re happy they’re with us, things will be a lot easier. If they seem only to complain more, well, just grease the wheel with a little praise for yourself. Send positive messages to yourself out loud and mix in a few more affirmations for them.

The holidays are a great time to slow down instead of speed up. Think about all the things you can let remain undone instead of all the things you need to do. Give yourself a challenge to match the tempo of your frail elderly relatives or friends, and see if you don’t enjoy the season more. And after all, isn’t that what the holiday season is all about?

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