Musicians and department stores often refer to the holidays as the “most wonderful time of the year.” But if you’re one of the more than 30 million Americans who are knee-deep in performing unpaid caregiver duties for a family member, the added hustle and bustle and all that holiday stress can feel like yet another item on your endless to-do list.
You probably don’t want to sound like a Grinch, and you should know your feelings are valid. There are likely many factors behind your lack of holiday cheer, including:
- Feeling overwhelmed by the number of tasks, such as attending or hosting holiday gatherings or gift shopping, on top of your day-to-day caregiver responsibilities
- The emotional labor of watching a loved one’s health decline, causing them not to be able to participate in the ways they used to. For example, your mom may not be able to play the piano as the family sings Christmas carols anymore, which can be sad for both of you.
- You may resent family members who aren’t as involved — or helping at all — with caregiver responsibilities (have you considered an app like WayWiser to help with coordination?).
Though your feelings are valid, you also deserve some happiness this holiday season. To do that, you’ll want to lessen the stressors in your life. One or more of these ways to reduce caregiver stress over the holidays may help you find some reasons for joy this season.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
The happy commercials, holiday cards with smiling faces and funny anecdotes about the last year, and endless playings of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” may leave you feeling guilty for being angry or stressed right now. If everyone else is happy, shouldn’t you be, too?
No, not necessarily. Invalidating your own feelings and burying your emotions so you don’t come off as a Scrooge may only make matters worse. Acknowledging your emotions is the first step to figuring out what will help you cope. Consider writing down what you are feeling and why. Sit with it for a day and then start to think about solutions.
Set Some Goals to Avoid Holiday Stress
Goal-setting may feel like the last thing you want to do right now. Consider this step a wishlist, and come up with broad themes for how you’d like the holidays to go for you. What do you want out of the holiday season? Do you want time with family? A day to yourself to decompress?
Make a (Priority) List and Check It Twice
Once you’ve set your goals, you can use them to prioritize your to-do list and reduce holiday stress. Keep in mind that you may need to accept that you aren’t going to be able to do as much this year as you did during your pre-caregiver days. Reducing the number of holiday to-dos you have can also help lower stress and allow you to focus on what really matters.
Make a list of everything you could do during the holidays and prioritize, such as gift shopping in-person at local stores, self-care, and your work party. Drop what is less important and prioritize what will bring you the most joy. Would you like to take care of some home repairs, or perhaps a manicure? Write out your wishlist. Then, think about what it’ll take to make it a reality, like booking a home healthcare aide for a day or leaning on a sibling to take care of your loved one for an hour.
Make Plans to Make Plans
The holidays can be full of surprises, including impromptu invitations. When you have a full plate, you don’t necessarily have the ability to drop everything and head to a holiday happy hour. But you may feel guilty and sad that you can’t go.
Planning get-togethers with your nearest and dearest in advance ensures you carve out time on your schedule that works for you and the person you’re helping. It also gives you some cover and may reduce your guilt about not being able to attend something last-minute. If you know you’re going to see the person Saturday, a simple, “I can’t come, but I’m excited for Saturday” will remind you that you have something to look forward to in the near future.
Ask for Help
Sometimes, it can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. But you may still feel like you can take on more or be afraid to reach out for help. This holiday season, gift yourself some self-forgiveness by acknowledging when you need help. Asking a sibling to pitch in for one day—out of 365 during a year—can get you a much-needed break and allow them to bond with your loved one.
Another solution to solving your holiday stress if spending a bit of money on a gift for yourself. Hiring a home aid so you can care for yourself will only leave you feeling more rejuvenated and enable you to help your family member better.
As a caregiver, you may have to say no to holiday gatherings because of your responsibilities to your loved one. And as the pandemic continues to pose a risk for older folks and those with underlying conditions, you may also not feel safe attending. But the isolation can cause you to feel sad and stressed, particularly after nearly two years of pandemic life.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last 20 months, it’s that while virtual happy hours don’t necessarily replace in-person ones, we can stay connected even during challenging times. Carve out some time to talk to someone, whether it’s over Zoom, on the phone, or via your Trusted Circle on WayWiser. In fact, one recent study showed that talking to someone on the phone for just 10 minutes per day can improve your mental health.
Shift Emotional Load
Perhaps your loved one is feeling more like a Grinch than a Cindy Lou Who. There could be many reasons for this. Maybe they’re overwhelmed or upset that they cannot do the things they once loved, like make a special cookie recipe. Their feelings are, of course, as valid yours.
That said, seeing a loved one upset can be enough to impact your mood and add to your holiday stress. Though understandable, it’s important to remember their mood is ultimately not your responsibility. If you are ensuring their needs are met and have done what you can to make them feel comfortable or happy, you have done enough. They may need space to feel their feelings, and pushing them to “just be happy” may actually worsen their mood, despite your best efforts.
Avoid Lashing Out at Family
You may have valid concerns about your load versus another family member’s when it comes to caring for someone. However, a holiday party likely isn’t the best time or place to air those grievances. Discuss them before or table them for another time in the New Year, when everyone has wound down from the holiday whirl.
Host Smaller Gatherings
Having to feed 30 people can feel like a tall task when you sometimes struggle to remember to eat yourself on a daily basis. If a large gathering is going to lend itself to a heaping scoop of holiday stress, consider hosting a couple of smaller ones over a more extended period. Spacing it out and having fewer guests can lessen your load. You can also turn it into a potluck and have everyone bring a dish or have a cocktail-style party, so you don’t have to cook an entire feast yourself.
Say Thank You
Experts share that the simple act of gratitude can make you happier. While it’s completely understandable to feel a little down right now, try to call out one or two people who really helped you. Perhaps a sibling came over and cooked the entire Christmas dinner, or a friend picked up groceries for you so you could take a nap. Remembering to say thank you, even with everything else going on, is a simple, free way to up your well-being.
Find Time to Reset and Avoid Holiday Stress
Holiday break may be a misnomer these days, but it shouldn’t be. You deserve a moment to breathe, meditate, reflect, and reset as you approach the New Year. Carve out that time, either by asking someone else to watch your loved one or letting the person you are caring for know you need a moment to yourself. Looking back and ahead can give you a chance to see how resilient you’ve become and also allow you time to think about ways to reduce holiday stress not just during the winter but the rest of the year.