Although some holiday merchandise started making its way to store shelves as early as Labor Day weekend, we have now officially kicked off the season of fall and winter holidays. For some, seeing signs of the holidays sparks a lifting of spirits. For others, any holiday symbol or song can elicit feelings of sadness and depression as we long for the traditions of holidays past when life seemed much simpler.
So how can caregivers cope when the ghouls and goblins associated with caregiving stick around well beyond Halloween and try to suck you dry of holiday joy?
The key is to recognize your needs and find new ways to enjoy the holidays. As I reflect on my first holiday season in the caregiver role for my parents, it was very different and frightening.
Traditionally, Halloween and Thanksgiving were always favorite holidays for me and my parents. When I was a child, my Dad used to love to stay home and give out the candy while my mother escorted me around the neighborhood. Four years ago, my father was deep in the fog of vascular dementia and my mother was physically unable to perform the task so I took on the role of giving out candy. Once the doorbell started ringing with cute little costumed children coming for “trick or treat,” my father started becoming agitated because he did not understand what was happening. In an effort to curb his anxiety and outbursts set off by the doorbell, I stood outside in the cold to greet kids in our driveway. I was only able to do this for about 30 minutes before my mother opened the door and asked me to come in. She was unable to distract my father who was agitated since I was standing in the driveway and talking to “strange people.” I sadly turned out the front porch lights and went inside for the night.
Later, I showed my Dad the bowl of candy and offered him some. As he happily took a piece, I asked him if his favorite monster was Dracula or Frankenstein. He then stood up and acted like the Frankenstein monster. It made me smile as I had a flashback to his days of wearing a Frankenstein mask when answering the door.
Over the next several weeks, I managed everything in the household for my parents. My father sunk deeper into dementia and his behavioral outbursts became increasingly difficult to deal with so I was not comfortable leaving him in the care of others. The bags of exhaustion grew larger under my eyes.
Thanksgiving was just around the corner. In years past, my parents and I would take much joy in preparing a traditional holiday meal together. We watched the parades, football, and ate lots of turkey and trimmings. It was always so nice to kick off that long four day weekend in peaceful bliss with dear friends and family. Sadly, I knew that this particular Thanksgiving would not meet any of my traditional experiences and expectations.
A few days before the holiday a cousin called to see if my parents and I would join the rest of the family for Thanksgiving at her home. I shared concerns about my father’s unpredictable behavior but she assured me that everything would be fine.
Thankfully, we went and had a fantastic time and enjoyed lots of laughter and good food. About ten minutes after the meal, my father looked at me and said, “Let’s get out of this place.” He actually thought we were in a restaurant and could not be convinced otherwise. Meanwhile, my mother was having a good time and did not want to leave. As I struggled with how to handle this situation, another cousin offered to my mother home later if I needed to leave with my father. That was such a wonderful gift.
I went home with my father. He later fell asleep in front of the television while we were watching football. My mother got to stay and party until the end with the other family members. Everyone was happy and new, fond memories were created.
The holiday season is a tough time of year for many, especially caregivers. It is understandable if you feel a little sad that you are not celebrating holidays like you used to. Acknowledge and share your feelings openly with a trusted friend or family member. When you are in the midst of caregiving, it is vital that you not isolate yourself and feel compelled to take on the full responsibility of making the holidays the best for everyone else.
Here are a few tips and strategies to help you manage the caregiving holiday blues.
If you are feeling sad, acknowledge and release your feelings. If you need to cry, let it out. The storms of sadness will pass and allow you to keep moving forward.
Take some time for yourself and try to find ways to give yourself a little joy at least once per week.
Give yourself permission to say “no” and nicely decline an invitation to participate in an event if you are not feeling up to it.
Be open to accepting support from others and being flexible in the moment.
Make a wish list of things others could give to you including respite support. Instead of buying a material item, a family member or friend could provide a wonderful gift of spending time with your loved one so you can take time for yourself.
Try to laugh, live, and love with those you care about as you create some new and lasting treasured memories. Life is fragile and precious so enjoy every moment as best you can. Always be good to yourself.