Unexpected ideas, as well as the tried-and-true, put smiles on caregivers and older adults during the holiday season.
Are you one of those people who shudder involuntarily when you think about the holidays, wishing that you could embrace the joy of the season instead? Caregivers contemplate the extra demands on their limited time and wonder how they will fit in another thing when they are already juggling family, work, volunteer activities and a social life. Older adults may dread reminders of loved ones who are no longer here, the difficulty of going nonstop on family holiday outings, or trying to afford presents on a fixed income.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Stress is often the result of unrealistic expectations that you can manage. Take a mental look at which specific issues cause you worry around the holidays, and write them down. Then peruse our comprehensive list of ideas for getting those issues under control, and jot down an action plan. We’ve included solutions for caregiver worries, as well as concerns that often crop up for older adults around this time of year. Just having a plan will make you feel better, but acting on it will put you back in control and on your way to a joyous holiday season.
- Give yourself permission to change your holiday routine. Just because you usually decorate a full-size fir with three boxes of ornaments, cook a complete holiday meal for 24 with all the fixings, and wrap every present for 59 extended family members doesn’t mean that you can’t let it all go. Maybe your tree will be two feet tall this year: still lovely, but decked out in a quarter of the time. Perhaps you’ll cook the main dish and go potluck for the rest of the meal. Amazon may supply your presents. Pick and choose what truly gives you joy, and what you can reasonably accomplish.
- Simplify meals. If you love making your grandmother’s favorite recipe but feel stressed at the thought of cooking the entire dinner, you have options. Potluck is the new normal at family gatherings, even if faraway relatives need to cook at your place or have something shipped in. Do you really need five side dishes and three desserts? If so, make some of them ahead and stick them in the freezer. Use Chinet paper plates with faux silver (plastic) utensils, and reserve the family china for serving pieces to cut down on clean-up.
- Set aside a quiet room. Ban the kids from one downstairs area that you or other adults can use for some R&R. Escaping to a quiet spot for a rejuvenating nap can make all the difference. Add a little aromatherapy to help make the mood relaxing. Lavender and citrus are a good mix to sprinkle on linens or in a saucer.
- Don’t do it all alone. When your teens whine that you didn’t get a tree this year, smile wanly and tell them how proud you are they are old enough to decorate one all by themselves if they’d like to get one. Hubby wants a full four-course meal? Remind him about the restaurant that is serving holiday meals and suggest a reservation. Or let him know his barbeque skills would come in handy this year and you’ll coach him on dessert. Communicate your needs early, and let everyone know their help is appreciated. Include older adults in your planning, with tasks that are appropriate to their ability. Mom may not be able to whip up her peach cobbler anymore, but if she stirs the crumble and pats the peaches into place, she’ll feel useful. Leave a few ornaments at eye level for her to put on the tree, or have her tie the ribbon on a Hanukkah gift or two.
- Allow older adults to stick to their schedule and dietary needs. If Dad normally has lunch at 11 and dinner at 4:30, try to keep it that way while he’s visiting. It’s difficult for older adults to adjust their bodies to a different timetable. Take note of any allergies Dad has, and ask if there are foods he can’t eat anymore. It could be that old favorites are no longer digestible, or perhaps even palatable. Dental issues might create a need for soft foods only. Talk to aging parents about dietary needs well in advance of holiday meals.
- Take time for yourself. Set aside half an hour a day to rejuvenate. Whether it’s taking a hot bath, sipping cocoa while reading a book, or lighting a candle and meditating, you need some “me” time. Prioritize it just like you would for a family member. In the long run, it will help you to do a better job as a caregiver over the holidays.
- Anticipate hot-button issues and work around them. Does Aunt Amy thrive on denigrating the political party that you support? Does your sister who lives out-of-state let you know that your caregiving is not up to par? You can take evasive action. Sit at the opposite end of the table, excuse yourself from the table, politely refuse to engage in certain conversations, start the dishes or take a long walk. Have an exit strategy planned, and act on it.
- Focus on the positive. Fear, sadness and worry can invade your thoughts during the holidays. This is perfectly normal. But you can control many of your thoughts with mindful awareness. Focus on what your loved one can do, rather than what they can’t. Delight in the activities you’ll do this year, rather than those you can’t participate in. Appreciate the smallest bit of help you receive, instead of resenting others who are not supportive.
- Remember to exercise. Whether you take a long walk outside, do jumping jacks while the cookies are baking or attend a Pilates session, exercise can boost your mood. Older adults who may not be steady on their feet or want to avoid snow and ice might enjoy making the rounds at your local mall, where holiday decorations can add to a festive mood.
- End the gift machine already. A lot of holiday stress centers around gift giving: what to buy and how to pay for it. Older adults on a fixed income have every right to opt out of the process. Or you might limit gifts to one per person with a low price cap. You could also give the gift of time, especially welcome to seniors, without the expectation of a monetary gift in return. Expect to receive pushback from other family members, but keep in mind that you are in control of what you give.
- Give to charity instead of individuals. Pick a charity as a family that everyone can donate to according to their resources. The benefits are many. The charity gets a nice chunk of change, no one is obligated to spend more than what is affordable, there is no awkward display of wealth or poverty since no one knows how much anyone else gave, and you can all feel a little better for supporting a common cause. If funds aren’t an issue, or family members prefer to support different institutions, then individuals can champion a personal favorite.
- Use a support system. Whether it’s calling an old friend, getting together with your sister, or having a private laugh with your mom in the kitchen, use your connections. That private laugh may turn into a long cry, but you need someone to share with who will be supportive. Counselors and therapists can be vital allies to keep your mental health strong when it may be tested most.
- Ask for help with your loved one. Caregiving responsibilities may overwhelm you at the holidays. It’s time to call on your family members to give you a break, dial a respite care center to give you some free time, or look for a paid caregiver. Many companies offer senior companions, or a neighborhood teen may be able to come over for a few hours and go through photographs with your loved one. Consider having a helper do some laundry, clean your house or run errands. Even if you normally don’t pay for help, hiring someone to assist you over the holidays can be well worth the sense of relief you’ll feel.
- Start a new tradition. Instead of focusing on what you’re not doing, make a new tradition. You could invite the neighbors over for dinner, watch a holiday movie together or take your loved one on a drive to see the lights. Money isn’t the object; instead, spend time together. Enjoy some holiday music, light a holly berry candle or read a holiday book aloud to a parent or grandchildren. Have a long FaceTime or Skype chat with a loved one.
- Do something for others. Nothing puts us in the holiday spirit like helping others in need. Call a soup kitchen or food bank to donate your time or that of your whole family. Shop for a local child through Toys for Tots, donate to the Salvation Army or support a faith-based charity. Find an organization that needs your help with disaster relief, become a volunteer at the local animal shelter or offer to help out in your school system. Check here for tips on how to avoid charity scam artists.
- Take time to listen. It’s easy to skip over loved ones’ needs during this busy time of year. Depression and melancholy may make them quiet and easy to ignore with all the hustle and bustle, but they may need you more than ever. Ask them about childhood holidays, and don’t end the conversation if they get sad or angry. Your empathy is vital.
- Help older adults connect with their friends. Holiday cards diminish as time goes on, and seniors can feel sad and alone. The cards they do receive may bring news of illness or death. Help your loved one write cards or make calls to stay in touch with old friends and faraway family members.
- Thank older adults for what they’ve done for you. Take advantage of the holiday opportunity to thank your parent for teaching you how to cook, how to forgive or how to love. Tell them what a difference it’s made in your life. Acknowledge the sacrifices that person made for you. Look for ways to be grateful. A side benefit of gratitude is that it makes you happier.
- Connect your parent with children. A local school holiday concert, an outing to the mall or a trip to story time at the library can lift a senior’s spirits. If your parent is in a home for seniors, see if their program director can find children to visit. Perhaps a local 4-H Club could bring in small animals for residents to pet, or a class of children could visit and write about the story they hear a senior tell. If your parent has grandchildren in the area, take your mom or dad to see the child’s choir concert or holiday production.
- Decorate your parent’s room for the holidays. But not all at once. Bringing an ornament one day and a gift or treat on another stretches out the anticipation and surprise. Consider putting up a small tree or electric menorah in your parent’s room, or hanging a wreath on their door for other residents to see.
- Throw a party in the residential facility. Distribute invitations to your loved one’s friends, and bring some traditional goodies for them to enjoy together. Use a small conference room or other space with plenty of seating.
- Do not set a goal of perfection. So the turkey is burned. You’ll never forget the holiday you had to eat peanut butter sandwiches … but it will be a wonderful memory if everyone can laugh and talk about another dinner that didn’t go as planned. Approach “disasters” as opportunities to forgive (even if it’s yourself), laugh, and be grateful for what you have, and this really will be your best holiday ever.
Three Great December Trips for Caregivers and Seniors
Skip the hassle of the holidays this year and take a trip instead. It’s a wonderful way to avoid the shopping, cooking and relatives (shhhhh!).
Cruising is a classic way to travel with an older adult. Pack and unpack just once, stay onboard the whole time if you like, never cook and have activities available at all times. Remain in the United States with a river trip on American Cruise Lines that will take you down the Mississippi to stay warm over the holidays, or check out one of their themed cruises, such as Lewis and Clark, Nashville Country and Blues, or Food and Wine.
Travel the world on a budget with Road Scholar, which specializes in educational trips at a minimal price. You can explore our border with Mexico at Big Bend, take one of 222 national park trips, or fly to Cuba for a history lesson and a cigar. Thousands of offerings guarantee something that will interest you both.
How about a trip to Costa Rica with ElderTreks, the Canadian travel company that caters to the 50-and-over crowd with exotic adventures in small groups? They make all the arrangements and you have all the fun after choosing from destinations worldwide.
Do all of these sound far too expensive for your budget? Consider booking with a major cruise line, which often lowers prices if ships aren’t full a couple of weeks before departure. Caribbean destinations are among the most affordable for Americans. If that’s still absurdly expensive, how about dinner and a stay at a posh hotel? Remain in town or take a short drive with Mom or Dad to enjoy a modern staycation together. Even one night away makes memories that last a lifetime.
“Tips to Ease Holiday Stress for Caregivers,” Huffington Post.
“5 Tips for helping seniors manage holiday stress,” sheknows.com.
“Reducing Loneliness in Elders around the Holidays,” agingcare.com.
“Help Seniors Overcome Holiday Stress: 4 Tips,” caregiverstress.com.
“Holiday Health for Seniors,” care.com.
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors