Wellness & Education

Caregiving During the Holidays

While every caregiving situation is unique, there are some things most of them have in common. One of these things is the need to make compromises during the holidays. Exactly which compromises have to be made, however, varies according to the situation. 

The Age of the Caregiver 

According to an AARP survey, if the person being cared for is a spouse, the caregiver is likely to be older and to have less help with caregiving. Also, the older the caregiver is, the older the care recipient is likely to be, and the more infirm. This has consequences for the holiday, as it can make it difficult to visit, go shopping or attend church services. It’s also difficult to celebrate a holiday if there is not break from caregiving duties. 

The relationship between the caregiver and the receiver of care

The way in which holidays are shared with a spouse is fundamentally different than the way in which they are shared with an aging parent or with someone to whom the caregiver is not related. It’s not at all uncommon for many people to spend their holidays apart from their parents, for example if someone has moved to a different part of the country. It is much rarer, however, for two spouses to spend the holidays apart. Even if someone offers to take the place of the caregiver for a few hours, the caregiver may not be emotionally capable of celebrating the holiday as half of a couple. 

If a spouse is suffering from dementia, the grief of the caregiving spouse can be profound during the holidays.  When a spouse no longer recognizes the ornaments the kids made when they were little, or remembers favorite holiday movies or foods, the joy in these things can easily turn to sadness. In some cases, the caregiver may find it easier to ignore the holiday altogether. 

The type of impairment involved 

When the person receiving care suffers from physical impairment only, this is actually much easier for the caregiver. However, holiday celebrations can still be very difficult to manage.  It can be difficult to travel and challenging to spend time in the home of a family member who lacks special medical equipmentThis may be something as simple as needing a raised toilet seat and grab bars in the bathroom.  

At the same time, hosting the holiday can be difficult, if not impossible, for the caregiver. The work of caregiving doesn’t stop for the holiday. This can leave little time or energy for cleaning, cooking, shopping, etc. 

Sometimes compromises can work if extended family members and friends are willing to cooperate. A caregiver can host a potluck instead of preparing an entire meal, for instance, and others can offer to help come in and clean before the event.

 If the recipient is suffering from dementia or mental illness, he or she may become more easily disoriented when away from home or be unable to cope with strangers, noise or the emotions of the dayThis can make it impossible for the caregiver to relax and enjoy the celebration, either at home with guests or while visiting. 

 In some cases, the person receiving care may also have a terminal illnessIn this case the holiday may be the last one for the couple. It may be tinged with a mixture of joy and grief that few others can understand. 

The Cost of Caregiving

Shopping and gift giving can be difficult for several reasons. First, leaving the house to do shopping may not be possible if the care recipient can’t be left alone and can’t get around without help. Fortunately, online shopping can often work if it is affordable.

Secondly, caregiving can be very expensive. Households are often forced to sacrifice income when the caregiver has to quit work or work fewer hours in order to perform caregiving. Caregiving can also be expensive, with many medical bills to be paid, special equipment to buy, etc. In some cases there may be little money left for decorating, cooking special foods and gift-giving.   

The amount of support the caregiver receives from others 

Another issue for caregivers is the amount of support and help they receive. This can be a year-round issue that takes on special significance at the holidays. Often the caregiver will have no holiday time away from the recipient. Sometimes this is a personal choice resulting from a desire to be with their loved one. Other times there may be no one willing and/or able, to help give them a break 

In some cases, there may not be any extended family members. In other cases, family members may live too far away. Occasionally family members may believe that the caregiver has chosen his or her role and all of its consequences. If there has been controversy over long term care options, those who favored long term care may feel that they have no obligation to help the caregiver who has chosen to keep their loved one at home.   

Whatever the circumstances, helping a caregiver during the holidays is an act of kindness that can make a difference for everyone involved: the recipient, the caregiver, and the person taking time out from their own holiday to pitch in so everyone gets a chance to celebrate.  

Know Your Limits

Caregivers themselves can only do what their circumstances allow. However, it helps to realize that every person has limitations. Caregivers can ask for help, or even demand it. If they don’t receive it, their only options are to review their circumstances for available alternatives and/or to simply do the best they can. A significant number of caregivers don’t have any alternatives due to a lack of resources and support. Being a caregiver can be rewarding, but it is rarely easy.