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One Caregiver's Holiday Story

My kids, as they grew up, were fortunate to have their grandparents nearby. Along with memories of fun-loving grandparents from their early childhood, however, they remember the surgically induced dementia of one beloved grandfather. They remember the strokes of another. They remember the divided holidays, as we shuttled back and forth between the nursing home, for those we couldn't transport, and our house, for those who could come to the house. Unfortunately, I'm sure they also remember their mother's frantic struggle to meet the expectations of every generation, with only limited success.

Right after Thanksgiving, each year, I would decorate my mother's apartment – Dad was by then in the nursing home. After Mom joined him in the same nursing home (different private room) I would decorate her room, my dad's room and my mother-in-law's room. Then, of course, I'd decorate our home. Then the planning would start as to how to handle all the generations, meeting everyone's expectations for the holidays.

The guilt about taking so much time from the kids ate at me. The guilt about my mother not having the Christmas celebration she so coveted, ate at me.  My mother-in-law seemed not to care, yet I knew underneath the dementia, she did. The frustration of trying to "celebrate" the holidays when my dad no longer knew what we were trying to do, made me want to throw in the towel. Yet, to ignore the holidays seemed wrong. So onward I marched, trying to make the holidays sing for people who couldn't hear.

The squeeze of generations, and the far reaching needs of each, can leave little time for the caregiver to think of his or her own needs. Indeed, it seems as if trying to find time away from the logistics of the season – time to sit quietly and feel what we, the caregivers need – is just another task. So, we smash down our feelings, and keep on doing. We keep directing the orchestra. A little more brass here. A little more percussion there. Arrange the holiday song so everyone has a part and everyone finds it pleasing.

Unfortunately, the maestro is on the verge of collapse. It takes energy to plaster on a smile and say "Happy Holidays," as people in the grocery store greet you. It takes energy to say, "Yes, I got all the rooms at the nursing home decorated with their favorite holiday items and it looks great!" (Smile. Keep smiling). Then, when you have a moment, you sit back and realize you don't feel like smiling. You realize that no one got enough of your time. The elders feel like you didn't spend enough time with them (or they forgot you were there at all). The kids wanted you at home for the day, but you had to run to the nursing home – yes you had to. The elders deserved that.

So, the maestro failed at perfection. All of that energy directed toward creating a perfect holiday didn't produce the perfect results for everyone. Therefore, in your mind, you failed. Guilt swallows you, the caregiver, whole. You can do that. Or, you can drop the fantasy of perfection and lose the guilt.

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.
 






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