When store employees wish us "Merry Christmas!" we smile back and return the greeting. When acquaintances wave and shout "Happy Holidays!" across a parking lot we wave back with good wishes. When we take part in our work holiday celebrations we put on our happy face. Yet many of us don't feel merry or happy during this time of celebration. Caregivers, especially, may be even less likely than others to be looking forward to all of the hoopla associated with the expected happy holidays. Some of us dread even thinking about it.
How do we beat this feeling of holiday blues so that we can get through the next few weeks?
- We accept our attitude as valid. We may wish circumstances were different than they are, but if our reality is that we feel blue or even depressed rather than cheerful, well that is how we feel. No need for guilt or explanations.
- We are realistic in our expectations. When our parent or spouse has dementia we frequently must make concessions in order to help him or her endure changes in the household without unmanageable anxiety. If we know that moving furniture to accommodate a Christmas tree will be upsetting or confusing, we may have to find a quieter way to celebrate. This could mean disappointing children or grandchildren, so hard choices go with the territory.
- We don't second guess ourselves. If we decided against a Christmas tree to make it easier on our loved one or ourselves and some of our younger family members are disappointed we don't wallow in guilt. We made a decision to try something new and we live with the results. Next year we may make a different decision but today we live in the present and give ourselves credit for having the courage to do so.
- We reinvent the holiday. If we can't have a large tree in the living room because our spouse or parent will find the object frightening perhaps we can have a small tree in another room or on a shelf. Maybe we can move the major part of the gift opening to a den or even a basement room that we can decorate without upsetting the daily routine with for our loved one. We become creative and accept that it's the best we can do this year.
- We communicate openly; especially with adult children and young grandchildren about why we have scaled down the holidays. We can use this opportunity to remind them about the spirit of the holidays and that it's supposed to be about giving rather than receiving. Giving this year may mean letting go of some traditions so that the person with dementia – and you the caregiver – will have less stress. Giving may also mean taking turns attending religious services.
- We are flexible. Just because we've always done something doesn't mean we must do it this year. Maybe someone else can take on that task. If no one offers to help bring food or take over projects, announce lovingly but firmly that Christmas at your house will be low key. If the rest of the family wants a splashy Christmas they can coordinate it elsewhere.
- We make a special hour for ourselves. For me, the gift to myself has always been an early morning hour without having to attend to the needs of others. A time to meditate and just be. Do I always get that quiet time? No. But I do my best to try and I succeed often enough to make this special time worth the effort. Others may prefer staying up late. We are all different, but we do need time to gather our wits. We owe ourselves that much.
- We take care of ourselves physically. That means eating well and exercising. I'm the queen of excuses when it comes to exercise but I find that if I make myself get down on the floor and start stretching, it's no big deal to go through a routine I've done off and on for years. It's getting started that's hard. When I've completed a round I wonder why I fight it because I always feel better afterward.
- We make an effort to absorb some of the holiday spirit around us. If we've given ourselves permission to let go of some of the work, we may have a fighting chance to enjoy a bit of the magic.
- We don't try to be happy when we're not. The more we strive for happiness the more elusive it is. We begin that process by letting go of perfectionism. I've pounded away at this topic for a decade of writing because I believe it's the answer to many of life's problems. Perfection only exists in our nostalgic memories and our dreams. If we stop trying so hard and expecting so much of ourselves we may be surprised to find that a little joy is possible even when it's accompanied by sorrow.
In a nutshell, remember this: caregiving is an art not a science. Attempt to take a lesson from the Navajo who believe that to try for perfection is to try to be God. If there isn't already a visible error in a crafted object the crafter will intentionally introduce one. Don't lose site of the fact that we are human caregivers trying to help human care receivers. We'll never get everything right. That truth holds all year long but is even more important to remember during this time of year when others can appear to live in an ideal world.