How to Keep Your Sanity During the Holidays

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If one can believe the old Westerns, frontier women multi-tasked by rocking a cradle with their foot to quiet a squalling baby, while pounding out bread dough with her fists, bossing a full crew of young kids and maybe dodging a few bullets. Oh, yeah, since it was just days before Christmas, she would also be trying to knit a scarf for her husband during odd bits of time.

That scenario sounds like a walk in the park to some modern caregivers, especially those known as the sandwich generation because they are raising children while caring for their parents. At this time of the year, nearly every parent has one, if not several, school holiday programs to attend, plus church or other religious programs they want their children to participate in. Many have a full-time job, which often requires attendance at office functions outside of work hours, not to mention festivities during work time that pretty much require a big smile and a batch of home-made cookies. Is this your story?

Prior to your dad's stroke and your mom's dementia, the busy season described above would be a "normal" Christmas for you and your family – rushed but still mostly pleasant. You still would have had the emotional reserves to enjoy the cuteness of your son's solo in his program, and the humor and time to write individual notes in your cards to friends.

Feel Like You're Ignoring Holiday Duties?

Not now. The house sits undecorated, the traditional cookie recipes lay hopelessly strewn across your kitchen counter, and when you attend your kids' programs you fight to make yourself look like you actually want to be there.

The addition of your parents' ill health was a tipping point between enjoying your holiday season and your current feeling of teetering on the edge of insanity. You seemed to have left your sense of humor at the nursing home when you decorated your mom's room. She didn't recognize you, and she thought you were tearing her house apart to steal her things. Add to that the fact that you are trying to cope with your Dad's partial paralysis and inability to swallow – well, your personal pain level is nearly beyond endurance.

Caregivers Tend to Spread Themselves Too Thin

You think back. Mom had always been helpful, doing some of the baking and stepping in when you needed help with the kids. Dad was good natured and would even pitch in with some decorating tasks when your husband was traveling. Now your parents both need help. Lots of help. Your kids still need you. Your spouse needs you. You feel like everyone wants a piece of you.

You feel angry and that leads to guilt. Where is the justice? And where is the will to celebrate? Celebrate what? You feel as though you are in some ugly nightmare from which you hope to awake and have everything back to normal. What's a caregiver to do?

Cope with Stress During the Holidays

Yet you know this nightmare is your new normal, at least for the present. And it's still Christmas. You must make a holiday for the kids and at least try to have a holiday for your parents. Somehow, you must carry on.

It's tough, but there is a balance and you need to find it. Your new normal will take some sacrifices from everyone in your family. You need to talk with your kids and your spouse. You need to talk with your parents even if they don't seem to hear you. You need to tell them all you love them and that you will do your best, but this holiday is going to be different from the past. It will be trimmed back.

Accept That the Holidays Have Changed

Your kids will understand if all of the cookies aren't made. Just make a few favorites. Focus on a few decorations that mean the most to your family. Include your kids in visits to the nursing home. If you can convince them to do something for their grandparents, that is even better.

Because I had so many elders to care for at once, I had several apartments and/or rooms to decorate at Christmas, so my house got less attention. Baking got whittled down to the favorites, as well. My own Christmas cards got short shrift.

Likely, you will find you must follow a similar pattern. You can't do everything the same as you did when the kids were young and your parents vital. Life has changed. This is your new reality. Accepting change – accepting your new reality - is your first step toward keeping your sanity.

The Holidays Will Go On

It may help to remember your parents and how they coped with the aging of their own parents. Remember when you were in grade school and Grandma had her heart attack? You weren't stunted for life because that Christmas your mom couldn't complete all the traditional duties for the family. You instinctively understood. Maybe this peek at real life even helped you grow.

Holidays are indeed work. When you add elder care to the mix, they can seem overwhelming. The only antidote that I know of to feeling overwhelmed is to determine what really matters to you and your family, and only do those things. Do as much for your parents as you can, but also let the professional staff at the care center help. Do as much as you can for your kids, but let them grow up a little by witnessing the cycle of life and the demands elder care places on you. Do as much as you can for yourself but letting everyone else give up a little. You may find the whole family is better off for it.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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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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9 Comments

BUY the cookies, don't bake them; or better yet don't have them at all (sugar: not good)! Also, not everyone derives as much happiness from the holiday rituals as others. During a time of stress we were forced to experiment with a truly minimal holiday: no decorating, no baking but just only kept the thing that mattered to our family, which was singing carols together. We let *everything* else go but that, and while I was afraid I was disappointing kids etc., actually it turned out that we had the best holiday ever. Now we do not decorate, we do not bake, but we still sing together; and SO much less stress! Good luck to all.
I too, am in the same boat. I know how you feel. It seems endless, and certainly thankless. The only redeeming thing I have found, is to hire for $10.00 an hour a friend that will sit and play with Mother, while I get a break, to do errands, shop for Christmas, and get right back. But atleast, Mom is happy, with someone other than myself,,,,and I get away from the arguing, and daily restraint, and depleated feeling. I dont have any Christmas spirit to even share with my own grown children, and grandchildren, I am just so tired, caring for Mom, and also a Bioplar exhusband. I guess the only thing I can offer, is the babysitting relief. Even if it isnt Christmas, 1 day a month seems like such a relief. Its been a whole year now, and it feels like I have lost my zest and my life. I know its time to take care of them, while they need us, and they took care of us when we were little and needed them, the only difference is, we didnt hit them with canes, call them filthy names, and tell them that we hate them, and dont need them. We filled their lives with love and affection..... so, this certaily is a different calling...... especially when you dont have any relief. I promised Mother, when she was well, that I would never put her in a home,,,,,, but I really had no idea it would be like this. Sometimes it just helps to know there are others out there suffering with the same situation.
Welllllllllll ... with the additional sibling dysfunction I experienced while taking care of Mom, it was even more extreme than your article! LOL!! I asked my daughter what SHE wanted for Christmas and other Holdiays and let her determine the traditions she wanted to enjoy. Now that Mom has passed, my siblings still don't include us, and my husband's family is 3 states away, we do our own thing: small meal, long drive and a movie most of the time. I decorate the house for me. It's not the same. It's not as it "should" be. But it works for us. And when we can go visit my husband's family ... it's GLORIOUS!

And your comment: "Remember your parents and how they coped with the aging of their own parents ..." is BRILLIANT!! Mom & Dad did it, so I can, too! Thank you!!