There's an image of holiday perfection that our culture encourages. Starting with Thanksgiving, we are inundated with fantasy images of perfect families happily enjoying each other's company during a holiday meal. Most of us have memories from our childhood that feed this drive toward the Norman Rockwell nostalgia of holidays past. If we lived it, we want to duplicate it. If we didn't, we want to create it.
Few of us can measure up to the fantasy—caregivers least of all. There's so much denial of today's reality in these images resurrected each holiday and thrown at us by every means, from advertisements to blockbuster movies. These images feed expectations that are impossible to meet.
The "average" family is vastly different than the average family of yore. Today's families are often a patchwork of children, step-children, step-in-laws, step-siblings and elders of varying degrees of relationship and health. Add to that the fact that people marry later and often have children at an older age, and you've got a package that often includes young children, teenagers, young adults, forty-something caregivers, a parent who's had a stroke or two, and maybe one with dementia.
None of this stops holiday celebrations, nor should it. It's just that sometimes we carry with us the memories (of a time that likely wasn't as perfect as we remember it), and strive (expect?) to reconstruct this past under totally different circumstances. Then, if we don't feel we've succeeded, we are swamped by guilt. Way too often, in the caregivers' mind, expectations not met equals failure.
One Caregiver's 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 manage to come over. 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.
5 Steps to Avoid Caregiver Holiday Guilt
- Reset the computer in your head. That's right. Wipe out the hard drive that carries holiday messages of the past. Zap it! The perfection you remember is likely skewed, anyway.
- Watch "Merry Christmas Mr. Bean." I'm serious. If not "Merry Christmas Mr. Bean," find something else funny, silly and maybe touching, but touching in a new, imperfect way. My youngest son and I started watching "Merry Christmas Mr. Bean" each Thanksgiving holiday. The tradition began after deaths over the holidays, two seasons in a row. I still remember my son saying to me, after the second death, "I hope we don't have a funeral this Christmas." We didn't. However, we did the following Christmas. Through our funeral-strewn holidays, we watched "Mr. Bean" at least once each season. Somehow, this character, who lives in his own little world, is able to create his own happiness. When he tries to live life like other people, he fails. But when he is true to himself, he is happy. There's a lesson there.
- Be thankful. Most of the time, before we can be thankful, we have to come to some acceptance of where we are in life. Often that place isn't what we would have chosen, but it's where we are, so if we accept it – which doesn't mean liking it – but if we accept it, then we can work our way to some gratitude. Maybe that gratitude is only that we are growing through our pain. But a slight feeling of gratitude can help our attitude, and maybe we can get a grip on what is really important.
- Talk to each generation. Even small children can understand, if they are told in a loving way, that your time is short because Grandma needs you, too, and that you will need to cut corners on some of the frills. Then tell Grandma the same thing. You'd be surprised how much an elder, even an elder with dementia, can understand. Is she just sitting and staring into space? Talk anyway. She'd want you to spend time with your kids if she could tell you that.
- Then simplify. Forgive yourself for the lack of decorating, the online shopping, the skipped Christmas cards. Indeed, congratulate yourself! Remind yourself that your health and sanity are a gift to your loved ones. By skipping some of the frills, they will have more of you. And that is far, far more important than a Norman Rockwell Christmas.