There’s an image of holiday perfection that our culture encourages. Starting with Thanksgiving, we are inundated with images of families happily enjoying each other’s company during a holiday meal. Most of us have memories from our childhood that feed this desire for Norman Rockwell-esque celebrations. Even those who didn’t have these picture-perfect experiences growing up often strive to create them with their own families.

However, few of us can measure up to the fantasy—caregivers least of all. The vast majority of advertisements, music and blockbuster movies sugarcoat the holidays and shirk the reality that most of us face. These images feed expectations that are impossible to meet.

Today’s “average” family is vastly different from those of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. These days, our families are often composed of many generations, relations, races and creeds. For family caregivers, elders’ varying degrees of health add to the complexities of bringing everyone together for the holidays.

None of these factors stop families from celebrating, though, and they shouldn’t. It’s just that we tend to carry memories of holidays past close to our hearts. We place a lot of pressure on ourselves to meet or exceed these high expectations, especially for the enjoyment of our youngsters and elders. If we don’t feel we’ve succeeded, we end up feeling guilty. In many caregivers’ minds, failing to meet expectations is failing, period. It’s time to turn this mindset around.

One Caregiver’s Holiday Story

My kids were fortunate to have their grandparents nearby as they grew up. Along with creating cherished memories with Grandma and Grandpa, however, they also witnessed their elders’ failing health. They remember dividing the holidays between visiting loved ones at the nursing home and celebrating at our house with those family members who could still manage to come over. Unfortunately, I’m sure they also remember my frantic struggle to meet the expectations of every generation with only limited success.

Each year after Thanksgiving, I would make my rounds, decorating each elder’s apartment or nursing home room, planning how we would split our time between the visits, and striving to meet everyone’s needs. The guilt over taking so much time from my kids ate at me. The guilt over my mother not having the Christmas celebration she so coveted ate at me. My mother-in-law did not seem to care, yet I knew that deep down 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 or minimize this time of year seemed all wrong. Onward I marched, trying to make the holidays sing for people who couldn’t hear.

The squeeze of generations and the countless needs of each leave little time for caregivers to think of their own needs. Prioritizing our own health and enjoyment winds up feeling like just another task, so we knock it to the bottom of the to-do list, and keep on doing for everyone else.

But it takes energy to plaster on a smile and say “Happy Holidays,” as people in the grocery store greet you. It takes energy to decorate a loved one’s home, bake cookies, attend holiday performances, shop and wrap presents—all with a smile, of course. Eventually, you sit back and realize you don’t really feel like smiling at all. In spite of all your selfless effort, each person still did not get enough of your time. Everyone feels shortchanged, including you.

All of that energy directed toward creating a perfect holiday didn’t produce the perfect results for everyone. In your mind, you failed, and the guilt is all-consuming. You can carry on the tradition this year and run yourself ragged all winter, trying to make a holiday miracle happen, or you can drop the perfect fantasy and lose the guilt.

5 Steps for Avoiding Caregiver Guilt Over the Holidays

  1. Reset the computer in your head. That’s right. Wipe out the hard drive that carries holiday memories of the past. The perfection you remember is likely skewed, anyway. The circumstances back then were very different, and it’s time to celebrate the holidays in a new way that fits your life as it is right now.
  2. Watch a silly holiday movie. I’m serious. Find a funny, imperfect and touching holiday movie, like “Elf” or “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” and make it a part of your celebration each year. Years ago, my youngest son and I started watching “Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean” each Thanksgiving holiday. The tradition began after we experienced deaths in the family over the holidays two years in a row. After the second solemn holiday season, I still remember my son saying to me, “I hope we don’t have a funeral this Christmas.” We didn’t. However, we did again the following Christmas. Throughout our funeral-strewn holidays, we watched “Mr. Bean” at least once. 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 an important lesson there.
  3. Be thankful. In most cases, before we can be thankful, we have to come to accept where we are in life. Often there are circumstances that we would love to change and many that we never anticipated, but it’s where we are. If we accept it, then we can work our way toward expressing some gratitude. Maybe this gratitude is only that we are learning and growing from our hardships and setbacks. But even slight feelings of appreciation can help improve our attitude and help us see what is really important.
  4. Communicate with your loved ones. Even small children can understand, if they are told in a loving way, that your time is short or you have to cut corners because Grandma and other family members rely on you, too. Communicate the same thing to the elder(s) in your care. Helping the entire family understand that each person’s desires are important but that you have a lot on your plate can help keep their expectations more realistic. You’d be surprised how much a senior, even one who has dementia, can understand. The holidays are about giving and sharing out of love. Having this conversation with the family may even inspire them to lend a hand or cause your elders to encourage you to spend quality time with your kids.
  5. Simplify your plans and enjoy what truly matters. Forgive yourself for the scant decorations, the online shopping and the skipped Christmas cards. In fact, congratulate yourself! Remind yourself that your health and sanity are a gift to your loved ones. By skimping on some of the frills, they will have more quality time with you. And that is far, far more important than a Norman Rockwell Christmas.