Have a Realistic and Positive Holiday Experience

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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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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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27 Comments

Thank you so much for this absolutely stellar article by Carol Bradley Bursack. I care for my adult child with CP, Seizures, and severe MR in my own home. On Thanksgiving day I went to Carol’s own blog and was led to your site to read the article. I identified completely, and was very uplifted with this honest but hopeful Holiday perspective. What a boost for caregivers such as myself or any others in this modern, fast moving world who value humanity over glitter. I’ve never met Carol, but have followed her columns, blog, and have read her wonderful book. She is a gifted writer and more so, as in this article, she shares deeply personal experiences which indirectly reveal her life of giving to others, she is certainly (in my book) right up there with any other domestic living hero. I am writing to thank you for the column, and also because I really think this article and her work in general needs to be much more widely shared. I’m going to try to get the interest of national network news companies. I couldn’t find direct e-mail addresses to forward this article and wonder if you would have any thoughts on this?
Thank you very much.
One of the best things I have ever done for my own mental health is to read "Happiness is an Inside Job" by John Powell. He has much to say about self-acceptance which is primary for one's happiness and he totally changed my outlook by helping me to realize that not only can I not "make" anyone else happy, it's not even my job! Even better is the realization that no one else can "make" me happy. Or unhappy. Or angry or sad. I am happy in and of my own self and am confident in knowing that I am doing my very best to care for myself and my mother. What others think may or may not be of interest to me but it does not affect how I feel. That power is completely in my own hands and I refuse to let anyone else have any of it. I plan to enjoy the heck out of the holidays. Sweet!

Betsy C
We at Agingcare.com also think very highly of Carol Bursack's knowledge and writing skills. She does an incredible job of bringing the issues to life and demonstrating a deep understanding of caregiving. Kudos to Carol for such a wonderful article.

Though we do not have the direct email addresses of specific contacts you are seeking, I would suggest contacting the editors of these news outlets by phone. Generally speaking you can call headquarters and find out where this information can be sent.