If one can believe the old Westerns, frontier women were the ultimate multi-taskers. They could rock a cradle with their foot to quiet a squalling baby while pounding out bread dough with their fists, minding a full crew of young kids and maybe dodging a few bullets in the process. Oh, yeah, and since it was just days before Christmas, these women would also be knitting gifts for the family during odd bits of time.
That scenario sounds like a walk in the park compared to the lives of some modern caregivers, especially those who belong to the sandwich generation. These men and women work overtime to raise children while caring for their aging parents. During the holiday season, nearly every parent has one, if not several, school holiday performances to attend and church or other religious programs 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 require a big smile and a batch of homemade cookies. Sound familiar? All of this is expected in addition to maintaining traditions and holiday cheer at home.
Prior to an aging parent’s health issues, the busy season described above would be a “normal” Christmas for you and your family. Things would be rushed but still mostly pleasant. Not now. The house sits undecorated, your favorite cookie recipes have been swept into a corner on the kitchen counter, you’re behind on your holiday shopping and when you attend your kids’ programs, you fight to make yourself look like you actually want to be there. The addition of caregiving is often the tipping point between enjoying the holiday season and teetering on the edge of insanity.
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. Why does this feel so unfair? And where is the will to celebrate? What’s a caregiver to do?
You know this is your new normal, at least for the present. And it’s still the holiday season. Somehow, you must carry on and make it special for your children and your parents. It’s tough, but it is possible to find a balance and stick to it.
Getting used to this new normal will take some sacrifices from everyone in your family. It’s important to have a frank discussion with your kids and your spouse. If your parents are still cognitively sound, it’s important to talk with them, too, even if they aren’t keen on hearing you out. Tell them that you love them and that this holiday season will still be fun and special, but that it’ll be a little different compared to previous years.
Accept That the Holidays Have Changed
Your kids will understand if you only make a few different types of cookies this year rather than your usual massive spread. Just focus on the favorites. When decorating, don’t let storage bins full of lights and ornaments overwhelm you. Pick out your favorite decorations that mean the most to your family and ask the kids to pick out a few of their favorite items as well. Even if the holiday celebrations have been downsized, you’ll know that the most important traditions are still intact.
Include your kids in the cooking, decorating and visiting with your elders. If you can convince them to do something for their grandparents, that is even better. Having a few extra pairs of hands to help is a game changer, so dictate a few tasks for your kids to do around your house and your parents’ place(s).
Learning to say no to invitations or at least scale back on your commitments is important, too. Consider allowing someone else to host the big family dinner, purchasing your dish for the office potluck instead of making it yourself, or asking other close families if your kids could tag along for holiday activities like the tree lighting ceremony or ice skating.
Because I had so many elders to care for at once, I had several apartments and rooms at long-term care facilities to decorate. My house got less attention. Baking got whittled down to the classics as well. My own Christmas cards got short shrift. But my sons, my elders and I enjoyed this time together and that is what’s most important.
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 were healthy. Life has changed. Accepting that change is your first step toward keeping your sanity. In the end, you may find that a more low-key approach to the holidays leads to the development of new traditions. The upside of focusing less on the food, frills and gifts is that you have more time to spend with the people you love.
The Holidays Will Go On
If you find yourself feeling guilty or running low on holiday spirit, it may help to reflect on holidays past. How did your parents cope with the aging of their own parents? Remember when you were in grade school and Grandma had a heart attack? You weren’t stunted for life because your mom couldn’t complete all the traditional duties for the family that Christmas. You instinctively understood. Maybe this peek at real life even helped you grow and learn how family steps up to care for one another.
Holidays are undeniably hard work. When you add elder care to the mix, the most wonderful time of the year can seem like anything but. The only way I know of to avoid 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 if they have in-home care or live in a long-term care facility, let the professional staff do their part. Do as much as you can for your kids, but let them grow up a little and witness the cycle of life and the demands that elder care places on you. It’s likely that your family doesn’t truly understand the lengths you go to to ensure everyone is healthy and happy. A glimpse behind the veil might awaken in them a whole new sense of appreciation for all that you do.