The holiday letter has traditionally been a way of letting extended family and friends know what's going on in your life, and the lives of your immediate family. While not everyone decides to send a December dispatch, many people do, particularly when an elderly loved one who is ill or can't travel is involved.

The key to a well-written holiday letter is maintaining a delicate dance between truth and embellishment, reality and aspiration.

Achieving this balance is a tricky task—regardless of your circumstances. But it becomes even more difficult if you're responsible for taking care of an elderly loved one.

How do you tell friends and family about mom's declining health? Do you have to adopt a false, ‘Positive Polly' attitude for the sake of appearing calm and in control? What do you say to family members who you feel have abandoned you?

Make your own rules for the holiday

The first step: stop, take a deep breath, and decide whether or not you really want to write a holiday letter.

Even if your yearly missive has been a fixture of the family festivities, you shouldn't feel as though you have to keep doing it just because it's a "tradition."

"The holidays are a great time to stop and reflect on life," says Cindy Laverty, caregiver coach, radio talk show host, and author. "The year I chose not to get caught up in all the hype, everything changed for me. I made the rules."

Make sure you're writing your letter for the right reasons—to update family and friends, to reminisce about the events of the past year, and to re-connect with people you may have fallen out of touch with.

What story do you want to tell?

Before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), Laverty says you should ask yourself one question: "What would I write about my caregiving life if this was the last holiday that I would ever have with my loved one?"

Use this question as a starting off point to determine the purpose of the letter, and do some brainstorming and outlining to clarify your topics and tone before you begin writing.

Some letter writing dos and don'ts

Laverty offers a series of suggestions for how to appropriately address sensitive caregiving topics in a holiday letter:

  • Do: discuss your caregiving responsibilities. While it's important to realize that you are more than just a caregiver, it's equally as important to acknowledge the valuable role you play in safeguarding your loved one's health and wellbeing. As long as you feel comfortable talking about the caregiving aspects of your life, don't hesitate to include them in your letter.
  • Don't: engage in a gripe session. According to Laverty it's essential to avoid using a holiday letter to lash out at those who may have been less than supportive of your caregiving. "This is not the time to try and make people feel guilty for not being there for you," she says. This doesn't mean you have to make caregiving sound like a breeze. Laverty offers the following prompt to get you started: "As many of you know, I've been my ________ (fill in the blank) caregiver for the past ____ (fill in the blank) and it hasn't been easy. But the good news is that I've learned a lot about ______ (fill in the blank) and about myself. If you ever become a caregiver, I'll be able to help you out with some interesting insights. Truthfully, some days are easy. Others are more difficult and some days, I'd rather forget."
  • Do: talk about how you're love one is doing. Friends and family—especially those who don't communicate with you very often—will appreciate being updated on how a loved one is faring.
  • Don't: go into the gory details. Again, toeing the line between being honest and sharing too much information can be challenging. Because you are the one on the front lines, dealing with your loved one's health issue on a daily basis, it can be hard to take a step back and figure out what to tell and what to leave out. Laverty suggests keeping things simple: "____ (fill in the blank) continues to struggle with his/her ______ (fill in the blank) and that probably won't change (if the condition is chronic). If you are reading my letter and you know my ____ (fill in the blank), I can tell you that he would love to hear from you." If you want to give family and friends an easy-to-understand update on your loved one's overall condition (i.e. mood, memory, eating, sleeping, finances, etc.), you may want to consider filling out and include a care report in your letter.
  • Do: Send your letter to family and friends. The main thing to consider when figuring out whom to send your holiday letter to: Would you enjoy reading a holiday letter from them? If the answer is yes, then they'd probably be a good addition to your mailing list.
  • Don't: include everyone. When it comes to holiday updates, close friends and family members should make up the bulk of your audience.
  • Do: reach out. One great thing about sending out a holiday letter is that it can help you reconnect with people you may have fallen out of touch with. It can also provide you with the perfect entrée to casually ask for help or support. Laverty suggests sending a personal note along with your letter to certain people, saying that you'd like to get together and catch up over a cup of coffee.
  • Don't: assign blame. While it may be tempting to do so, a holiday letter is not the appropriate place to engage in a gripe session. If it helps, you may want to go to an online forum or caregiver support group to vent before sitting down to write your letter. As Laverty says, "If there is bad blood between family members, a holiday letter is not the place to express yourself."