When I counsel my caregiver clients to take care of themselves, they usually respond with something like, “Yes, I know I should, but…” This indicates to me that it’s not the first time they’ve heard this advice, and it’s not the first time they’re going to ignore it.

I’m really not trying to be a nag. I’m simply trying to help them avoid the inevitable train wreck that caregiver burnout causes. It can truly turn a family upside-down. All caregivers think that their situation is unique, and it absolutely is. However, there are common threads that appear in many, many situations. As someone who has observed countless people who are trying to cope while providing care for a loved one, I’ve noticed that there is a specific time when they need to concentrate on self-care the most.

Around October and November, I am adamant about caregivers putting themselves first before they take on the remainder of the year. Medicare’s Annual Election Period (also known as “Open Enrollment”) begins October 15, and this often signifies the arrival of the busy holiday season. Once that train leaves the station, it can be difficult to pause, plan, prioritize and persevere. The situation can quickly turn to panic, so let’s try to avoid that, shall we?

Your Health and Insurance

Keeping up with a loved one’s medical issues and insurance coverage is pretty much a full-time job for some, but you MUST take some time to think about your own health care needs. Consider the following:

  • Have you had your annual physical yet this year?
  • Have you been keeping up with recommendations to get more exercise or change your diet? (Trust me, I know that this can be incredibly difficult in the midst of all your responsibilities.)
  • If you are a Medicare beneficiary, have you taken advantage of preventive screenings (which are often free) to at least keep an eye on your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels?
  • Have you handled any changes that must be made to your health insurance coverage for the coming year?
  • Have you scheduled respite? That day off or weekend away that you’ve been promising yourself all year? (Whether friends and family have been offering to help or not, there are resources out there that can help you accomplish this!)

If you don’t see to these tasks now, they’re even less likely to get crossed off your to-do list as the winter season ramps up.

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Preparing for the Holiday Season

The holidays will be here before you know it. There are a lot of things, big and little, that you either need to plan ahead for or at least confirm are not your responsibility. For example, have you made absolutely sure that you are NOT the person who will be hosting everyone for Thanksgiving dinner? What about chauffeur duty when relatives have to be transported to and from the airport? Cross your t’s and dot your i’s now, or they may come back to bite you.

If you will be entertaining this year, the second part of being prepared is sharing the load. Even if you are a consummate professional who is able to organize national conferences with one hand tied behind your back, it doesn’t mean that you have to keep all the plates spinning in the air for everyone else to watch. If you are hosting or helping plan some get-togethers this season, use your organizational skills to send out a group email asking everyone what part of the celebration(s) they will be responsible for. Setting up a simple spreadsheet or collaborative Google Doc can help everyone stay organized and communicate easily. It’ll also prevent tasks from falling through the cracks.

Lastly, be realistic and scale back. Your loved one will appreciate get-togethers that are full of reminiscing, personal time, family songs and jokes and free of drama, complexity, and stress. When you’re tense, your loved one and other guests are sure to pick up on it. If friends and family aren’t able to contribute dishes to Christmas dinner for whatever reason, don’t take on making a gourmet spread by yourself. Instead, opt for simpler recipes, make some dishes ahead to spread out the work or buy a few store-made sides so that you can enjoy more time with family and friends.

If you MUST cook your heart out because it is an outlet for stress or it gives you a bit of solitary time in the kitchen while the house is full, just make sure you have a substitute caregiver lined up. This will allow you to spend the day cooking without worrying about your loved one. Your back-up can be a trusted family member, a half-day at an adult day care center or a professional in-home caregiver.

If your loved one has Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, scaling back takes on a much greater meaning, since this time of year can be especially overwhelming for dementia patients. The decorations, hubbub and crowds can cause anxiety, agitation and confusion for some. Keep this in mind when decorating and planning get-togethers. Sometimes small gatherings or one-on-one visits are best for loved ones in the later stages of the disease.

Family Gatherings Provide Valuable Opportunities

For most families, the holiday season provides a rare occasion for relatives to gather. Start taking advantage of this in every way you can!

As a family caregiver, you face many challenges and concerns that most people have never truly considered before. For example, have you discussed important medical and legal issues with your close family members? Are there things that you’ve learned in your role as a caregiver that you don’t want to happen if you ever need care? Does your family know about respite and long-term care options, such as home care, adult day care, assisted living and skilled nursing? Have you talked about these choices (for your care recipient AND yourself) openly with others? Do they know your wishes or those of your care recipient? It is crucial to voice these concerns and share this information early on.

Give your family members an update on your current situation. How are you doing physically and emotionally? Have you been putting on a brave face or unsuccessfully asking other family members to pitch in? This is the time to fully explain the extent of your duties as a caregiver, articulate how they may be affecting you, and provide ideas for contributions that could truly improve your situation and your loved one’s care. If something were to happen to you, does your family know who would take over your role? What if you fell, needed surgery or injured your back? Having an “emergency plan” that everyone is aware of is essential.

Although it can be difficult for many to imagine, your caregiving journey will come to an end at some point. Does your family know how you’ll spend your time then? Will it surprise or shock them? Are you expecting that someday your own family will give you the same kind of tender, loving care that you’ve been providing? If the answer is yes, expectations need to be shared and discussed. It’s much easier to have “what-if” conversations about long-term care and the end of life when there is no immediate crisis looming.

Make Yourself a Priority

Achieving balance in life is never easy; it is something that everyone has to work towards. The holiday season can be physically, emotionally and financially demanding, but only if you let it get the best of you. Even if you have not taken the time for self-care throughout the first part of the year, at the very least make some strides before your responsibilities increase. Planning ahead and self-care are gifts to yourself, your care recipient and the rest of your immediate and extended family. Take a deep breath and use the coming weeks to “set the table” so that your holiday preparations and celebrations can be heartfelt, productive and enjoyable.