Barbara Garwood: A Caregiver’s Life
Surviving the Holidays
It starts with the perfect turkey complete with all the trimmings, moves along to the shopping frenzy that has become Christmas, races through December with party-going, decorating, addressing Christmas cards, shopping, baking, cleaning for overnight guests, planning your own travels, and ends in an exhausted heap on December 31st. This year, instead of trimming the tree why not trim your expectations? Scale back, accept imperfections, and find a more peaceful way to enjoy the holidays for yourself and for the loved one who depends on you.
If the person you care for has dementia, less is definitely more. It is very difficult for people with dementia to deal with sensory overload, and that is what Christmas can be if you aren’t careful. Think blinking lights on the tree, Christmas music, holiday specials on TV, an influx of guests, and feast after feast. Rather than peace on earth, the holidays can become the perfect storm.
But what do you give up and how do you let go? Start by making a list of everything you THINK you need to do between now and New Year’s Day. Now, look at that list long and hard. What things do you enjoy and what do you dread? The things that you dread (listen carefully) do not have to be done! The world will not end if you forego sending Christmas cards. Your home will be beautiful with pine boughs on the mantel, but it is OK to leave the tree in the attic. Give yourself permission to buy a cake and cookies rather than baking them yourself. Simplify.
As for visitors, timing is important. Tell your visitors in advance that you look forward to seeing them but to understand that short visits are better. Suggest a time of day that is best for you and your loved one rather than an open invitation to drop by anytime. If long-lost family is on the way, beware of the “I know you remember me! What’s my name?” game that well-intending family members play. Be ready to intervene by simply redirecting the conversation. If a crowd is unavoidable, have a quiet place in another room where your loved one can go to keep from feeling overwhelmed and perhaps enjoy guests one or two at a time.
With all of the extras piled on at the holidays, a routine can be difficult to maintain.You caregivers out there are probably having a good laugh about now, right? Routines are important, though, so try to stick with your loved one’s daily schedule of waking, eating, exercise, napping, and bedtime. Getting out of sync will result in increased stress for both of you.
It’s OK to trim down your “merry” expectations as well. You may feel that everyone around you is in high holiday spirits, while you feel a sadness that is difficult to bear. Holidays carry with them very strong emotions, both happy and sad. Perhaps the hardest are precious memories of the people you love who are no longer with you. The loss you feel may overtake the joy of the season and make it difficult to follow the command of well-wishers to have that “merry Christmas.” Realize in advance that the holidays can put you on an emotional roller coaster. Balance that by making every effort to care for yourself – get enough sleep, take a walk for fresh air and exercise, and make some quiet time for yourself.
After downsizing your expectations, know that your best-laid plans will come undone. And when they do, please remember to laugh. Laugh at the absurdity of life and how plans are made to be changed. Bring out that tacky Christmas sweater and wear it with swag. Eat a bag of Christmas cookies (or whatever does it for you) and enjoy every bite. Watch your favorite Christmas movie. Sing your favorite Christmas carol with joy. And, in your quietest moment, I hope you find time to remember what the season means to you and reflect on your most precious memories. I hope these memories make you smile and bring you peace.
Barbara Garwood is a geriatric care manager for Lutheran Services Carolinas.