The holidays, with all the joy and festivities, can be a happy time for families, it can also be a hard one—especially if you’re caring for someone who has experienced a life-changing illness or injury.
“They can be hard because of the expectations we set for ourselves during the holidays,” explains Carla Assenza, LCSW, Dana Reeve Director of the Marsal Caregiver Center at Burke. “We want everything to be perfect and that could be setting ourselves up for failure. Caring for someone who is sick is difficult—and holidays are stressful under the best of circumstances.”
But there’s a bright side: The holidays can also be “the perfect time to let go of perfection and let good be good enough.” Here, she offers tips for caregivers to keep in mind as Thanksgiving and the December holidays approach.
Try not to compare this year to past years. When you’re embarking on your “new normal” as a family post-illness or injury, it’s normal to look back on how things used to be. But sometimes we might be thinking only of specific moments: “We often romanticize the past, thinking only of the wonderful holidays we had and how different this one might be,” explains Assenza. “But is it really true? Was every Thanksgiving perfect? Was the turkey never dry and no one ever argued? No—it’s just what our memory sometimes allows us to do.” By acknowledging that things are different this year, and then focusing on the present, it can help make the transition easier—and let go of expectations that things “have” to be a certain way.
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Speaking of holiday traditions, you may have those rituals that you do every year—whether it’s making five different types of pie, creating personalized place settings, or displaying an intricate Christmas train set. But let this be the year to streamline and focus only on those that are most important to you. “Allow yourself to simplify—it’s ok to do a bit less this year! Maybe only make your two favorite dishes instead of the expected table full of food,” says Assenza.
Call on your village. Taking care of someone else can be tough sometimes, especially if you’re the main, or only, caregiver. Adding in holiday responsibilities like shopping for presents or hosting dinner can leave you feeling totally overwhelmed. If that happens, reach out to friends and family around you: “Ask for help,” advises Assenza. And that might take different forms, depending on what’s on your plate. For instance, “If you usually host and you don’t want to give that up, then assign everyone a job—cooking, cleaning, etc.,” she says—this way you’re sharing the work, and it makes it easier on everyone.
Aim to stay present. As much as possible, try to stay present and in the moment—even though that can be difficult at times. “Remember what the holiday is really about—for most people that’s being with the ones they love. The location may change, but the sentiment and joy of being together is what matters most,” says Assenza.
And for those who want to know how to help a friend or family member who is a caregiver, Assenza offers this advice:
“Offer help to the caregiver—but direct help, not just saying ‘How can I help?’ If you are going to visit, say you’ll be bringing all the desserts this year or something to alleviate the stress on the main caregiver,” she says. “Allow the caregiver to feel like they don’t have to do it all or make it nice for everyone. And the best gift to give a caregiver during the holiday season: respite. Offer to stay with the patient to give the caregiver a break—and the gift of time to care for themselves in some special way.”
Learn more about Burke’s Marsal Caregiver Center and how it can help you and your family.