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How to manage holiday stress as a family caregiver

From setting boundaries to self-care suggestions, don't miss these holiday tips for caregivers during the most stressful time of year.

How to manage holiday stress as a family caregiver

For many, the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year. Traveling, visiting family and friends, decorating, indulging in traditions — it truly is the season for spending time with loved ones and making memories. But for family caregivers, that may not always be the case. Taking care of an aging family member or loved one can add extra layers of stress on top of a holiday that already demands a lot from us.

Whether you’re watching a loved one’s health decline, preparing for visitors or making drastic changes to your celebration to accommodate your aging loved one, the holidays can take a major toll on you as a family caregiver. That, unfortunately, can quickly start to overshadow magical moments meant to be shared with those you care for. That’s why we’re sharing five holiday tips for caregivers that will help you manage stress and focus on having more meaningful time with your loved ones.

1. Ask for and accept help

It may seem like a simple task, but asking for help may not come naturally to family caregivers. When you’re used to being the one who provides help, it can be difficult to ask others to do the same, especially if you’re taking care of someone who has a complicated care plan. But extra help from a specialized caregiver or home health aide can enable you to celebrate the holidays while providing the best care possible.

Turn to those who will be around for the holidays to help out, says Carrie Flock, a registered nurse, certified hospice and palliative care administrator and regional manager of clinical operations at home health care company BrightStar Care. “This trusted person may be within your family, a neighbor, your church or a great friend,” she says.

You can also lean on this person (or people) to help you decide which tasks to split up and how to manage schedules.

If you don’t have family, friends or reliable neighbors close by, “consider hiring respite care for family gatherings or events,” says John Kenda, owner of licensed home care service agency Able Home Care Solutions.

If the thought of asking for help makes you feel uncomfortable, pay attention to those who have offered, says Tom Egan, president and CEO of Foundation for Senior Living, a non-profit organization that helps provide care for the elderly.

You can always go back to those people and ask if their offer still stands. Most importantly, don’t turn down help as it comes, especially this time of year.

“Seek help and accept it when it’s offered, and prepare a list of ways others can help you so that you are ready when the offer comes,” Egan says. You can even store it as a note in your phone so it’s always handy when you need it.

“Seek help and accept it when it’s offered, and prepare a list of ways others can help you so that you are ready when the offer comes.”


2. Keep it simple

The holidays are already hectic, but they can quickly become even more complicated when caring for an aging loved one. Travel may be difficult or maybe they can’t eat that big holiday meal. In some cases, you’ll have to navigate emotions and stress when a senior family member doesn’t recognize another loved one. What’s a family caregiver to do?

“Try to simplify your plans,” says Nicole Hanna, executive director of Vineyard Henderson, an assisted living community in Henderson, Nevada. “Your life and situation have changed, and keeping things more simple and calm may benefit all involved — including you, the caregiver.”

One way to do that, Hanna says, is to make a list of events and traditions you normally do for the holidays, then decide on the ones you actually enjoy. To help simplify things, ask yourself questions like:

  • Does this feel like a chore or obligation?
  • Is this something my loved one will enjoy?
  • Am I doing/attending this because I feel like I have to?
  • Will I actually have fun or enjoy myself?
  • Will this event or activity cause me more stress?
  • Will I get to spend quality time with my loved ones?

By narrowing down your list this way, you can spend less time juggling plans and more time focusing on spending quality time with your loved ones.

3. Set boundaries

Family caregivers already have a lot on their plates when it comes to taking care of their aging loved ones. While it’s important to set boundaries all the time, it’s especially important this time of year when the holidays demand more of your time and attention. That typically starts with communication.

One of the major stressors for family caregivers is traveling to visit family or negotiating visits to multiple households during the holidays. While it can be difficult, this may be one area that is easiest to set your boundaries.

“Notify those who will not be seeing you in advance,” says Jill A. Johnson-Young, a licensed clinical social worker, CEO and clinical director of Central Counseling Services. “Use email or text or a group chat. Don’t invite commentary or negotiations. If you have had to make that decision, it was for a reason.”

“Notify those who will not be seeing you in advance … Don’t invite commentary or negotiations. If you have had to make that decision, it was for a reason.”


But boundary setting isn’t just for travel to see family or friends. To better manage holiday stress, you need to set boundaries for yourself, too. Yesel Yoon, a psychologist in New York City, says it’s important to “be clear with yourself about your own limits on your time and resources.”

“If asking for another member of the family or a friend to help out is not possible, you can still set a realistic and manageable expectation for what you can give in terms of your time and effort,” Yoon says.

4. Practice self-care

A big part of setting boundaries is managing your time. As a family caregiver, you may be more inclined to give more of your time to those you’re caring for, especially around the holidays. It’s no secret that being a caregiver is demanding, but the key to quality care is remembering to take care of yourself, too.

“Set aside time each week for reconnecting with friends or family,” says Egan. “It’s important to have a support team on standby taking care of your loved one so you can focus on yourself and your own emotional needs.”

Even if you don’t have a support team, you can still find time to take care of yourself without compromising the care of your loved one.

These include:

  • Taking small naps.
  • Breathing exercises.
  • Working out.
  • Practicing mindfulness and gratitude.
  • Grabbing a coffee or tea from your favorite cafe.
  • Going for a walk.
  • Reading a chapter of your favorite book.
  • Watching a movie.

It’s important to remember that it’s OK to take a break from caring for others to care for yourself, and it will help you avoid burnout, as well. As Flock puts it: “If you don’t take time for self-care, you will not be able to take care of others.”

“If you don’t take time for self-care, you will not be able to take care of others.”


5. Actually enjoy the time together

As family caregivers, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the stress and worry that comes with caring for a loved one. As a result, you may end up missing out on the most important aspects and moments of the holiday — like enjoying time with your aging loved one.

Whether you’re caring for a spouse who’s suffering from memory loss or a parent whose health is rapidly declining, it’s important to make the most out of the holidays with them. Embrace old family traditions or create new ones, make his or her favorite foods and make space to just spend time together. Most of all, take a moment or two each day to just be with your loved one — as a person, not just a “dependent care recipient” as Kenda says.

And don’t forget: “Take lots of pictures of your loved one,” says Johnson-Young. “Those will be precious to you someday.”