Holiday festivities lose a lot of their luster when you’re a full-time caregiver.
Lesley Corban says the idea of baking cookies, buying gifts and putting up Christmas decorations became a burden during the years she was responsible for the daily care of her elderly mother, and Edward, her husband of 49 years.
The only thing worse than the additional “work,” she says, was the guilt of not contributing. “In the back of my mind I thought, ‘I need to decorate,’” the Lakeland retiree says.
This torrent of conflicting emotions is normal for family caregivers this time of year, says Alicia Mendoza, geriatric care manager at Aging Care Advocates of Tampa. The whirl of Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holiday festivities magnifies emotions for the nearly 1.8 million Floridians who serve as family caregivers.
“The holidays, regardless of the caregiver situation, are stressful enough … there are so many expectations,” Mendoza says.
It’s important that caregivers pay attention to their own physical and mental health, especially at this time of year, says Kim Linder, host of “The Caregiver Hour” radio program, which airs at 11 a.m. Mondays on 1250 WHNZ.
The best way to start is for the caregiver — and other family members — to stop forcing things to be the way they were in years past, she says.
“Traditions are great. They keep a family together … but there are ways to lessen the load in a way that respects the person who created the tradition,” Linder says.
For example, if Mom is 80 and cares for an ailing spouse, but insists on hosting Thanksgiving at her place, offer to bring side dishes or be available for all the prep work, or be the one to decorate, set up and clean.
And approach the idea as a conversation, not an order that implies a person is no longer able to participate in the holiday tradition, Linder says.
“You want this to come from a loving place,” she says.
That isn’t easy. During the holidays, family members tend to hold tight to old roles. Older parents may be reluctant to relinquish their spot in the family hierarchy, and adult children may unintentionally place expectations on their parents.
“Don’t go home thinking about the way it used to be,” Linder says.
Corban says she was lucky. Three adult children, two of whom are health-care professionals, lived nearby and were willing to help.
It wasn’t in her nature to ask for assistance, she says. But one of her favorite recent holiday memories was when a son offered to hang lights on her porch and decorate a Christmas tree. “It really meant so much,” she says.
Children who visit elderly parents just once or twice a year can be startled by the changes they see at the holidays, Linder says. “You’ve been talking to Mom every week and it seems fine, then you see her and realize that it’s not.”
A few things to check: Do Mom and Dad look healthy? Is their home cluttered, or are medications sitting on a table haphazardly? Do they insist on meeting you outside their home?
If one parent is the primary caregiver for an ailing spouse, make time in advance for a private conversation to make sure the caregiver isn’t neglecting his or her own health or wellbeing, she says.
Adult children often can see things an elderly caregiver cannot, she says. “You have to be proactive.”
Friends and family can help caregivers out by shifting the way they approach gift giving, Mendoza says. Ideas include making needed home repairs or offering to pay for a few days of respite care so the caregiver can get rest.
And caregivers should be told to not worry about buying presents.
Caregivers need to be allowed to adapt to their new reality, especially this time of year and “learn to not make apologies for the changes,” Mendoza says.
Corban says she felt guilty until she called the Area Agency for Aging at (800) 96-ELDER for help. They connected her with support groups that helped her manage the stress of caring for her husband. This time of year, the organization can help connect seniors who need help with groups volunteering to provide meals and other services.
“It’s the hardest thing to do, but you do need to ask for help,” she says.
Now, more than a year after losing her husband, Corban says she is still apprehensive about the added emotional baggage that comes with the holiday season. And she’s grateful she continues to attend support group meetings.
It reminds her that she and other caregivers are never alone.