For an increasing number of families, the holidays result in stress, drama, and conflict as they gather together to celebrate. Many families are faced with the issues of an aging parents or loved ones who now has significant caregiving needs. With the massive baby-boomer population racing into their senior years, the conversation around many festive tables this year will turn to caregiving concerns.
In order to protect and cherish these family moments, here are four suggestions to navigating the holiday season, based on my experience as a caregiver for over 30 years.
1. Small household adjustments or pay that high hospital deductible — your choice: Regardless of the home where everyone gathers, a few adjustments for the loved one with the greatest mobility impairments will create a welcoming and safer environment. Simple changes such as adjusting throw-rugs to prevent falls for those with balance issues and securing the railings around all stairs can make a world of difference. Additionally, wheelchair ramps can be easily and inexpensively rented — for far less than a medical deductible. Bathrooms tend to be a place where many falls occur, so grab-bars, shower chairs, and other assistive devices are simple additions to avoid emergency room visits, and the unpleasant medical bills.
2. Play Emotional Poker: Try to avoid a shocked expression when you see a loved one in declining health. Chances are, that person also recognizes the issue — and doesn't require reminders in the faces of everyone he or she encounters during the holidays. Be as gracious as you would have others be to you in the same circumstances.
3. Understand and acknowledge the Caregiver: If one family member seems to disproportionately bear the brunt of serving as a caregiver (and that's usually the case), resist the urge to criticize. In addition, avoid using the word "should," or advising what he or she "needs" to do. Instead, wait for a moment that's quiet and gently tell that caregiver, "I see you! And, I see the magnitude of what you carry." Let that be the conversation starter. Resist the urge to solve the problems, but instead listen. That moment will most likely generate tears — from both of you. Yet, rather than tears from despair and impotent fury, you will be helping facilitate healthy tears.
Well-meaning family and friends often try to "fix" many of the problems they see weighing on caregivers. Yet, solutions for most of the challenges faced by caregivers are elusive at best, and non-existent at worse. Sometimes, all a caregiver can do is just the next right thing, and the night right thing may be to share deep feelings with a trusted friend. People who engage on the periphery often think they can glance and solve, but caring for an impaired loved one is complex matter with many moving pieces. For many caregivers, a great gift is to help them get to a place of emotional (and at times, physical) safety where they can catch their breath and then make better decisions moving forward.
4. It's Dinner, not an intervention: Contemplation usually beats knee-jerk reactions, and it's good to take some time to process your loved one's condition, and even research various options available to your family. Before blurting out suggestions, while passing the mashed potatoes, it's a good idea to concentrate on appreciating the moment with your family to the best of your abilities. The situation of your loved one may have deteriorated to the point where future holidays with them are not promised, so do not allow unnecessary conflict to ruin this one. Instead, enjoy a nice meal. The caregiving conversation can at least wait until after dessert. If you have important items to discuss as it relates to caregiving for a loved one, make mental notes, jot them down and then revisit these concerns a few days later. While the family is together, it's easy to think that the situation requires immediate action. But with conference calls, video calls, etc., we can connect much easier, and it detaches from a lot of the drama of the moment.
Whether special needs children, chronically ill-spouses, impaired loved ones, or aging parents, the caregiving journey can be brutal. The holidays seem to hold extra stress on their own, but adding caregiver family drama to the mix can often break the stoutest of hearts. Most of the challenges can't be fixed. Yet, although we may have to witness heartbreaking realities and grim circumstances, we ourselves don't have to be grim. We're as miserable or as happy as we choose to be. Yes there are sad paths we have to walk, but beauty can surprise us along the way. It's easy to get locked in on demanding the grandiose. We want that perfect holiday, or we wish it was as it used to be. Those expectations and demands lead us down a path of resentment and despair. When we insist on "perfection" we often miss the exquisite. If we pay attention and are willing, we can experience moments of tenderness and love that defy the harshness challenges facing us as caregivers. I've lost count of those times we've had, even in a hospital room on Thanksgiving Day. In those moments, our hearts are touched and our souls refreshed.
As families — as caregivers — we can, and we must, navigate through this journey with a calmer and more joyful heart, especially during the holidays. It's hard to carve a turkey with clenched fists. I know, I've tried. Instead of rushing to grasp more drama, let's slow down and appreciate the memories and small victories, while embracing the often overshadowed, but always present, beauty in life. Let's find happiness in knowing we protect the one thing standing between our loved one and even harsher challenges.
After all, it is the season of gratitude and joy.