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Finding Joy While Caregiving During the Holidays

Practice self-care during this often-challenging time of year

Three generations of Hispanic women smiling outside of a house decorated with string lights

Eric Raptosh Photography/Getty Images

En español | I can chart the rise in my stress level with the debut of Starbucks’ holiday cup. It's the universal expectation that we should feel joy this time of year, quickly chased by guilt when we fall short of the mark. Layer on family celebrations, memories and to-do lists, and for caregivers or those experiencing loss, the holidays can resemble a mine field.

With that in mind, I have compiled some useful advice for caregivers and anyone else who's stressed out during this complex time of year. As we sail toward the season, it's important to remind ourselves that with realistic goals, ground rules and a little forethought, it's possible to find moments of enjoyment.

Pick your battles

Holiday-survival advice falls into two categories: the things you can control and the things you can't. I know from my own tendency to harp on negative thoughts that it's important to distinguish between the two, so that you don't waste energy ruminating over what you can't change.

Focus on what you can change

The things you can change are the aspects of self-care. You know these well because people are always telling you to do them: Eat healthy, nap, exercise, and stay away from too much sugar/carbs/alcohol/substance abuse. Drink water, and focus on gratitude. Take deep breaths; play your favorite music. Dance, meditate, practice yoga, and pray. Look at old photographs. Slip away from family for a few minutes and reframe your head space. Step outside and let the fresh air blow the negative thoughts away. Gaze up at the sky. Get out in nature with no goal other than to enjoy it. Hike; walk; run; sled; skate; pick a bouquet. Lift your face to the sun. Practice the act of smiling for no reason — it's proved to raise endorphins. Watch your favorite funny movie and laugh, and then laugh some more. Make a list of the people in your support system.

"Focusing intently on a project like a jigsaw puzzle, crossword puzzle, book or Sudoko can all boost mood,” says Carrie Barron, a psychiatrist and director of the Creativity for Resilience program at Dell Medical School in Austin, Texas. “Goal-directed activities that require you to make or create something with your hands — for example, crafting, cooking, knitting or gardening — can engender good feelings and a sense of effectiveness. The hand stimulates the brain and enhances mind and mood, all of which seeds well-being."

Streaming services put practically every movie or cooking show at your fingertips, so find a topic that absorbs you. Cuddling, either with pets or humans, is a proven mood booster.

Face negative emotions head-on

OK, but what about the things you can't change? These harder truths can make the holiday season feel like an emotional roller coaster when the volume turns up on our inner-critic negative voice. When we feel sad, sorry for ourselves or even jealous of others, the best advice is to simply acknowledge that emotion. Identifying why you feel that way (sometimes saying it out loud or writing it down) is the first step to letting go. Once you've called out the thing that has a hold over you, you can begin to take away its power and put it in its place.

Someone once told me to pretend that the bad or lingering thoughts sit in a balloon. Now picture the balloon above your head, cut the string, and imagine it floating up to the sky. It doesn't always work perfectly, but the act of visualization helps.

Rachet down expectations

My friend Melissa Comeau, director of the American Red Cross’ Military and Veteran Caregiver Network and caregiver to her combat-wounded Marine husband, Stephen, recalls: “By my third Christmas as a caregiver, I realized my holiday expectations were making it harder and the guilt set in. I was torn between having to go there and do this, trying to make it joyful for my 5-year old, all while dealing with some not-so-joyful situations with my husband's care.” Comeau decided she needed to be gentle with herself and “rage against the guilt and self-disappointment."

Among her holiday tips are reminders that no one cares what the back of the tree looks like or how late the holiday lights come down and that a takeout meal counts just as much as a homemade one. As a habitual overscheduler, I love Comeau's advice that holiday parties don't have attendance takers. Her final suggestion? Don't worry that you won't have backup medical care during the holidays if something unexpected happens — the ER is open 24/7.


Get resources and tips to help take the stress out of caregiving with AARP’s Care Guides


Own your feelings

Journaling and writing help me feel centered during hard patches like holidays and anniversaries. Years ago, while caring for my husband through his recovery, I was burning my motor out trying to make Christmas the “best ever” for my kids. After I burst into tears in front of a widowed friend, she suggested I sit down and make an “I feel bad that…” list. Just naming the culprits that were stealing my joy — like my inability to get holiday cards out or the fact that I'd canceled my holiday book swap — made me feel better, or at least a little more in control of my emotions.

Lee Woodruff

PHOTO CREDIT: STEFAN RADTKE

Lee Woodruff

If there are any topics you would like me to address or standout caregivers I should know about, email me your thoughts to ShareWithUs@aarp.org.

When journalist Katie Couric lost her husband, Jay Monahan, to prostate cancer in 1998, she learned firsthand what actions were helpful when grieving during the holidays. “If you know the person, intrude on their privacy by reaching out, even if they turn you away,” she wrote in an essay in Time.

We caregivers can be a stubborn lot. Those of us (like me) who soldier through the holidays muttering “It's easier to do it myself” need to embrace the idea of accepting assistance. Here are a few things I've gleaned over the years.

  • Let people help you. If they offer, they mean it!
  • Be specific about what you need.
  • Plan for what you do and don't want to do. Have a plan A and a plan B, and then remind yourself you can scrap them.
  • Set boundaries for others; they can change next year.
  • Cry if you feel like it — it's a great release.
  • Do something for others in need. A gesture, no matter the size, helps us focus outside ourselves and feels good.
  • Create a new holiday ritual.

Speaker and best-selling author Carole Brody Fleet has a wealth of insight as a widow and caregiver whose books dispense candid advice with humor. “Learn the word ‘no’ and use it,” she advises. “Well-meaning family and friends sometimes feel like they can drop in at any time, especially during the holidays. Tell them guilt-free that now is not a good time, and suggest alternatives.”

And for those who support caregivers, Fleet reminds that the holidays often function as a giant magnifying glass over our present lives. “You have a wonderful opportunity to be a calm in the midst of a caregiver's potential emotional storm,” she says. “Tune in to how they might be feeling at the moment, and be proactive about what they need.”

Don’t Stress the Season

Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, whose best seller Maybe You Should Talk to Someone was one of my favorite reads for 2019, offered this advice on easing holiday anxiety in Maria Shriver's Sunday Paper newsletter:

  • Stay connected. If you're feeling sad or anxious, reach out to friends or a therapist. Remember, you aren't alone.
  • Reach for the gratitude. Focus on one or two things that you're grateful for this year or that you look forward to creating in your life in the new year.
  • Have perspective. Holiday-season reminders are everywhere, but the holidays are short-lived, and before you know it, life will be back to normal. (Now that's something to celebrate!)
  • Remember that you're a grownup now. It's easy to slip back into childhood roles when we're around our families, so if you notice this happening, step away to the restroom, take some deep breaths, look at your adult face in the mirror, and smile — because as an adult, you're finally free to do as you please.

Lee Woodruff is a caregiver, speaker and author. She and her husband, Bob, cofounded the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which assists injured service members and their families. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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