When you’re caring for someone in the last stage of life, the holidays aren’t always full of cheer. As caregivers, balance the extra demands of caregiving with family dynamics and the usual busyness of this time of year, and it's common to experience overwhelm, compassion fatigue and carer burnout. Connection, not perfection, is more important than ever during this time.
Violet Guide Practice Manager Wendy Stocks says, “the holiday season can be a bit of a minefield, with high expectations of joyous family get-togethers that, in reality, may result in replays of past family conflict.”
Setting clear, healthy boundaries with yourself and others can help you navigate family gatherings, full medical and social calendars, and unreasonable expectations with calm. Not sure where to start? Here are our top ways to establish healthy holiday boundaries as a caregiver.
Take some time to think about how you want to spend the holidays, what will make the time enjoyable, and what personal boundaries you need to put into place to make it happen.
As your loved one’s primary caregiver, you’ll know what is reasonable to expect of them and what time of the day they’re at their best for social gatherings. Talk to them about their wishes for the season so you can make it happen.
Map out any important events and appointments on a calendar to ensure you don’t overcommit. If you’re clear on what matters from the outset, setting healthy boundaries throughout the holidays will be easier.
Wendy Stocks says, “Planning in advance can be helpful for practical things like arranging care for someone while you get some respite.”
Accept your feelings
The holidays can bring up a mixed bag of emotions at any time, at any moment, you might feel happy, sad, anxious, excited, angry or hopeful. But when you’re caring for someone in the last stage of life, these feelings can be intensified.
It’s important to acknowledge and accept how you’re feeling without judgement. There’s no need to pressure yourself to change the way you feel. Accepting feelings as they are is the first step to processing them. Feelings pass, so let them be what they are.
Wendy Stocks says “Feeling anger is very normal, and you need to forgive yourself for this. Taking time out from the immediate situation can help you calm yourself. Seeking help to find non-harmful ways of releasing feelings can lead you towards gaining acceptance of your situation and regulating emotions.”
Prepare for changes
When a loved one is in the last stage of life, it’s important to accept that the holidays might look different. Accepting that and preparing yourself and your family for those changes can make it easier to deal with when the time rolls around.
Understand that things can change quite suddenly. So have a backup plan ready and always keep emergency contact details on hand.
Focusing on connections and making most of your time together, rather than trying to plan for a perfect Christmas lunch, can take some of the pressure off. Have realistic expectations around gifts, food, celebration and family dynamics.
Wendy Stocks says, “If someone has always acted in a certain way, for example, constantly critical of others, you can expect this behaviour to happen again. Think about ways to reduce the level of emotion you experience. It might be limiting the time you spend with that person, having a witty response, or having an (already thought out) positive comment to say to yourself to counteract the criticism.”
Set your boundaries
Being crystal clear on your own physical, mental and emotional limits, and honouring them, is a crucial step in making it through the holidays as a caregiver.
There is no joy in being overworked and overwhelmed for the sake of tradition, so it’s important to clearly, and lovingly enforce your boundaries with family and friends when you need to.
Are you already feeling exhausted, divided and depleted? Give yourself permission to say no to this weekend’s holiday lunch. Not sure you’re loved one is up to seeing the extended family? Let them know.
Wendy Stocks says “Approach family gatherings from a place of care and kindness, understanding that past resentments and/or long-held attitudes may lie just under the surface. Remember that it may be difficult or painful for other family members too. Staying positive and giving each other the space they need, and the opportunity for respite can really help.”
Share the load
While you may be your loved one’s primary caregiver, you do not need to be the primary joy maker this holiday season.
Call on your Circle Of Care to help you manage things like medical appointments, laundry, mowing the lawn, organising gatherings, and cooking meals. Ask them to join in a 'roster of care' to spread the load so you can take some respite.
Violet Guide and Trainer, Rose Dillon says, “Sharing the caring role, especially among a large number of siblings, can be really difficult. Don't judge others - just be grateful for whatever others can do. Don't waste energy worrying about that or being resentful; they will do what they can.”
Make time for grief
The holidays can be a painful reminder of past memories and the approaching loss of your loved one. When grief surfaces, reduce the pressure to celebrate and take the time to honour what you are feeling. Remember, grief is cyclical. It comes and goes in waves, so ride that wave until the next break.
Be kind to yourself. Journal your feelings. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Be with what is.
Dr Aspasia Karageorge, a clinical psychologist in Sydney NSW, says, “It can be useful to acknowledge that this is something that matters to us, and we’re choosing to do this today.”
Take a time out
Between caring for your loved one and trying to find some holiday cheer, it’s easy to forget to take care of yourself. But you can’t pour from an empty cup, so seek out moments to rest and rejuvenate.
Small acts of self-kindness can make a big difference. For example, simple breathing exercises can quieten the chatter in your mind and help you return to a state of calm. And you can practice them anytime, anyplace, even now. Inhale – two – three – four. Exhale – two – three – four.
Beate, who cared for her mother who died from pancreatic cancer aged 74 says,
“You need to take care of yourself. Even ringing a friend every day, a cup of tea, or taking your dog for a walk.”
The holiday season touches us all in different ways. If you’re not feeling festive, you don’t need to put on a brave face or hide behind a smile. Instead, talk to your family and friends about how you’re feeling and what you need. Every open conversation is a chance to connect and create a festive season that works for you.
If you’re feeling lonely or struggling to cope, get free guided support from our Violet Guides.