The holidays can be a joyous but stressful time (but it doesn’t have to be stressful). We offer 10 tips for caregivers to take care of themselves over the holidays.
1. Practice self-love
While the holidays can be stressful, it’s essential to take care of your physical and mental health. Keeping yourself healthy produces positive outcomes and improves the quality of care for those who depend on you.
2. Keep it simple
Remember, you have only so much energy and so many resources, don’t expend them at the expense of your own health. Keeping things simple and stress-free will save energy and your mental health.
3. No-stress meals
It’s ok to go out for meals or order in. The point is to enjoy the time together with those you love. If the time spent preparing a meal is more stressful than it’s worth, skip it.
4. Start a new tradition
Sometimes getting out and about isn’t possible due to personal responsibilities and time constraints. Invite people over to decorate, watch holiday movies at home, make yourself your favorite treat. You can develop new traditions that fit your life.
5. You can ask for help
Ask your friends and family to help with cleaning or groceries, shoveling the walk, tidying up. If resources allow, you can also order the things you need online or hire someone to help you.
6. Shop online
With so much going on, it’s challenging to find time to shop for gifts. Don’t be afraid to shop online for gifts and groceries, it’s a great time saver and keeps things relatively stress-free.
7. Brush off negativity
It’s the time for connecting with loved ones but also a time to keep our differences in check. Negative comments may come and go but don’t own them, brush them aside. Enjoy the time with those you love.
8. Let go of perfection
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. You have limited resources and limited bandwidth, work with what you have but leave perfection behind. The point is to enjoy the season.
9. Connect with caregivers
If you haven’t already, connect with caregivers in your community or find online communities to share your thoughts and gather tips. This is a great time to lean on these communities as you process the holidays.
10. Go with the flow
Take things as they come, there’s little need to stress about things that are beyond your control. You’ll feel much better physically and emotionally, but let go of the little things and allow yourself to enjoy the company of those you love.
Caregiving has got a bad rap
A lot of what we read about caregiving paints a very negative picture. Caregivers stressed by their caregiving responsibilities are at higher risk of experiencing fatigue, depression, and social isolation than non-caregivers, and some studies found that caregivers had decreased life expectancy compared to their non-caregiving equivalents.
An interesting review of the research in the field from a professor at John Hopkins University points out that it isn’t caregiving per se that leads to these negative impacts, it is the stress response that caregiving can produce. In the case of research into life expectancy, those caregivers who were not over-strained had the same life expectancy as non-caregivers and, what’s more, in a few studies, caregivers had a longer life expectancy. This leads to the conclusion that if we can find ways of helping caregivers reduce the stress they experience, we can protect them from the negative impacts of caregiving. Maybe we can even help them benefit from the positive effects of caregiving, such as a sense of purpose, increased confidence, and a deep connection.
How can we reduce the stress of caregiving?
Stress occurs when a situation exceeds the resources that the caregiver feels they have to deal with it – we can all relate to that feeling of overwhelm and anxiety when we feel we are not able to manage the situation in front of us.
We can, therefore, reduce stress in two ways. The first is by changing the situation the caregiver is in so that it doesn’t exceed their resources to cope with it. Family caregivers can face a lot of situations that could contribute to a feeling of overwhelm, e.g., carrying out medical tasks with little training, the physical and emotional fatigue of many hours caregiving, adjusting to the loss of a relationship, loss of time for yourself and increased financial strain to name a few. In response to this, there is a large number of caregiving programs that try in various ways to improve these external circumstances and support the reduce their external stressors by providing practical, logistical, and financial support to caregivers.
The second way to reduce stress is by building up the emotional resources of the caregivers. This helps them to feel more able to meet skillfully and cope with situations as and when they arise (life has a habit of presenting us with “interesting” events and situations when we least expect it!). This emotional resilience approach is the approach that Zen Caregiving Project takes in its Mindful Caregiving Education. In our courses, caregivers are taught mindfulness-based tools and strategies to help acknowledge, understand, and skillfully respond to challenges that arise in their caregiving. By teaching these skills, we are increasing the caregiver’s emotional resource or capacity, meaning they feel able to cope better with more situations whenever they happen and reduces the likelihood of them becoming overwhelmed and stressed.
It’s not an either/or
Here at Zen Caregiving Project, we champion all efforts to support the vital and powerful work that caregivers do, and we realize that a combination of both approaches described above is optimal. We are, however, sometimes surprised that emotional resilience-building is seen as “nice to have” rather than the essential skill we feel it is. Caregiving courses often focus on practical skills related to ADLs, or activities of daily living, like how to bathe or lift someone, or how to navigate the complex health systems. Yet, skills to support emotional resilience are conspicuously absent. Typically, suggestions for self-care when presented focus more on discrete activities such as doing regular exercise and having long baths. Both are great, but it’s best to address the problem of stress once it’s arrived rather than building a set of skills that strengthen emotional resilience and minimize the stress in the first place.
Skills that build emotional resilience aren’t magic cures. Still, we would argue they are equally as important as the more practical skills, both for the caregivers’ wellbeing and the quality of the care they provide to their loved ones.
Work with us to build emotional resilience in those who need it
Here at Zen Caregiving Project, we offer our courses directly to caregivers and also work with partners in a range of sectors to build in emotional resilience into any caregiving support they provide. We hope to continue to raise awareness around and meet this vital need and welcome conversation and collaboration with the network of amazing organizations that work tirelessly to support caregivers.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Families. Caring for an Aging America.
 The authors hypothesized that the positives of caregiving such as having a feeling of purpose in your life, and a connection with the person you are caring for, could explain the longer life.
 See Families. Caring for an Aging America for a good overview of the positive and negative impacts associated with caregiving
 It is no surprise that in the research caregivers with greater external challenges (such as caring for a loved one with greater needs, greater time spent caring and caring for people while on a low income) all experience higher stress than those with less external challenges.
 A study by Ankuda et al (2017) found that those individuals whose caregivers had poor wellbeing were more likely to be admitted to the Emergency Department and have higher Medicare Expenditures.