The holiday season is upon us. How on earth, as we care for elders with dementia, children of many ages with great expectations, multiple housing arrangements and the outside pressures of holiday "cheer," do we cope?
My parents were, at one time, great celebrators of Christmas. My kids loved going to their home for Christmas Eve. After Dad's brain surgery ended with him deep into dementia, we had to spread our time out, as Dad was in a nursing home, totally changed, and Mom was still in her apartment.
During that time, my father-in-law died. Each Christmas, I drove from home to home through a small web of streets, decorating each apartment plus the nursing home rooms of my dad and my uncle. Oh yeah, I had my house and kids to make nice, as well.
When I think back on it, that time is still a blur. Mom couldn't write her own Christmas cards, so I would write them for her. She wanted her tree put up and all of her traditional things done. Same with my mother-in-law. So, apartments and nursing home rooms were decorated, cards were written, people visited - and then I went home to do my own decorating and card writing, such as it was. It was a crazy time.
We also coped with three Christmas season deaths. One year, after two Christmas season deaths in a row, my youngest son said to me, "I hope we don't have a funeral this Christmas." Thankfully, we didn't, though we did the following year.
Yes, the holidays, whether Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza or others, generally bring pressure. There is the religious significance of the holidays, of course. However, for many caregivers, even remembering that part can take effort. The outside pressures to be happy, and to create happiness for everyone else, are so strong that we can forget the "why" of it all, and when we do remember we feel guilty about forgetting.
I've told this story before, but I repeat it often because it illustrates a truth in my life. If I would have bowed to the pressure of having every holiday meal at the nursing home with whomever was there at the time, my children would never, in 15 years, have had a home holiday meal.
Is it too much to ask that a family have a holiday meal with their elder at the home? Of course not. I had many meals with them. However, sometimes I put my kids first. We have to look at the big picture. Each of you will handle these holidays differently because each of you will have a different situation.
The one thing you will all have in common with me (if you don't, please let us all know how your do it), is that you will feel that you didn't do it all perfectly.
You didn't give your mom enough attention. You should have brought your dad to the house - never mind that taking him out of his comfort zone disorients him for days - because people pushed you to do so. Your kids didn't get every minute of your time, and all the traditional baking didn't get done because you were too busy with the elders.
Your frail auntie didn't get her wreath put up on the day she wanted because you were at your son's Christmas concert. You didn't help decorate the church, which you've done every year forever, because your dad was still in the hospital after his stroke. Your house is a mess and the presents aren't purchased, much less wrapped, because your father-in-law had another seizure and you thought - again - that he may die. He came out of it and you are grateful, but then you wonder if you made the right decision when you put off the kid's gift buying.
You second guess yourself on every move. You feel you disappoint everyone while you are only trying to please them all. Stop! You can't please them all. You can't do it all perfectly. So, drop the guilt.
Simplify. Make your kids very favorite cookies, but not all of the usual ones. Get out their stockings and put up a tree, but leave the bookcase full of Santa figures for another year. It's okay to "decorate lite." Really, it is okay.
Have your holiday meal with your kids and then bring treats later to your elders in their various places (unless they can join you and not be upset by it). Celebrate their holiday with them the day before, and again the day after, if that works. Punt.
Allow yourself to be imperfect. Let everyone know this year the holidays will be an imperfect adventure. Let yourself revel in your human imperfection and ignore the rest of the world. Play the music you love and take a bath (if you can find time). Skip the parties - giving or going - unless you really enjoy them.
It may not seem like it now, but one day you will again celebrate the holidays with cheer. You will, believe it or not, be glad you gave up things to help your loved ones. You will know that they all survived not having everything perfect.
You will know, one day, that your best was, indeed, good enough. It has to be, because that is all you can do. You may even find that you will keep the holidays simple long after the need has passed. Sometimes, in admitting our imperfect humanity, we figure out what really matters.
Published On: November 16, 2009