Avoiding Holiday Burnout: Five Rules for Dementia Caregivers

Never give up. Never stop fighting.

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Image of female caregiver burnout sad in front of Christmas tree

If you are a dementia caregiver, you’re probably a compassionate person who enjoys making other people happy. You wake up each day and put the needs of someone else ahead of your own. Not because you have to, but because you want to. Unfortunately, these are the same personality traits that place you at increased risk for holiday burnout.


This is especially true in 2020 when a “normal” holiday means assessing the risk of COVID-19, limiting visitors, and wearing face masks indoors. Added to that is the underlying stress of knowing that a loved one with dementia won’t always remember and participate in family holidays.


It’s common for caregivers to feel a sense of responsibility to create a meaningful holiday for everyone. Our team has been there. From the “limit any potential meltdown” planning to the “this might be our last Christmas together” conversations and everything in between. We know that being a dementia caregiver makes every holiday season bittersweet.


With this in mind, we hope you’ll consider these five suggestions from our family to yours to increase your joy and decrease your cortisol levels this holiday season. 


1.  Lower your expectations. Put the word “perfect” right out of your vocabulary when it comes to holiday planning. Don’t let memories of your Great Aunt Sally’s cooking skills or the pages of Good Housekeeping set the standard for how you measure success. When we let go of the illusion that we can manage or anticipate every detail, the magic of the season has more room to shine through.


2.  Give yourself plenty of time. Whatever amount of time you think you will need to complete an activity, whether it’s baking, setting the perfect table, gift wrapping, or setting up for a Zoom meeting with your extended family—double it. It also helps to touch base with family members ahead of time to see what traditions are most meaningful to them. Maybe the tree-shaped napkin folding tradition is one you can let go of to save a few minutes this year.


3.  Leave some open space on your calendar. Plan for times of rest in between activities. Often, our loved ones with dementia need a day to recover from social outings or activities that require a lot of executive function. Christmas is a season, and Chanukah lasts for eight days—not everything has to happen on a single day. Technically, you can celebrate, worship, and observe any day of the year. 


4.  Laughter is essential. Whoever coined the phrase “if I didn’t laugh, I would have cried” was probably a very smart dementia caregiver. There will be ups, downs, and frustrations along the way—holiday or no holiday.  Finding the lighthearted (or dark) humor in a situation is one of the best mental health strategies we can recommend.


5.  Change the rules. Holiday traditions create a sense of connection and foster intergenerational ties, but they are not inscribed in stone. Emily, our Mindful Caregiver columnist, recalls how much her spouse Tracey and she have always loved Christmas lights. But the last few years have taught them that this tradition now brings more anxiety than warm and cozy memories. So the couple is re-thinking how they can enjoy this beloved tradition in simpler new ways.


We can’t control what happens or what other people say and do, but we can always make an effort to let go of things beyond our control. The best gifts you can give yourself and your loved ones this holiday season is a laid-back attitude and a happy heart. It’s not your job to create holiday miracles. If you make time for yourself, though, you’re more likely to avoid burnout and notice those miracles along the way. 

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