You are using an outdated browser.
For a better experience, please upgrade your browser here.

Expert Advice

Care for the caregivers in your life

More than 34 million Americans act as caregivers for an adult over the age of fifty.1 It can be incredibly hard. Caregivers juggle countless responsibilities, from arranging doctors’ visits to giving medical treatment to handling daily needs like bathing or feeding. Many take on these responsibilities out of love, without pay or even much thanks or recognition. And on top of all that, more than half of caregivers work outside the home, too.

It’s a lot to handle—and the holidays can make things harder. They can add extra responsibilities to an already long list of daily tasks. And they often involve gatherings—parties, caroling, religious celebrations—that people with caretaking responsibilities want to join but maybe don’t have enough time or flexibility.

For those of you with caregivers in your life, here are some ideas for how to show them how much you care this holiday season.

Embrace honesty and empathy

Caregiving can come with a lot of painful feelings, especially at this time of year. Caregivers are faced with the reality that their loved one is sick and may not get better. They may worry that this is the last holiday they have together or start feeling the pain of loss, even before the person they care for passes away. They can also feel sad that the holidays aren’t what they used to be (“I miss how Christmas was when Dad was healthy”), which in turn can lead to feelings of guilt.

These feelings, though painful, are also completely normal. And while you can’t take away your friend’s stress or sadness, there are ways to help them cope with the emotions that the holidays bring.

How you can help:

  • Just being there is a sign of support. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say.
  • Ask how they’re doing, and give them a chance to vent. Here are some tips for starting the conversation.
  • Encourage your friend to be honest about what they’re feeling, then listen empathetically to what they have to say.
  • If they aren’t comfortable talking to you, suggest other ways they can work through their feelings, like talking to a counselor or starting a journal.
  • Don’t pretend to understand what they’re going through. Just tell them you care and want to help.
  • Be forgiving. Anyone can seem angry and irritable when they’re feeling burned out. Try not to take it personally.
  • Call or text them regularly to check in. Caring for a loved one can be isolating.2
  • If they want to reminisce about happier times, especially about the person they’re caring for, join them. Find family photos, tell favorite stories. It’s okay to think back and smile—or cry—about their mom’s famous practical jokes or their son’s first Hanukkah.

Help handle the armchair quarterbacks

Many families gather during the holidays. For some caregivers, that means spending time with family members whom they haven’t seen since the previous holiday season. Those siblings, aunts, or cousins may have a lot of questions or concerns about the family member needing care. Often, they have only good intentions—but this sudden scrutiny might make the caregiver feel like their efforts aren’t appreciated or that they’re failing. You can help by being a buffer between a caregiver and other family members or by serving as a sounding board if the caregiver needs to let off some steam.

How you can help:

  • Step in as caregiver for a few hours, so your friend has time to talk with other family members.
  • If your friend is expected to cook for their family, help them make the meal. Even better, prepare it elsewhere, bring it over, and do the dishes before you leave.
  • Host your friend’s family for a few hours—have them over to your house, invite them to a restaurant, etc.
  • Take your friend out. Let their family spend time alone with the person needing care. Sometimes family members don’t understand how hard caregiving is until they do it themselves.
  • If your friend is worried about their house being untidy before their family arrives, help clean.
  • Encourage your friend to keep their holiday plans simple if they want to. It’s okay to say no or scale back.
  • Reassure them that if they don’t want to dive into long-standing family issues during the holidays, that’s fine, too.
  • Create a plan for how your friend can deal with relatives who may seem critical. Consider being ready to drop by with a board game or bottle of bubbly if your friend calls asking for backup.
  • Plan an enjoyable activity for after the holidays, so your friend has something to look forward to once everyone goes home.

Offer to pitch in—and encourage them to accept it

Caring for a loved one can be rewarding, but it also takes a toll. The majority of caregivers say they feel unprepared, uninformed, and worried that they aren’t doing a good job.3 They may feel that they have little control over the situation—which can lead to burnout, especially when combined with a long list of day-to-day demands. The holidays can add to their load, but you can help lighten the burden. Research indicates that caregivers with supportive social networks of relatives and friends are more resilient.4

How you can help:

  • Pitch in with with chores around the house: cook, clean, do yard work, help decorate.
  • Offer to help organize any holiday traditions they want to observe this year.
  • If the caregiver has children, take the kids out for a fun afternoon so your friend can have some quiet time.
  • Does someone need a ride to the doctor? Basketball practice? Volunteer to drive.
  • If your friend is overwhelmed trying to update other family members, offer to be the family spokesperson for a little while.
  • If you can, help your friend find answers to medical, legal, financial, or insurance questions. The end of the year is a good time to make sure everything is up-to-date and organized.
  • Offer to go to the pharmacy to pick up medications.
  • Clean and stock the fridge with prepared foods.
  • Arrange for a meal delivery service, or ask other friends to sign up to bring over a meal.
  • If your friend is thoroughly overwhelmed, suggest that they join a caregiver support group. It’s a powerful way to share their experience with others. Recruit a backup caregiver so they have time to attend.

Encourage self-care

Caregivers often put their own needs last, and this is especially true during the holidays, when there’s so much else to do. But self-care is vital. Taking care of themselves gives them more energy to provide care. Caregivers who find the time to engage in activities they enjoy are also more likely to say that they are coping well.5

How you can help:

  • Encourage your friend to get regular exercise, eat well, and sleep.
  • Go on a walk together.
  • Brainstorm with them other ways to de-stress. Reading? Time in nature? Taking a class?
  • Do something fun together: practice yoga, play a game, watch a TV show.
  • Help them practice focusing on what’s going well in their life, which is proven to lift a person’s spirits. Journal together or try this activity.
  • Surprise them with a treat: flowers, their favorite magazine.
  • Help your friend get out of the house. Take over their caregiving responsibilities for an afternoon so they can take a break.
  • If it’s possible, give a holiday gift of a few hours of paid help. Remind your friend that they’ll give better care if they have a chance to relax a little.
  • Look into respite (short-term) care. It’s a covered Medicare hospice benefit, so it may be available at no cost.

Caregiving is a 24/7 commitment. People do it out of love. The holidays give us a chance to reflect that love back to them. Even small gestures of appreciation and support can make a big difference. They tell your friend that you’re there for them, what they do is incredibly important, and they’re not alone.

Endnotes

  1. http://www.caregiving.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/2015_CaregivingintheUS_Executive-Summary-June-4_WEB.pdf.
  2. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/caregivers/in-depth/alzheimers/art-20048212?pg=2.
  3. B. A. Given and L. Northouse, “Who cares for family caregivers of patients with cancer?,” Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing 15, no. 5 (2011): 451–52.
  4. F. İnci and A. Temel, “The effect of the support program on the resilience of female family caregivers of stroke patients: Randomized controlled trial,” Applied Nursing Research 32 (2016): 233–40.
  5. A. Harmell, E. Chattillion, S. Roepke, and B. Mausbach, “A Review of the Psychobiology of Dementia Caregiving: A Focus on Resilience Factors,” Current Psychiatry Reports 13, no. 3 (2011): 219–24. Adam Grant, Give and take: a revolutionary approach to success. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014).