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Expert Advice

Care for the caregivers in your life

If you know someone who is grieving or facing hardship, you may be looking for ways to support them through a challenging holiday season. This year, the COVID-19 crisis is making it more difficult for people to connect and lend support. We’ve compiled safe and practical ways for you to show your loved ones how much you care during the holidays. With #OptionBThere, you can still be there for others, even if you can’t be there in person.

More than 53 million Americans act as caregivers for an adult or child with special needs. A quarter of them are millennials.1 This figure from May 2020 doesn’t include people who are now acting as caregivers for those facing a COVID-19 diagnosis, or have added on more hours of childcare and education because of the pandemic.

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.

Stressors like COVID-19, flu season, and social distancing have added extra pressures to caregivers. For those of you with caregivers in your life, here are some ideas to help you show support and lend a hand.

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 checking in 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 will gather during the holidays, either virtually or in person. For some caregivers, that means spending time with family members whom they haven’t seen since the previous holiday season. Those siblings, aunts, uncles, 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:

  • If you can do so safely, step in for some caregiving responsibilities, so your friend has time to talk with other family members.
  • If your friend is expected to cook for their family, see if you can shop for the groceries and make that meal. You can prepare it at home and deliver it on their doorstep.
  • Take your friend out for a socially distant hang. This can look like a virtual movie date, a walk, or a quick video call. 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, offer to help clean while your friend is out of the house, or take care of yard work.
  • 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 do a socially distant drop off of a board game or festive beverage 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 chores: drop off a homemade meal, offer to help with yard work, shop for groceries, pick up a prescription from the pharmacy, or 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 socially distant activity so your friend can have some quiet time, or do an activity with them over Zoom.
  • 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, insurance, or homeschooling questions. The end of the year is a good time to make sure everything is up-to-date and organized.
  • Clean and stock the fridge with prepared foods.
  • Arrange a meal train to get other friends to pitch in a meal and ease the financial and time burden.
  • Suggest that they join a caregiver support group. It’s a powerful way to share their experience with others.

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 socially distanced walk together.
  • Brainstorm with them other ways to de-stress. Reading? Time in nature? Taking a virtual class?
  • Do something fun together: do a virtual yoga session, play a video game together, host a watch party.
  • 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: drop off or send a care package -- a beverage, a face mask, a new video game, flowers, or their favorite magazine.
  • Help them take over any socially-distanced chores: Run to the grocery store or pharmacy, shovel the sidewalk, or offer to help change their oil.

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.


  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).