Though for many, they’re a joyful time and, for some, even relaxing, the holidays can be particularly stressful for those with sick loved ones at home.
More than 65 million people — about 29 percent of the U.S. population — spend an average of 20 hours per week providing care for a chronically ill, disabled or elderly family member or friend, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving.
The holidays can already be taxing thanks to all the shopping, working overtime to compensate for vacationing coworkers (and take time off ourselves), hosting and celebrating — add to that caretaking responsibilities, and what should be a time to enjoy becomes a time to dread.
To help get you through this festive, stressful season, experts gave us sound advice for dealing with the holidays when a loved one is sick, so they feel included and you stay sane.
Talk to them about how they’d like to be included
“It can be helpful to ask loved ones how they might like to be included and then try to arrange it if possible,” Jephtha Tausig, a New York City-based clinical psychologist, tells SheKnows.
Thanks to technology, Tausig adds that loved ones can even be included remotely (i.e., FaceTime or Skype) if they aren’t able to be physically present.
Melissa Coats, a licensed counselor who has experience of her own caring for a sick loved one, also notes that you should still keep in mind that your loved one might not actually be up for holiday festivities.
“Be respectful about how they are feeling, but also plant the seed about doing a phone call or video chat if they are up for it,” she tells SheKnows.
Visit them if they’re not home
If your loved one is in a health care facility, communicate with the facility about visitations.
“It’s usually a good idea to check with whatever facility a loved one may be in to see about their rules/regulations regarding these types of communications,” Tausig says. “If this can be arranged, then it’s usually good to arrange a concrete time which works with everyone’s schedule so that as many people as possible can be involved and your loved one has something to look forward to.”
Incorporate their favorite dishes or traditions
If your sick loved one is joining the family for a shared meal, Tausig suggests cooking with them in mind.
“It can feel good to incorporate a loved one’s favorite holiday dishes or other traditions that might be meaningful to them and to your family and friends as a way of honoring them and having them be present, even if they aren’t able to be present personally,” she says.
Heidi McBain, a marriage and family therapist, adds that your sick loved one likely doesn’t want you stressing so much either.
“Try to keep in mind that they most likely want what’s best for you, and they don’t want to be a burden — so continue with your normal holiday traditions, but try to include them when you can,” she tells SheKnows.
Maintain a level of “normalcy”
“One of the best ways to help a sick loved one feel included and relieve the guilt about allowing yourself to celebrate the holiday is to try to maintain some sense of ‘normalcy,’” says Coats. “Your sick loved one may now be in a new reality where they are the center of a lot of uncomfortable attention. Oftentimes, the illness becomes the focus as opposed to the personhood of your loved one.”
Coats, therefore, advises that keeping to regular holiday activities can be helpful for everyone involved.
“Relieving the guilt around celebrating also means validating yourself,” Coats says. “You are allowed to feel your own feelings and be concerned about your loved one’s feelings. One does not cancel out the other. Allow yourself to say, ‘I am allowed to take care of myself.’ You will be doing both you and your loved one a favor.”
Because Coats has been through the holidays with a sick loved one herself, she recognizes that her advice is easier said than done, however. “I recommend a lot of patience with ourselves and our loved ones during the holidays, when things are already naturally more stressful,” she adds.
McBain recommends a number of ways to practice self-care during the holidays. “If you need time and space to journal about how you’re feeling, take a walk with a family member to talk about your guilt, watch holiday movies to numb the emotional pain for a little while, etc. Give yourself permission to do what you need to do so you can be the best version of yourself,” she says.
Keep things comfortable
Your loved one is sick, which means that if they’re uncomfortable, you may end up spending more time accommodating them instead of enjoying your time with them.
“Take into consideration any dietary, noise, light or mobility constraints your loved one has; try to make sure the situation is comfortable for them and that they have an exit plan if their health becomes worse throughout the day,” Whitney Hawkins Goodman, a psychotherapist and owner of The Collaborative Counseling Center tells SheKnows. “You can say, ‘Is there anything you’d like to have during our celebration? How can we make it more comfortable for you?’”
Remember that every holiday is just another day
Ultimately, the holidays are a time to be together. Planning ahead, delegating holiday duties (like gift shopping, cooking, hosting, cleaning, etc.) and even enlisting caregiving help can take some weight off your shoulders.
As you may have family come to town or you may be visiting family, look to that family for helping hands — all time spent together, whether you’re cooking a meal or eating it, is valuable.
“Try not to have overwhelming expectations for the holidays — remind yourself that it’s a day to be together and enjoy each other’s company,” Goodman says. “You don’t need to be a superhero.”