10 ways to ease Thanksgiving stress when caring for a loved one

Elizabeth Mulvaney, MSW, LCSW

Stories | Nov 22, 2017

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and National Family Caregivers Month. This is the second in a two-part series – read the first here.

Thanksgiving is a stressful time for many of us. Given the cleaning, endless errands, cooking, and travel, even the most organized host or guest may feel overtaxed. For someone caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or another chronic illness, holiday celebrations can feel even more overwhelming.

Whether you’re the caregiver or someone else at your holiday gathering is, there are ways to manage stress and ensure everyone enjoys Thanksgiving together. In my own experience as a caregiver for my parents and a mental health provider for geriatric patients and their families, I have found these tips to be helpful:

  • Set expectations. There may have been significant changes since everyone was last together. Updating them on the current condition of the person with AD will help to prevent upsetting situations. For example, he or she may experience memory loss or act in an uncharacteristic or seemingly socially inappropriate way.
  • Keep it manageable. Small gatherings are less overwhelming, as there are fewer sensory disruptions like light intensity or noise that can trigger confusion or irritability. If possible, keeping the group smaller and more low-key can help everyone enjoy their time together. If a big crowd is unavoidable, consider having the person with AD be in a quieter part of the house with only a few people in that room with them at any given time.
  • Plan activities in advance. Talk with those who will be joining the holiday to plan inclusive and manageable activities. Keeping up familiar traditions — watching the parade, a backyard flag football game, storytelling around the table, a favorite pumpkin pie recipe — can help the person with AD feel more comfortable and at home. Also, people with AD can often access long-term memories for family stories in the early and middle stages of the illness.
  • Time it right. Scheduling the meal in the middle of the day — when the person with AD is less likely to be tired and better able to function — may increase everyone’s enjoyment of the time together.
  • Schedule breaks. When your loved one has AD or another chronic illness, they might not be up for spending all day in a loud and bustling environment. A new place, disruption of routine, and many people around can be confusing and cause anxiety. Plan breaks such as a walk outside and arrange to have a quiet place for your loved one to go if needed.
  • Be flexible. Striving for a perfect holiday will set you up for unnecessary disappointment. When you’re caring for a family member with a progressive illness like AD, every day can bring changes. It’s OK (and expected) if the day doesn’t go exactly as planned. Take a deep breath, take some time alone if you need to, and move on.
  • Don’t force it. If the person with AD is stressed or upset when changing environments, plan a celebration with several family members where the person with AD lives. Do something simple and earlier in the day — maybe bring some food already prepared to keep the event shorter. It might even be on a different day. Then, have the big family get-together elsewhere, even if that is without the person. It will feel sad, but remember, you don’t want to cause stress for anyone. This will help you create moments of joy for all.
  • Be open to help. If you’re the caregiver, let others know if you’re having a tough time and need support. You can’t do all of this alone — and when others are around at Thanksgiving, you certainly don’t need to. They want to help. If you are not the direct caregiver, offer to fill in for the afternoon, help them with tasks, and acknowledge all they do every day to help your loved one.
  • Take time for yourself. Part of caring for another person is about your well-being. When someone offers help, accept it. Allow yourself some time off from caregiving, even if that just means popping out for coffee or a walk around the neighborhood. If you’re not sure how to manage the impact of caregiving on you, start here.
  • Remember what is most important. Above all else, Thanksgiving is about spending time with people who are important to you. Challenges are to be expected in these situations, but you’re all in this together. You won’t remember that the turkey was dry or the kids running around knocked Aunt Charlotte’s pie to the ground. You will remember sharing happy memories around the table and laughing together — so hold on to those moments.

Elizabeth Mulvaney, MSW, LCSW is a Lecturer on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work and was a former coordinator of the Hartford Partnership Program for Aging Education (HPPAE).  Her clinical experience includes eight years in long-term care, with an emphasis on working primarily with persons who have dementia and their families. Her work has included behavioral care planning related to dementia and depression, end of life care planning, and provision of family support, including facilitation of a family caregiver support group. Most importantly, Ms. Mulvaney, with her siblings, is a family caregiver for her mother along with a fantastic team of professionals.

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