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A Caregiver’s Guide to Navigating the Holiday Season

By Jennifer Jenkins

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but let’s face it, the holidays can be overwhelming. For our nation’s military caregivers, the holidays are often not the most wonderful time of the year but the most stressful. Between juggling caregiving duties with holiday activities and the pressure to create the perfect festive atmosphere, it’s easy to get caught up in the chaos.

As a caregiver, there were many times I felt defeated and exhausted, with my patience wearing thin – very thin. But trust me: You can navigate the ups and downs of the holiday season.

My journey has taught me the importance of setting realistic expectations, prioritizing self-care, and creating meaningful traditions that bring joy to me and those around me. So, grab a cup of hot cocoa and sit back. I’m here to share coping strategies that work year-round, not just during the holidays:

1. The Art of Saying “No” Gracefully

Ah, the age-old struggle of saying no guilt-free can be as difficult as turning away that second (or third) piece of holiday pie. I’ve been there. But here’s the secret: You can say no – and it can be liberating. Don’t be afraid to decline when you’re stretched thin. Try these examples:­­

  • “Thank you for the offer, but I can’t fit that into my schedule this week.”
  • “I’m spending more time with my family right now. I will have to decline.”
  • “I’m going to pass this time. Thank you for thinking of me.”

It’s also important to realize you can say no while offering a solution you might feel more comfortable with – whether that’s because it’s less complicated, more affordable, or simply easier for you to do.

  • “No, I can’t make a side dish, but I can grab the paper plates.”
  • “I can’t help but let me send you some resources.”
  • “Let’s plan to connect or meet up another time.”

Saying no often means saying “yes” to yourself. Allow yourself to make time for the activities and things you enjoy.

2. Prioritize Wisely

It’s easy to get stuck in the whirlwind of caregiving, but your needs matter, too. And remember, your needs are separate from the warrior or person you are caring for. You are not responsible for their mood. You can enjoy the holidays even if someone else doesn’t. Determine what will make you happy and prioritize that.

Don’t feel obligated to attend everything, either. It’s about quality over quantity! Choose what matters most to you.

Lastly, I’ve often thought about managing my expectations around the holidays; however, I’ve learned that it should be more about setting expectations with others.

Seek for others to understand your situation or where you might be coming from, but only take on what you feel you can handle. It’s OK to leave grandma’s house early if things get uncomfortable. Make an early exit. 

Prioritizing your own needs doesn’t mean neglecting your family members, friends, coworkers, or neighbors. It means finding a balance that allows you to care for yourself while being there for others.

3. Give Yourself Permission to Make New Rules

You are a hidden hero, often behind the scenes, caring for every little thing. It’s a lot. But this year, allow yourself to embrace joy and find your moments of happiness. It’s not selfish, it’s self-care.

When you became a caregiver, your life changed, and the things (and traditions) you used to enjoy probably changed, too. This year, focus on starting new traditions and creating new memories. It’s OK to change the way you celebrate the holidays.

Would you rather drive the streets looking at holiday lights instead of going to the annual, less-than-exciting gift exchange at your neighbor’s house? If the answer is yes, do it! Working with your loved ones to create these new memories is also a great way to reconnect.

4. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Trust me when I say there is joy in keeping things simple. The more I simplified my life during the holidays, the less anxiety I had. Send e-cards instead of paper cards. Make a simpler dish. Ask others to chip in on that gift for your mother or father-in-law.

Give yourself a gift by embracing the art of simplicity. It’s the quality of time that truly matters, not the elaborate details.

5. Be Mindful of Triggers

We often anticipate the triggers of the person we’re caring for, but we rarely do that for ourselves. Notice your triggers. Write them down.

Take notice of that dull pain, irritation, or tiredness. It may be an “edgy” feeling, perceiving yourself as lonely in a crowd, or just plain exhaustion. Recognize your signs of burnout and accept your limits.

Now, breathe. Remember, your strength and resilience are the gifts that will keep giving long after the festive lights come down.

It’s OK to set boundaries. It’s OK not to have the “perfect” holiday party. Practice communicating your feelings, taking it all in stride, and building memories with your loved ones.

If signs of stress creep in, reach out to a supportive friend or an organization like Wounded Warrior Project where staff are trained to help.  Call the WWP Resource Center at 888.WWP.ALUM (997.2586) or 904.405.1213.

If you need more support, call the VA’s National Caregiver Support Line at 1-855-260-3274 to chat with their Caregiver Support Team.

Here’s to a holiday season filled with love, understanding, and the gentle reminder that in caring for others, we must also care for ourselves.

About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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