Ways for Caregivers to Deal with Difficult Family Members Over the Holidays

caregivers at holidays

Though the holidays can be merry and bright, they can also be stressful and overwhelming for some. This can be especially true when you’re a caregiver of an older adult and have difficult or insensitive family members who show up with unrealistic expectations.

Caregivers often run into these types of scenarios over the holidays:

  • They are left out of family gatherings, or have the invitation extended to them but not to their older adult.
  • They are blamed for being difficult or overprotective of their older adult.
  • They unintentionally offend family members when they explain that their older adult’s limitations mean s/he can no longer participate in certain family traditions.
  • They experience family members misunderstanding the realistic capabilities or needs of their older adult.

While you may not be able to control some of the situations you or your older adult are thrust into over the holiday season this year, you can control your reactions. You can also set the stage for less drama and conflict by following these tips:

1. Reset your own expectations. It’s likely that the way your insensitive family members have acted in the past won’t change anytime soon, so rather than set yourself up for disappointment that they might provide a little extra caregiving support this year, be realistic. Even if their behavior is unfair, it’s best to accept the way things are, remove uncertainty (which causes stress), and get on with enjoying your holiday season as best you can.
2. Reset your older adult’s expectations. Do your best to protect your older loved one from any uncooperative family members so s/he experiences feelings of holiday love and togetherness. If holiday plans will be different this year than in the past, let him or her know in advance so s/he isn’t blindsided. You may not want to tell the whole truth if it is hurtful, but at least let the person know what to expect. For example, if a sibling can’t handle seeing your parent with advanced Alzheimer’s, you may want to tell your parent that the sibling came down with the flu so you won’t be able to go there for Thanksgiving this year.
3. Exclude any truly toxic individuals. If any family members are especially nasty or bring up unpleasant memories for your older adult, don’t feel guilty about getting protective as a caregiver. Toxicity takes the joy right out of the season. You don’t have to invite those people to attend the holiday gatherings this year. If they object to being left out, you could use health as an excuse, such as saying that your older adult isn’t feeling well enough for a large group right now.
4. Keep any potentially upsetting topics off-limits. It goes without saying that politics and religion should usually be taboo, but other subjects might be touchy for certain family members as well. To keep the atmosphere pleasant and not upset your older adult with family bickering, set boundaries. Stay away from topics that could start arguments or touch nerves.
5. Practice gratitude and tolerance. When you’re all together, focus on what you have to be thankful for. For example, be grateful that your older adult is able to join you all for another holiday. Try to overlook irritating quirks in other family members by reminding yourself that you only have to tolerate them for a little while. Do your best to all get along by focusing on the pleasure that your family gathering will bring to your older adult.

Personality conflicts and petty disagreements can usually be overlooked during a holiday gathering with a little planning and self-control. Do what you can in advance to adjust your attitude and set the proper tone for the day, and then take any necessary action during the gathering itself to protect your older adult if things start to get out of hand.