Several years ago, our family gathered for the traditional Christmas dinner.

We were at the home of my brother and sister-in-law. An argument ensued over a proposed expansion of a nearby Catholic Church. My dad, who was in a wheelchair, started complaining about being cold. My nephew, who has autism, started muttering loudly. I remember thinking, “I am not part of this family. I was dropped here by mistake!”

Thanksgiving and Christmas evoke different mental images, depending upon your family dynamic. Some are based in reality. Some not. Television and movies portray a vision of multiple generations sitting around a beautifully set table, laughing and talking with ease. Even the movies that are a parody of this scene end with everyone hugging and getting along after a crisis. The moral of the story: everything will turn out okay.

When you’re caring for an aging loved one, the above may be pure fantasy.

It takes longer to get your loved one ready. Personal grooming and dressing involve lots of physical energy. They want to look good, just as you do. If you’re traveling to someone else’s home, packing for the trip is another chore to be done. Wheelchair, walker, extra clothing, incontinence aids, special cushions, other items to keep your parent comfortable. If she is on a special diet, you may have to pack your own food.

When it’s time to sit down for the big meal, you may be too exhausted to enjoy it. Resentment can creep in that other family members haven’t had to work as hard as you to get ready. It may look like everyone is having fun except you.

Here are some practical ways to help reduce caregiving stress over the holidays.

Remember what is portrayed on television isn’t real. Even the best of families have some dysfunction. We don’t get along all the time.

  • Don’t assume you have to do everything. If possible, enlist the help of other family members or close friends. This will help you avoid playing the family martyr. It isn’t realistic for you to provide care for your parent, clean your house for the gathering, and cook a meal worthy of Paula Deen.
  • If you’ve always had the meal at your house, maybe it’s time to let someone else do it. If your home is the only one big enough, ask someone else to help clean beforehand, and stay to clean up after.
  • Make a list of food items for others to bring. Sometimes people don’t know you’re feeling overwhelmed and may not know to offer. Tell them!
  • Break your to-do list into smaller increments. Seeing what needs to be done will help keep you on track. It’s a wonderful feeling to check things off the list.
  • Give yourself a break. As much as we wish our families could be like The Waltons, or like a Hallmark movie, that just isn’t reality. We rub against each other, sometimes like sandpaper on concrete.
  • In the meantime, relax, take a deep breath, and try to have fun.

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Jane Daly is the author of two books, Because of Grace (2015) and The Caregiving Season (2016).  She is also the treasurer of Inspire Christian Writers and West Coast Christian Writers.