THE BLOG
12/21/2011 11:28 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2012

Holiday Burnout

The holidays can be a time of joy, togetherness, gratitude and renewed faith for many Americans. However, they can also be a busy time that creates longer to-do lists and increased stress and anxiety -- especially for family caregivers.

"Basically we're kind of not doing it," said Roxanne Hawn, an award-winning blogger and writer based outside of Denver, of the holidays this year. "My advice on avoiding holiday burnout would be scaling back significantly and letting that be OK."

Ms. Hawn and her husband both have ailing mothers -- hers is in an assisted living facility at age 68 with both a rare neurological condition and a heart condition that prevent her from traveling to her daughter's mountain home; his mother still lives alone at home at age 87, but after a serious outdoor fall combined with hypothermia a few years ago, she now eats primarily through a feeding tube and requires daily visits from her son.

"We're in our third year of multiple life-and-death medical crises," Ms. Hawn said. "I've got my tunnel vision blinders on just to get through day-to-day life, let alone life in the holidays."

When just getting to the grocery store for an ordinary week is overwhelming and exhausting, Ms. Hawn simply laughed at the idea of grocery shopping for something as large as the Thanksgiving meal.

Admitting that she "can't think past Thanksgiving," Ms. Hawn said she will cook a smaller-than-normal meal for that holiday and deliver it to her mother and then visit her mother-in-law too. "It's not going to be a big family and everybody in one place all day long," she said. "It's just silly to try do what we've always done."

Stepping back from some holiday traditions is just what the experts recommend for family caregivers.

"Allow yourself the right to say, 'I can't host dinner this year,' or 'We don't really need to decorate the whole house,'" said Suzanne Mintz, President and CEO of the National Family Caregivers Association. "Just because you used to do certain things, it doesn't mean you have to do it now that you are a family caregiver or don't do them alone, or not to the extent you did before. If you've always baked three pies for Thanksgiving, bake one and buy the other two, or ask someone else to make them."

Ms. Mintz offers other ideas for people to take the stress out of their holidays, such as sending electronic e-cards instead of going to the post office and doing more online shopping instead of driving to the mall. "Caregiving is hard and it comes with its own set of stresses," she said. "Think about what you can do to eliminate those stresses."

Noting that caregivers are more likely to succumb to depression that the rest of the population, Ms. Mintz said it's a matter of good health to minimize stress. "Stress for everyone is greater during the holidays. It seems nuts," she said. "It is supposed to be a time of enjoying family and friends, but we are all so caught up in the 'to dos' that it just adds to the stress that is already there."

For some caregivers, advance planning and organization can make the holidays more manageable. Nurse Elizabeth Hanes blogs about caregiving at cheerfulcaregiver.com, and this year found a certain peace in getting a head start.

"Each year, as I place Christmas decorations around the house, a part of me thinks, 'All of this has to be taken back down in a few short weeks,'" she wrote in a September blog post in which she noted that the holidays "are right around the corner." "With the burden of caregiving on me, I ask myself each year if the holiday effort is worth it. And each year, I come to the conclusion it is."

Yet she is not advocating for all the bells and whistles of every holiday moment, but finding a simpler way:

"Celebrating the holidays maintains important family traditions," she wrote. "That helps me feel centered. I long ago let go of the perfectionism that compelled me to create all-singing, all-dancing holidays that cost more than I could afford and involved more preparation than I could manage without getting stressed out."

Ms. Hawn said her family has also let go of "perfectionism" and embraced a fuller season that starts with celebrating Christmas a couple of weeks early with her brother and his family.

"I'm lucky we don't have kids because I cannot even imagine how we would do it," Ms. Hawn said. "If push comes to shove, the holidays just aren't that important when you are in survival mode. Every day since we found my mother-in-law in the snow has been a gift because it's practically a miracle that she survived. So, really, what is Thanksgiving?"