It’s the most wonderful time of the year…except for the ways in which it’s not. The holidays come with a lot of celebrations, tasty foods, and family time, but for caregivers all that comes with some serious side effects that can be bad for your health.
Caregivers have two big issues during the holidays that can have a big negative impact on their health:
- Stress – it’s there year round, but it’s typically heightened during the holiday season
- A proliferation of tasty, not-so-healthy foods
The two issues may seem to be ganging up on you – when you’re stressed, saying “no” to that delicious dessert in front of you at a holiday party is that much harder. If you want to stay healthy during the holidays this year, you need to focus on both.
Here are a few tips for dealing with each.
Managing Caregiver Stress During the Holidays
Stress isn’t just about how you feel. It has a tangible, negative influence on your physical health as well. If you want to stay healthy this holiday season, first things first, you have to look for ways to manage your stress.
- Delegate tasks.
You don’t have to do everything alone.
Look at everything you need to do for yourself, your family, and your senior loved one. Now make a list of people in your life that might be able to help. Include your kids, spouse, siblings, friends from church, neighbors – don’t be stingy with this list, really try to think of everyone. Now, figure out who on your second list would be good to ask for help with specific items on your first list.
You might feel awkward asking, but remember, it’s the holiday season – many people are looking for ways to give back and do good in the world. You’re handing them a way to do that. And the worst-case scenario is that they say “no.”
- Prioritize self-care.
Hopefully completing the first step opens up some time for this, but even if you still feel like your calendar’s filled to brim, identify a slot each day to devote to you. I know it’s not easy, but it’s necessary.
Fill that slot with whatever activity (or lack thereof) helps you best relax and enjoy yourself. It could be a long bath, a trip to the gym, or an hour to catch up on your favorite soap opera. Whatever it is, consider that spot on the calendar set in stone. Barring a health emergency, any needs your senior loved one (or anyone else) has can wait an hour while you take care of you.
- Give yourself permission to say “no” to things.
The holiday season is filled with one event after another. You may well find yourself with invites to more than one holiday party a week – some that come with the expectation of bringing something to contribute.
These parties are supposed to be fun. If they’re adding stress to your life rather than looking like a fun way to spend a couple of hours, then you don’t have to go. It’s ok to RSVP “no” and take the night for yourself or your family.
- Be willing to take shortcuts.
Do you feel like you absolutely have to make your traditional holiday cookies from scratch because it’s what you do every year? You don’t. Give yourself permission to buy cookies from the grocery store or a bakery instead.
There’s no reason to make holiday preparations any harder than they have to be. If you can sub in an easier recipe for the complicated one you usually make, do. If you can order gifts online rather than having to make a trip to the mall, then do. If you can identify a different way of doing things that will make the holiday season easier on you, there’s no good reason not to take advantage of it.
- Don’t skimp on sleep.
You know what makes stress much, much worse? Sleep deprivation. Unfortunately, stress makes it harder to get a good night’s sleep, but you should at least try to set aside a healthy amount of time to sleep each day. And there are a few steps you can take to help assure better sleep, such as skipping late-night snacks and avoiding screens for a couple of hours before bedtime.
- Consider therapy.
Yes, it takes time out of your busy day and might cost money (depending on your health insurance coverage), but a good therapist can equip you with strategies to better manage your stress. If you can’t seem to get a handle on your stress with any of the other tips here, don’t think that means you have to live with it. Talk to a therapist to see about better solutions to try.
Eating Healthy During the Holidays
Holiday eating is notoriously trick for those of us trying to stay healthy. Sweets like cookies, pies, and gingerbread abound. Drinks that are high in fats and sugars (egg nog and hot chocolate, anyone?) are specifically associated with the season. And that’s all before you get to the entrees that are often drenched in gravies and sauces.
They’re delicious. They “feel” like the holidays. And they’re terrible for you. Here are some healthy holiday eating tips to help you manage better this year.
- Focus on quantity.
Don’t try to completely deny yourself all the cookies, fudge, and candy you’ll see around you this season. That takes an amount of will power almost none of us could manage. Instead, make your goal limiting your intake. If there’s a whole spread of delicious sweets at a holiday party, make yourself choose one – maybe two if the portions are small. If there’s a plate full of your mom’s best holiday cookies, limit yourself to one a day. You can still enjoy the sweets, but only within limits.
- Focus on your favorites.
If the pecan pie your sister makes every holiday season is one of your favorite things, don’t deny yourself a slice. But if you just like the sugar cookies your cousin brings over so-so, skip those. Don’t feel like you have to eat and drink everything in front of you because it’s there. Identify the one or two unhealthy foods and drinks you love the most and limit your self-permission to indulging in those.
- Fill up on healthy foods first.
If you’re eyeing a delicious, unhealthy spread on an empty stomach, you’re going to fill up on all those items you know you don’t really need. Instead, eat some healthy food or snacks before heading out to holiday celebrations. Some veggie soup in advance can ensure you don’t eat quite as much turkey and gravy or pumpkin pie.
- Consider ways to make old recipes healthier.
Consider if your favorite holiday recipes can handle substitutions. Would your mashed potatoes still be good if you swapped in olive oil for butter or fruit juice instead of sugar?
There’s a wide world of ingredient substitutions you can try out to make your standard recipes healthier.
- Find new, healthier holiday alternatives to try.
Who says traditions never change? What if instead of spiced apple cider, you gave apple cider tea a try? You can sub mashed cauliflower for mashed potatoes. Snack on nuts and popcorn instead of cheese and crackers.
It may feel like a bummer to avoid your favorite holiday foods, but if you find the right tasty alternatives, you might not even miss them.
- Go for walks.
I know, I know. You’re busy and this doesn’t have to do with holiday eating, but it does have to do with staying healthy in the face of less-than-healthy eating choices. Finding an opportunity to get some movement into your days can make a big difference.
A walk is something you can do with your senior loved one (as long as it’s not too icy out), and being active gives you a chance to burn off some of those calories. So bundle up and get out there.
If you can manage to minimize the stress and find ways to enjoy holiday eating without overdoing it, you’ll have a better holiday season and an easier path moving into a healthy January and beyond.