When she thinks of the holidays, Betsy Eves says she gets excited about all the family traditions she can share with her kids, but is still aware that her husband will not want to participate in many of them because of his anxiety from Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) and a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
Betsy is the caregiver for her husband David, who served for 12 years in the Army, and they live in Virginia with their two children, ages 18 and 5.
“So it’s exciting to think about all the fun things to do over the holiday season but it’s a little bit stressful thinking about ‘ok, now how am I going to manage that and manage our expectations when it comes to my husband’s and their father’s ability to participate in any of these activities.’”
This Christmas, Betsy feels like the family is finally what she calls “over the hump” in understanding their new normal.
“We know what the diagnoses are, we know what the treatment plans are and now we’re kind of on the other side of it where we are trying to live day to day,” she said.
Living near Fort Riley, Kansas, Carolyn Tolliver-Lee is the caregiver of her sons’ father, Army veteran Earnest Lee, who is cared for at a nursing home.
For fellow caregivers, she says it’s important to realize that “when your family dynamics change, it’s going to be a domino effect,” in areas of your life, including how the family celebrates the holidays.
Earnest was the big holiday enthusiast in the family before becoming incapacitated by seizures and so they had to make changes.
“So what we’ve been doing for the last 15-16 years is that we usually go to the nursing home and participate in any holiday event the nursing home may be offering,” Carolyn said.
For many the holiday season, especially the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, can be very stressful and even more challenging for military caregivers and their families. Various physical or mental health reasons could limit their veteran’s ability to participate in a number of holiday activities.
Here are some tips from two caregivers and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation fellows about how they get through the holiday season:
Expectations: New Realities
For Betsy, traditional activities like decorating the Christmas tree can be overwhelming for her husband, so she has learned to navigate her family’s expectations with reality.
This year “I was more aware of his behavior while we were decorating it and then in those moments, I mean I just, I had to let go,” she said. “And that’s a big part of being caregiver is learning how to let go of those expectations and those ‘well we used to do it this way’ kind of moments.”
Make sure the children are involved
For her kids, Betsy involves them in the holiday planning process because if they have a say, everyone ends up having a better time.
“I think that transparency and honesty with kids is the key because they are very adept and perceptive. And they know when something’s going on,” she said.
Carolyn plans the holiday schedule in advance with her adult sons so that they know what to expect.
“So we did some forward thinking so it wasn’t a thing of them trying to hold on to tradition. They knew that something different was going to occur and they had a mindset for it, as well as myself,” she said.
Surround yourself with loved ones
Being a caregiver can be isolating and during the holidays, Betsy and Carolyn recommend not celebrating it alone.
“My family and I have gone to many Christmas dinners at our local USO,” Betsy said. “And just being at that kind of a place where I know that other people around me are going to get it, is really helpful.”
“So I would really suggest finding your people that get it and make sure that you’re spending the time with them for the holiday season because they’re the ones that are going to help you get through the entire season,” she added.
“Surround yourself with people who you enjoy being in their company and vice versa,” Carolyn said. She celebrates her holidays not only with Earnest but also by visiting with her sons and extended family.
“Don’t do it in isolation, particularly when it comes to the holidays and that’s kind of easy to do,” she added. “But I can’t emphasize the importance of being with people you enjoy being with.”
Make new traditions
After realizing that Earnest would no longer be able to come home for holidays, Carolyn said the family started new traditions by visiting him at the nursing home.
“You have to recognize your family has changed, how your family functions has changed and you can create a new function,” she said. “And our function is gassing up our cars and driving two hours. That’s different than when he lived with us and we had to accept that.”
Here are some additional resources from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation for the holiday season: