Dear Family Advisor

I can't handle two sets of parents with health issues for the holidays!

Last updated: Nov 21, 2009

I'm not up to having both sets of parents in our home for the entire holiday season, which has been the norm for the last five years. I'm an only child, and my parents live in our downstairs apartment. Dad's in a wheelchair from a stroke, and Mom recently had a double mastectomy. My husband's parents visit from late November until New Year's. They, too, have health issues. My husband misses them, and I understand that. But I just can't do it this year. I work full time, too, and I'm exhausted and stressed even thinking about it.

How do I convince him that it might be time for another sibling to host Mom and Dad? He has two siblings who live an hour away.

I call your situation the "double caregiving whammy." Two sets of parents -- twice the fun! You're right to want to set some healthy boundaries before the holidays.

Start by having a private, honest discussion with your husband. Explain that the holidays bring a whole new level of stress and that at least for this year, you can't do it all. As an only child, you have no one else you can call and say, "Hey, how about a little help here!" Your husband has siblings to help care for his parents. But recognize that comes with its own issues. Be kind and understanding -- after all, he's generous enough to share his home with your parents year-round. He's a loving family man, which is probably one reason you love him.

Vent to your friends, but choose your words wisely with your husband. Family can come between even the closest of couples. If you make him feel as if you don't want to spend time with them, you'll be setting a tone that helps no one.

I find that most men don't fully comprehend why the holidays are stressful. Guys tend to think of holidays as a time of cheese logs and crackers, a football game on TV, and knowing that all the people they love are under one roof. They may pitch in, but women usually carry the brunt of the workload. And it's hard to muster up the good cheer when your back is aching and your to-do list just exploded.

So if you're adamant that your husband's siblings should host this year, say so. Your husband may try to talk you out of it and promise you lots of help, but it's really OK to take a break. Assure him that you'll get to see his parents plenty, and maybe his siblings deserve a chance to have their parents in their home for a change.

If you do decide to host the family -- with help -- then make sure that you get the kind of help that matters to you. Maybe you don't want to cook, or maybe you'd like your husband to handle much of the caregiving for his folks.

Whatever you do, since you're a working caregiver, look for ways to make your life easier all the way around. For example, if you've always cooked a big turkey dinner, consider a catered meal from a local restaurant or grocery store, or do a potluck with others. Consider Chinet instead of china. Nix the big tree. So what if you don't make Aunt Sally's sweet potato casserole this year? Make a mental list of the things you love most during holidays and keep those, but ditch the rest.

The hardest part will probably be to hang on to your boundaries once you've set them. It seems easier to keep things status quo, even when it's a lot of work, than risk change. You or your husband might wonder, "Who are we if our place isn't where everyone gathers for the holidays?" Notice these feelings, but don't overreact and run back to your old ways.

During or after the holidays I suggest you, your husband, and his siblings talk about their parents' future care needs. Who will care for them when the time comes? Will they move in with someone? Move into a care home nearby? Stay in their own community? Your parents' situation can serve as a catalyst to remind your husband's family that this day is coming and it's wise to start communicating now. Sharing the holiday load might set them up to understand they need to pitch in.

If your parents continue to live in your home, this might limit what your husband can do for his parents. The two of you need to talk about this. It may bother him more than you think. Assure him that you'll also find ways to help him and his siblings care for his parents when the time comes.

Be sure to thank him for the gift he's given you and your parents by letting them share your home. (My husband did the same thing so I could stay with my mom during her last years.) Ask him to be honest about when he feels pushed aside or asked too much of.

This year's holiday issue is the first of many. If you can ask for help, compromise, and communicate candidly and kindly, you'll be well positioned to meet the caregiving challenges that are to come. This year, make it your goal to have a cozy holiday filled with both ease and love for your double-whammy family.