The holiday season can mean a number of things, from Christmas playlists to festive Starbucks drinks, to shopping for bargains. But what do the holidays really signify underneath the commercial and flashy images that are marketed? It is the gathering of family.

It is the scene of being surrounded by all of one’s family members around the Christmas tree, feasting and exchanging gifts, that is most central to the holiday spirit. But for families who look after aging parents and for the elderly themselves, this time can be a painful reminder that something is always missing.

For Seattle resident Christina Pham, it is seeing the joy in her father’s face after opening gifts that she misses the most. She misses hearing him talk and especially hearing his laugh during family gatherings. Even if nothing is the same, Pham said her family is thankful for at least his presence at home.

That’s because Pham’s father, Paul, suffered from a stroke four years ago, which left him bedridden and unable to speak, hear and process information. Pham, 30, has been caregiving for her father since that time with the help of her mother.

For Pham’s mother, Paul’s stroke and inability to communicate meant the sudden loss of a companion. For Pham, it meant making a decision about whether she would be taking care of her father herself or placing him in a nursing home.

The decision wasn’t a hard one.

“All my life I was surrounded by the love of my family,” she explained. “When I was young, he took care of me. It is my turn now. If it wasn’t for my parents, I wouldn’t be in America right now, blessed with the life and education I have.

Pham, whose family emigrated from Vietnam when she was about five, added: “[My parents] had to sacrifice a lot for my future.”

As a sandwiched parent, Pham lives separately with her daughter but is at her parent’s house day and night to watch after Paul, including feeding him through a feeding tube. However, she doesn’t feel like her dual role as caregiver is difficult to balance.

“My daughter is the key to everything. She keeps my parents busy and entertained, and its fun for her to be there,” she said.

The holidays, however, come with their own set of challenges.

“The atmosphere and feelings during the holidays are not the same,” said Pham, who is the single mother of a one-year old. “I don’t know if he even recognizes my daughter. It is really devastating.”

The holiday season also means shopping for gifts on a budget. Pham is paid as her father’s caregiver through the state’s in-home care services, but she said it’s not enough to cover Paul’s medical expenses. After her father’s stroke, she said she had to quit a better-paying job to assume this role.

“I don’t treat this as my job,” Pham said. “It’s my responsibility, and I just want to make the best of each and every day to give him what he wants.”

Jeannie Nguyen, a nurse consultant at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) said the holidays have a big impact on Asian Americans because of their mentality on extended family.
“It’s come to a point where it doesn’t matter what type of holiday,” said Nguyen. “It’s supposed to be a time spent together with family.”

For this reason, the holidays are a very sad time for clients who live alone and don’t have family members who can be with them.

“Others are busy celebrating, but for our clients who [are alone], it is a difficult down time for them,” said Nguyen.

On the other hand, it can be a very stressful time for caregivers, who Nguyen mentioned in the Asian American community, are mostly family members such as Pham caring for her dad with the support of ACRS.

“There is a lot of heavy care involved, and this can mean burn out for family members,” said Nguyen. “It can be difficult to get ready for a celebration and go shopping because you can’t leave the client for very long. Other times, clients feel the blessling of having their loved one at home. It’s a mixed feeling.”

Though emotionally difficult, Pham said her family never feels stressed out in their caregiving role, but “enjoy every moment” her father’s at home with them.

“At the end of the day, even if I’m at the end of the tunnel, my parents will always be there for me,” said Pham. “No matter what my circumstance is and no matter how much trouble I’m in, they’re always there reaching their hands out.”

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