There is a lot of pressure on people to enjoy themselves during the holidays. The reality, however, is that many people feel increasingly isolated and unhappy during this season of goodwill, and elders can have an especially hard time.
While aging can bring wisdom and experience, there are inevitable losses that even the healthiest seniors face. Loved ones and friends fall ill and pass away. Energy and mobility levels often decrease, resulting in feelings of lost independence and opportunities. Neighborhoods change over time, leaving even those well enough to remain in their own homes feeling lonely. The focus on family, friends and togetherness during this time of year can actually bring melancholy feelings to the forefront.
If you believe that your parent, spouse, friend or neighbor may be depressed, there are steps that you can take to help lift their spirits. You are probably busy with your own holiday preparations, but it’s important to remember what the holiday season is truly about. Simplifying some of your plans will allow you to focus on what really matters: the important people in your life. Use these ideas to brighten up a loved one’s winter season.
- Make a point of actively listening when they want to talk, even if the discussion is negative. An honest and empathetic conversation can help them process what is bothering them, whether they are mourning a loss or coming to terms with new challenges in their life. It may also reveal why they are feeling down and help you devise other ways to lift their spirits.
- Remind them how important they are as a part of your life, your family members’ lives and these annual holiday celebrations. They may feel useless or burdensome if they cannot contribute to or fully participate in the festivities like they used to. Encourage them to do what they are capable of, and be especially careful not to act like what you do for them is a duty. Show them they are loved.
- Over the years, holiday cards often bring bad news and diminish in quantity. I used to sit with my mom when she opened her cards, because so many of them brought news of illness or death. She was also keenly aware of the people she didn’t hear from. Be gentle with your loved ones if these annual greetings are an important tradition of theirs. If possible, ask other family members and friends to contribute a simple card, photograph or drawing to help keep the senior’s seasonal mail more upbeat. My mom needed this connection with her life-long friends, so I helped her write her outgoing cards each year as well.
- Help them see that you are trying to simplify your holiday plans to focus on the real meaning of these celebrations. Let them know you are trying to ignore the increasing hype over the food, gifts, decorations and parties in order to focus on the people and values that you cherish. Remind them that they taught you the importance of family and friendship, and thank them for that.
- If a senior is in a long-term care facility, check with the activities director and local schools or extracurricular programs to see if they can arrange for children to visit with or even perform for the residents. New activities and interactions with younger generations can be very uplifting for an elder who is in physical or emotional pain. If possible, take the senior out to school programs and games, especially if they feature younger family members.
- Check with your loved one’s religious organization to see if they can offer social and/or spiritual support. For example, the Stephen Ministry is a program offered by many Christian churches that provides one-on-one support to those who are having difficulties in life. Many churches can arrange for a congregant or leader to visit a senior in need at home or in a facility. Just having someone to talk to can go a long way toward relieving depression.
- Help them add decorative touches to their home or room in the long-term care facility. Ensure that they do not present a safety hazard and try to decorate in stages to prolong the fun and give them something to look forward to. Many seniors enjoy reflecting on past holidays as they unpack cherished decorations, so be sure to listen to their stories and ask about special items.
- Cook traditional baked goods or treats with your loved one, if possible. If they reside in an assisted living facility or nursing home, bring treats on your visits for your elder to enjoy and share with their friends.
- Call your elder’s friends and see if they would be able to come to a small holiday gathering. One year, I was able to use a small conference room at the nursing home to host a New Year’s Eve party for my parents and their friends. They loved it. Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be on a particular holiday or a large or expensive shindig. Realizing that the people they care about came out to spend time with them is priceless for an elder. Just be wary of large or loud groups if your loved one has dementia. Parties can be disorienting and upsetting for them.
- Make their dinner table special. Whether your loved ones live at home or in a facility, try to make their dining table festive with some appropriate colors, themes and seasonal flavors.
- The most important thing you can do with a senior to make them feel loved and included this season is to spend time with them. Look at family photos, watch home videos or holiday movies, listen to seasonal music, or do crafts together. Regardless of what you decide to do together, any time you can spare is a precious gift.
Do what you can to help your aging loved one feel involved and get into the holiday spirit without stressing yourself beyond your limits. If you put too much on your plate, it is likely that neither you nor your loved ones will enjoy the festivities nearly as much. Your best efforts are good enough.