Even though most of us have happy memories of holiday celebrations when we were young, this time of the year can be stressful. There are pervasive societal expectations that everything should be happy, regardless of our circumstances. Our elders used to be in charge of making the holidays merry while the younger generations were the focus. But as our elders age and begin to lose their abilities, the holiday responsibilities increasingly fall to us.
Our desire is to provide a way for seniors to enjoy the holidays, but their health conditions and living arrangements can make that challenging. As the holiday season ramps up, it’s important to remember that your presence and attention are the most valuable gifts you can give. That, and helping your elders to feel included in whatever ways they can participate.
Ways to Keep the Holidays Merry Despite Age-Related Changes
For several years, I was responsible for decorating two senior living apartments, two nursing home rooms and my own home. On top of that, I had gifting and holiday meals in several locations to consider. I did try to simplify life as much as possible during this hectic time, but I also wanted to do everything in my power to ensure my care recipients had a warm, meaningful holiday season.
At the start of each new year, I would always ask myself if I had done enough. Although I may not have fully accepted my efforts as sufficient at the time, I realize now that I did give my very best. I learned a great deal throughout this period in my life, and I’d like to share the following holiday tidbits with my fellow caregivers.
- Play holiday music while you decorate to set a festive mood. Maybe make mulled cider, eggnog or hot chocolate to serve to your loved one while you trim the tree. Even small gestures can lift one’s holiday spirit.
- Include younger generations in holiday rituals. Time shared between different generations is very special, so encourage your children and elders to bake treats, look at pictures, sing Christmas carols or partake in holiday crafts together.
- Use your elders’ treasured holiday decorations. Talk about each piece as you pull it out of storage. If they cannot actively participate in decorating their home, ask what they envision the finished product will look like and where they’d prefer certain pieces to be placed. This is especially important if your loved one spends most of their time in a certain area of the house. Prioritize their favorite items by putting them where they can be seen and enjoyed the most.
- Ask if they need help with writing and sending holiday cards or other rituals. You can help them draft a short blanket message for inside the cards, help stamp and address envelopes, and drop the greetings off at the post office. While this may seem mundane, you’re both spending quality time together. You’re also helping them stay connected with other family and friends, which can become more challenging with age.
- Be on the lookout for cards, phone calls and other correspondence they receive during the holidays. Often, the news they contain is not pleasant. For example, someone’s spouse has died or a friend is very ill. Perhaps someone else has moved to a nursing home and is not adjusting well. There’s no obligation to protect an elder from this reality, but it is important to inquire about their friends. Keep an eye out for signs of depression and be sure to offer support if there’s anything weighing on their mind. If they wish to attend a funeral or visit a friend, do what you can to help them achieve this.
- If possible, host the holiday meals at your home or plan to bring the celebration to your elders. Reducing their workload can help them better appreciate these get togethers. Instead of making the whole meal from scratch, consider making only a couple of favorite homemade recipes and using store-bought or premade dishes to round out the meal. Opting for a potluck-style family meal can help spread out the work as well. Make sure your elder has plenty of leftovers from the meals if they enjoy that.
- If they can go out and shop for holiday gifts, offer to accompany them. If their abilities are limited, offer to shop for them instead or help them search for and order gifts online. Once your shopping is complete, you can wrap presents together.
- Help them scale down and simplify in ways that could make their holidays less stressful, but don’t emphasize their losses. Ask what they look forward to most each holiday season and try to make those few things happen to the best of your ability.
- Encourage your elders to tell stories of the past. Sharing family history is a priceless pastime, but there’s something about passing on memories during the holidays that really brings families together.
- If the person enjoys holiday clothing, consider buying them a new holiday sweater or pajama set. My mom had several Christmas sweatshirts that she wore with basic slacks each winter. I’d bring them to her in stages to keep her feeling as if something fun and new was always arriving.
If your aging loved one lives with you, don’t treat them as a guest. Ask for help in any way they can provide it, while carefully accounting for their limitations. You don’t want to make them feel inept, but you do want to offer them the chance to participate.
Your Company Is Key
Please take time to remember the losses your loved one may be suffering and have compassion for their crankiness or depressed attitude. Make the atmosphere as positive as you can without being artificially cheery or running yourself into the ground.
Holidays are a challenge. Remember to do your best but don’t expect perfection. Not every moment will be a delight, but at the end of the year you’ll know that you have made a positive difference in your elder’s life. Giving a senior your time, attention and love is the best holiday gift of all. The rest is gravy.