Even though most of us have happy memories of holiday celebrations, this time of the year can be stressful. There are pervasive societal expectations that everything should be cheerful, regardless of the circumstances. Our elders used to be in charge of making the holidays merry while the younger generations were the focus. But as our elders begin to slow down and need more help, the holiday responsibilities increasingly fall to us.
Our desire is simple: keeping seniors involved during the holidays and creating an experience they’ll truly enjoy. However, health conditions, functional limitations and senior living arrangements often complicate this objective. As the holiday season ramps up, it’s important to remember that your love and attention are the most valuable gifts you can give. That and helping your elders to feel included in whatever ways they can participate. Whether your aging loved one lives in their own home, with you or in senior living, discover ways to adapt cherished traditions and ideas for new customs that will keep the holiday season festive (yet simple) for you both.
10 Tips for Creating Merry Holidays for Seniors
For several years, I was responsible for decorating two senior living apartments, two nursing home rooms and my own home. On top of my usual caregiving duties, I also had shopping, gift wrapping 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 that my elders had a warm, meaningful holiday season regardless of where they lived and how their abilities had changed.
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 my essential tips for enjoying holidays with seniors.
Set the mood.Play or sing holiday music to set a festive mood. Maybe make mulled cider, eggnog or hot chocolate to serve to your loved one while decorating, cooking or reminiscing together. Even small gestures can lift one’s holiday spirit.
Make holiday rituals intergenerational.Time shared between different generations is very special. While I generally frown upon comparing elders to children, it’s true that many holiday activities for seniors also happen to be suitable for kids of all ages. Encourage your children, grandchildren and aging loved ones to bake treats, look at pictures, sing Christmas carols or partake in holiday crafts together.
Decorate 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 to 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. Just be sure to decorate in a way that does not pose any safety hazards.
Assist with holiday greetings.Ask if they need help writing and sending Christmas cards or holiday letters. You can help them draft a short, one-size-fits all message for inside the cards, 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 while ticking an item off the holiday to-do list. You’re also helping them stay connected with other family and friends, which becomes more challenging with age.
Be supportive.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 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 arrange an in-person or virtual visit with a friend, do what you can to help them achieve this.
Simplify holiday meals.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 preparing only a couple of favorite homemade recipes and using store-bought or premade dishes to round out the meal. Make sure your elder has plenty of leftovers if they enjoy that.
Shop smartly.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.
Prioritize holiday favorites.Help your aging loved ones scale down and simplify in ways that could make their holidays less stressful, but don’t emphasize their losses. Ask what treats and traditions they look forward to most each holiday season and focus on making those few things happen to the best of your ability.
Reminisce.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.
Dress for the occasion.If the person enjoys holiday clothing, consider buying them a festive new sweater, pajama set, piece of jewelry or cozy pair of socks. 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.
Your Time and Attention Are Priceless Gifts
Holidays are always a challenge, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to pose unprecedented obstacles for all of us. Last year, preventive measures aimed to control the spread of COVID-19 left many families and seniors separated, but effective vaccines have enabled us to resume many of our normal activities, including holiday celebrations. Despite the progress that’s been made, day-to-day life has changed significantly over the last two years and adapting has proven difficult for all of us.
In situations where elders cannot safely travel or receive visitors, my suggestion is to get creative with your winter traditions and the tips above. Find ways to bring them holiday cheer virtually, via mail or delivery service, or with the assistance of a local family member, friend or professional caregiver.
Families who plan to gather this holiday season should still follow all current CDC recommendations for holiday celebrations and small gatherings. The best way to protect yourself and those around you is by getting fully vaccinated and receiving a booster shot, but even fully vaccinated individuals should still wear a mask and practice social distancing in some situations. Consider COVID-19 testing for yourself and other attendees prior to indoor gatherings to minimize the risk of spreading the virus—especially to older adults who are at increased risk of severe illness.
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 and personal safety. You don’t want to make them feel inept, but you do want to offer the chance to participate.
Please take time to remember the losses your elders may be suffering and have compassion for any crankiness or sadness they might exhibit. Be gentle with yourself, too. Make the atmosphere and your interactions as positive as you can without being artificially cheery or running yourself into the ground.
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.