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—especially this year. 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.

Discover how to adapt an aging loved one’s cherished traditions and find 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 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 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 the following tips for enjoying holidays with seniors.

  1. 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.
  2. Make Holiday Rituals Intergenerational

    Time shared between different generations is very special, so encourage your children, grandchildren and elders to bake treats, look at pictures, sing Christmas carols or partake in holiday crafts together.
  3. 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.
  4. Assist With Holiday Greetings

    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, 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 can become more challenging with age.
  5. 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 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 arrange a virtual visit a friend, do what you can to help them achieve this.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 try to make those few things happen to the best of your ability.
  9. 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.
  10. Dress for the Occasion

    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.

Your Time and Attention Are Priceless Gifts

Holidays are always a challenge, but this year poses new and unprecedented obstacles for all of us. The coronavirus pandemic and preventive measures aimed to control its spread have left many families and seniors separated. We are all struggling to keep spirits high and remain connected with those we love.

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 another family member or professional caregiver in their household. To keep your loved ones safe, ensure that all your plans comply with the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for holiday celebrations and small gatherings. You can find the latest recommendations at CDC.gov.

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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 them the chance to participate.

Please take time to remember the losses your elders may be suffering and have compassion for their crankiness or depressed attitude. 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.