Even though holidays can be fraught with stress because of societal expectations that they be happy no matter what our circumstances, most of us have happy memories of celebrations when we were young. Our parents were in charge, and kids were the focus. As our parents age and can no longer be in charge of celebrations, the duties tend to fall to adult children.

Our heart's desire is to provide a way for our aging parents to enjoy the holidays, but their circumstances can make that challenging. First and foremost, however, remember that it's your presence that is the most important thing. That, and helping your parents to feel included in whatever way they can participate.

For several years I had, along with my own home, two apartments and two nursing home rooms to decorate, plus the other duties, including holiday meals in several locations to consider. I did try to simplify life as much as possible, but I also wanted badly to do what I could for my elders. Was it enough? I did my best, is all I can say. And I did learn a few things.

Ways to celebrate the holidays no matter where your parent lives

If your parent lives independently, as my mother did for a few years after my dad went into the nursing home, try to keep the holiday decorating as much like your parent wants it to be as possible.

  1. Play holiday music while you decorate to set a festive mood. Maybe make cider hot or hot chocolate.
  2. Make children a part of the rituals if the elders enjoy that and the children can participate.
  3. Use your parents' treasured holiday decorations. Talk about each piece as you pull it out of storage. If the elders cannot be active in decorating their home, ask questions. Where would they like the ornaments placed? This is especially important if the person now primarily resides in his or her recliner. Put favorite items where they can easily be seen and enjoyed the most.
  4. Ask if they need help with holiday cards or rituals. Your help in addressing envelopes can be a boost to their moral, making signing cards possible. You can put on stamps and mail the cards. This helps them keep in touch with old friends.
  5. Be on the lookout for cards and other news they receive from old friends. Often, the news they receive is not good. Someone's spouse has died or is very ill. Someone else is now in a nursing facility and not adjusting well. Cancer has returned to a special friend. You get the picture.
  6. Also, ask about phone calls. Did they get a call from so and so? What is going on? Watch for signs of sadness and even depression over news from old friends. Perhaps your company is especially needed on a certain day.
  7. If possible, have the festive meals at your home, or plan to cook at your elders. Take the load of being a host off of their plate. Make sure they have leftovers from the meals if they enjoy that.
  8. Offer to shop for and wrap gifts they want to give to friends and family.
  9. Help them scale down and simplify in ways that could make their holidays less stressful, but don't emphasize their losses. Ask what they want, and try to make it happen to the best of your ability.
  10. Encourage your elders to tell stories of the past.

If your parent lives in assisted living or a nursing home, the only differences from the suggestions above would be that you'd need to scale down the decorating, so it's extra important for you to ask questions. If you helped your elder move to the facility, I hope you made it a point to save treasured holiday decorations. These familiar objects are vital to memories and creating a homelike atmosphere.

If the person enjoys holiday clothing, consider a new holiday sweatshirt or other garment. Mom had a number of Christmas appropriate sweatshirts she wore with basic slacks. I'd bring them to her in stages to keep her feeling as if she had something new.

If your parent lives with you, don't treat him or her as a guest. Ask for help in any way the person can provide it, taking into consideration the obvious things that they can't do. You don't want to make your parent feel worse, but you want to offer them the chance to participate.

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Your company is what matters

As in all of the other scenarios, expect some depression and negative emotions. Your parents are going through losses because of their own age, their new living arrangements, the death and illness of friends. Yes, you are busy and harried and have far too much to do. But please take time to remember the losses your parent may be suffering and have compassion for their crankiness or depressed attitudes. Make the atmosphere as positive as you can without being artificially cheery.

Holidays are a challenge. Caregivers are at risk for burnout at this time, but that's another topic. As with all caregiving, do your best but don't expect perfection. Not every moment will be a delight, but you will have made a positive difference for your elder. Giving your elders your time, and attention and love is their best holiday gift. The rest is gravy.

Author, columnist and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack wrote "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories" and is the moderator of the AgingCare.com community. Read her full biography