Sometimes as we age, the holidays no longer seem very jolly, and we don’t feel like celebrating much anymore. What used to be a joyous occasion can change and take on new meanings as life throws us curve balls.

We think we’re supposed to be exceptionally happy this time of year, but that expectation alone can cause people of all ages to become sad or depressed. Family caregivers and older adults are especially susceptible to the holiday blues.

Each year around this time, the Caregiver Forum sees an increase in stress-related posts on our discussion boards. One AgingCare member wrote, “I feel more stressed every year… It starts before Thanksgiving and lasts through the New Year. I keep promising myself to get more involved in something other than caregiving and to recharge myself, but it’s so hard to find the time and energy.”

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many caregivers and seniors struggle to get through the holiday season. “As a caregiver, you can be prone to adopting your loved one’s melancholy feelings or anxiety and vice versa,” says Leslie Dunham, LCSW, a social worker at Bon Secours Hospital in Ellicott City, Md.

While the holidays may not be the same as they were in the past, there can still be plenty of reasons to celebrate. One of the most important things to remember is that it’s okay to enjoy them as they are now. Old memories hold a special place in your heart, but there is always enough room to add new ones.

Acknowledging what exactly is triggering these gloomy feelings in yourself or a loved one can help you find ways of coping.

Common Causes of Depression During the Holidays

Grieving a Loved One’s Passing

Dunham reveals that one of the biggest challenges for families is losing a loved one. Whether you are facing an imminent loss, mourning a recent passing or missing a loved one who died long ago, this time of year often highlights absences and brings intense feelings of grief, loneliness and emptiness. You may even feel guilty if you find yourself having a good time.

Innocent gestures may also spur feelings of sorrow. For instance, receiving a holiday card addressed to your late loved one from a well-meaning friend who doesn’t know the circumstances may cause your grief to resurface. On the other hand, it can also be stressful when family and friends purposely don’t mention your loved one’s name to avoid upsetting you.

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These feelings are all normal, but to help you get through these tough times, talk about how you would like to handle the situation with someone you trust. That person can then communicate your wishes to others. If you want to do something to honor your loved one, there are different ways you can pay tribute. Choose whatever feels right. Consider the following ideas:

  • Place the person’s picture in a place of prominence at home.
  • Light a memorial candle.
  • Make a photo album of previous holidays together to focus on positive memories.
  • Set aside a time so that everyone who wants to can share a favorite memory or a funny story about the deceased.
  • Toast to your loved one.
  • Go to church or synagogue.
  • Volunteer to help those in need.
  • Visit your loved one’s final resting place or a location where they enjoyed spending time.

Remember that not everyone grieves in the same way. There is no accepted norm. You may cry at the drop of a hat, while someone else is more stoic. Some people may grieve for weeks, and others mourn for years. Understand that the holidays won’t be the same as they used to be, but recognize that the “new normal” can still be fulfilling in other ways.

Stress Over Too Much to Do

Another thing that can cause stress is pressure from family and friends to continue celebrations the same way they have been done in the past. Traditions are special, but nothing ruins a holiday faster than having too much on your plate.

By default, caregivers are already busier than the average person. Adding decorations, holiday meals and shopping to the mix is enough to undermine anyone’s holiday spirit. To keep from feeling overwhelmed and out of control, Dunham offers the following suggestions:

  • Focus on what you and your loved one need and want instead of what others expect of you.
  • Be realistic.
  • Accept help when others offer it and ask for help when you need it. It makes other people feel good to help those they care about.
  • Prioritize and downsize holiday tasks. Decide which decorations are most important to you and compromise. For example, put up the tree lights and the mantle decorations, but skip the outdoor lights this year. The same idea applies to dinner, gifts, etc. Don’t make a ham, a turkey, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes. Stick to two or three favorite dishes instead of six or seven. You could also start a new tradition of a potluck meal. If everyone brings a dish to share, it significantly lightens your load.
  • Make lists. It often helps you keep track of what exactly needs to be done, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment when you cross off completed tasks.

Financial Pressures

Finances are another notorious source of holiday stress. Money is often tight for seniors and family caregivers alike. Spending also tends to increase this time of year on things like gifts, large holiday meals, travel and heating. Dunham offers these suggestions for coping with financial worries:

  • Set a budget. This is important for managing your finances year-round, but it can be very helpful to take a closer look at your income and expenses before planning celebrations and purchasing gifts. Making a budget may seem like a bummer, but it’s far better than realizing after the holidays that you spent far more than you could afford.
  • Remind your loved ones that less expensive gifts can be just as thoughtful and useful as pricier ones.
  • Make baked goods or create handcrafted gifts with your loved one for family and friends.
  • Have your family members agree on a dollar limit for gifts and/or set up a gift exchange. Drawing one or two names of people to shop for is much more reasonable than having everyone buy presents for each other. This may help others save money as well.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to mail cards, go shopping or wrap gifts. Take care of a few items each day to complete tasks with minimal stress and expense.

How to Avoid Holiday Depression

There is no reason to wait until depression happens to act on it, because there are approaches that can help prevent and minimize the symptoms. Generally, what can help is not being too hard on yourself for the difficulty you or your loved one may be experiencing. Try to:

  • Keep a regular schedule and build in breaks. Adequate physical and mental rest is crucial, especially during the hectic holiday season. Consider hiring respite care or asking a family member or friend to pitch in with your loved one’s care so you can disconnect and recharge.
  • Do not feel guilty for picking and choosing which holiday plans you and your loved one can commit to.
  • Make sure you and your loved one get regular exercise. Unfortunately, it’s typical for people to stop doing the healthy things they usually do because of holiday activities and the inclement weather. Make exercise and other forms of self-care a top priority, even it’s only twenty minutes each day.
  • Avoid overeating at every meal. Save indulging for special meals, like the big family dinner or the pot luck at work. Balancing indulgence with light, healthy meals will help you and your loved one feel less lethargic and prevent digestive issues.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so responsibly.

Remember that the real meaning of the holidays is to be thankful for what you had, what you have now and what the future may bring. Be honest and recognize that this time of year may not feel the same as it once did. Talk with people you trust about how you are feeling and encourage your loved one to do the same. Support groups are an excellent resource for family caregivers and seniors alike. Consider making a doctor’s appointment if you or your loved one are really struggling with the holiday blues this year. He or she can suggest medications and nonpharmaceutical options to help you feel better.