Holiday Depression: Strategies for Overcoming Seasonal Stress


"Tis the season to be jolly…fa, la, la, la, la…"

"Chanukah, Oh Chanukah, come light the menorah. Let's have a party…"

Sometimes as we age, we don't feel like having lots of parties anymore, and the holidays are no longer very jolly. What used to be a time of joy can change, as life throws us some curve balls.

We think we're supposed to be especially happy this time of year. That expectation itself can cause people of all ages to become sad or depressed, but older adults are especially susceptible. "As the caregiver of an elderly parent, you can be prone to assuming your loved one's feelings of melancholy or anxiety," says Leslie Dunham, LCSW-C, a social worker at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

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 the holidays as they are now. Memories hold a special place in your heart, but the heart has enough room to add new memories.

Knowing what may trigger gloomy feelings during the holidays, and how you can cope, may help you feel better.

Dealing With Death During Holidays

Dunham adds that one of the biggest challenges for your elderly loved one and yourself is losing a family member. Loss often brings intense feelings of grief, loneliness and emptiness. Just as frustrating, you may feel guilty if you find yourself having a good time, even for a short period.

Innocent gestures may also cause your feelings of sorrow to intensify. For instance, receiving holiday cards addressed to the deceased person, by a well-meaning friend who doesn't know the circumstances, may bring up difficult emotions. On the other hand, it can also be stressful when people purposely don't mention your loved one's name for fear of hurting you.

To help you through those tough times, talk over how you would like to handle the situation with someone you trust. That person can let others know your wishes. If you want to do something to honor your loved one publicly, there are different ways you can pay tribute. Choose something that is right for you. Among them are:

  • Placing the person's picture in a place of prominence
  • Lighting a memorial candle
  • Making a photo album of previous holidays to focus on positive memories
  • Setting aside a time so that everyone who wants to can share a memory or a funny story about the deceased
  • Toasting your loved one
  • Going to church or synagogue
  • Volunteering to help those in need

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 for years. Understand that the holidays won't be the same as they used to be, but that the "new normal" can be fulfilling in a different way.

Depression From Too Much to Do

As the caregiver for an older adult, another thing that can cause you added stress is pressure from family and friends to continue holiday celebrations the same way they have been done in the past.

Nothing can ruin a holiday faster than trying to do too much at one time. Feeling as though you have to do all of the preparations for the festivities by yourself can be a recipe for disaster. Trying to get the perfect gifts, decorate exactly the way you have in previous years and cooking the same meals can be overwhelming.

To combat feelings of being out of control, Dunham's suggestions include:

  • Thinking about what you and your loved one need, not what others expect of you.
  • Being realistic.
  • Accepting help if others offer and asking for help when you need it. It makes other people feel good to help those they care about.
  • Prioritizing holiday tasks. Decide which decorations are most important and compromise. Maybe you can put up the tree lights and the mantle decorations, but skip the outside lights. It's the same idea for dinner. Don't make a ham, a turkey, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes. Just make two or three things instead of six or seven. You could also start a new tradition of a potluck meal, where everyone brings a dish.
  • Changing the time of dinner from evening to afternoon. Many older people get tired and may get more out of an earlier meal.
  • Making lists. It often helps to see what you are accomplishing one item at a time, and it makes you feel good to cross completed jobs off your list.

Financial Stress During Holidays

Another stress-causer during the holidays can be finances. Money can become tighter when a parent passes away. Bills and extras must now be taken care of by one person, instead of two. Some ways to cope include:

  • Reminding your elder loved one that less expensive gifts can be just as welcome as more expensive ones.
  • Baking cookies or creating handcrafted gifts often means the most to recipients.
  • Having your family members draw one or two names, instead of having people buy gifts for everyone. This may help other family members as well.
  • Not waiting until the last minute to mail cards or buy presents. Take care of a few items each day to get the tasks done.

Avoiding Holiday Depression

There is no reason to wait until depression happens. There are approaches that can help prevent or lessen the symptoms. Try to:

  • Keep your elderly loved one on a regular schedule. It can be difficult for someone who is older or ill to adjust to changes, such as less rest and a more hectic schedule.
  • Not feel guilty for picking and choosing which holiday gatherings you and your loved one can attend.
  • Make sure your loved one and you get regular exercise. Unfortunately it's typical for people to stop doing the healthy things they usually do because of holiday activities (like shopping, cleaning and cooking). Make exercise a top priority.
  • Avoid overeating at every meal. Save your indulging for special meals.
  • Be careful about the amount of alcohol you drink.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Stay on your medications.
  • Recall that the real joy of the holiday is with being with loved ones.

Generally, what can help is not being too hard on yourself for the difficulty you may be experiencing. Be honest and recognize that the holiday may not be the same without your family member or friend. Talk with people you trust about your feelings. They will be honored. You can also find a support group, where you can discuss your thoughts with people who have gone through the same thing. You can often find groups by going through your church, synagogue, or senior citizen organizations.

Remember the real meaning of the holidays is to be thankful for your memories, for what you have now and for what the future will bring.

Signs of Depression in a Loved One

How do you know if your loved one may be depressed? Clinical depression is characterized by symptoms that interfere with the ability to function normally on a daily basis for several weeks of longer. The symptoms vary and may include:

  • Persistent sadness for two or more weeks
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Feeling slowed down
  • Becoming isolated
  • No longer getting pleasure from usual activities
  • Worrying excessively
  • Being overly concerned about health problems
  • Becoming irritable
  • Feeling worthless or helpless
  • Changes in appetite and/or appearance
  • Crying spells
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If he or she has these symptoms, get help from a medical professional immediately.

Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital offers comprehensive care, subacute beds, a dementia care unit, and a specialty hospital with geropsychiatric beds. In addition, Levindale operates two adult day care centers.

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Your articles help me immensely. I have lost two wonderful husbands, a dear boyfriend, and most recently my cousin who to me was my sister, cousin and best friend all rolled into one.

In addition, though my dear 93 year old Mom still insists on living by herself, I make sure I am with her very often. However, I have spent this last week alone, decorating for the holidays........just me and my two loving doggies.....and though I am missing my loved ones who have passed, my two little doggies and I are enjoying our "quiet" time together.

Your wonderful articles help me to deal with the many emotions I am experiencing, especially at this time of year. I am trying to reverse my way of thinking. Instead of feeling totally depressed because of all my past losses, I now try to savour each memory and thank God for those wonderful years, and as your reading above explains.....make new memories. I wish you Happy Holidays, and thank you for your articles which are bringing me peace. God bless....Linda