For most of us, the holidays are a wonderful time to share the joys of family life and friendship. But for many older adults the holidays can be highly stressful, confusing, or even depressing if their mental, physical and emotional needs are not taken into account.
If you have older friends and family members with underlying health issues, you can help them enjoy the holiday season more by following these simple tips, based on advice from specialists in senior medicine at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine:
- Stroll down memory lane. Holidays provoke memories, which can be especially powerful in the later years of life. “Leading authorities have observed that memory and ‘life review’ are important parts of the aging process,” says Barry Lebowitz, Ph.D., deputy director of UCSD’s Stein Institute for Research on Aging. “Older people whose memories are impaired may have difficulty remembering recent events, but they are often able to share stories and observations from the past. These shared memories are important for the young as well—children enjoy hearing about how it was ‘when your parents were your age…’.” He suggests using picture albums, family videos and music, even theme songs from old radio or TV programs, to help stimulate memories and encourage older seniors to share their stories and experiences.
- Plan ahead. If older family members tire easily or are vulnerable to over-stimulation, limit the number of activities they are involved in or the length of time they are included. The noise and confusion of a large family gathering can lead to irritability or exhaustion, so schedule time for a nap, if necessary, and consider designating a “quiet room” where an older person can take a break. “Assign someone to be the day’s companion to the older person, to make sure the individual is comfortable,” says Daniel Sewell, M.D., director of the Senior Behavior Health Unit at the UCSD Medical Center, who adds that these guidelines work well for young children as well as adults with mental, emotional and physical health issues.
- Eliminate obstacles. If a holiday get-together is held in the home of an older person with memory impairment or behavioral problems, don’t rearrange the furniture. This could be a source of confusion and anxiety. If the gathering is in a place unfamiliar to an older person, remove slippery throw rugs and other items that could present barriers to someone with balance problems or who has difficulty walking.
- Avoid embarrassing moments. Try to avoid making comments that could inadvertently embarrass an older friend or family member who may be experiencing short-term memory problems. If an older person forgets a recent conversation, for example, don’t make it worse by saying, “Don’t you remember?”
- Create new memories. In addition to memories, seniors need new things to anticipate. Add something new to the holiday celebration, or volunteer for your family to help others. Enjoy activities that are free, such as taking a drive to look at holiday decorations, or window-shopping at the mall or along a festive downtown street.
- Be inclusive. Involve everyone in holiday meal preparation, breaking down tasks to include the youngest and oldest family members. “Older adults with physical limitations can still be included in kitchen activities by asking them to do a simple, helpful task, like greasing cooking pans, peeling vegetables, folding napkins or arranging flowers,” Sewell says.
- Reach out. Social connectedness is especially important at holiday times. “Reaching out to older relatives and friends who are alone is something all of us should do,” Lebowitz says. “Loneliness is a difficult emotion for anyone. Recent research with older people has documented that loneliness is associated with major depression and with suicidal thoughts and impulses.”
- Beat the blues. “Holiday blues” are feelings of profound sadness that can be provoked by all the activities of the holiday season. Seasonal blues can have a particular impact in the lives of older people, according to Lebowitz. “In some people, the ‘holiday blues’ represent the exacerbation of an ongoing depressive illness,” he says. “Depression is a dangerous and life-threatening illness in older people. Tragically, suicide rates increase with age, specifically for older men. Depression is not a normal part of aging and should never be ignored or written off.”
- Keep on the sunny side. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or winter depression is an illness that can be provoked by reductions in sunlight during the short days of winter. It is important for people confined indoors, especially those at risk for winter depression, to make time for activities that will increase exposure to daylight, according to Lebowitz.
- Monitor medications and alcohol. If you have senior family members, be sure to help them adhere to their regular schedule of medications during the frenzy of the holidays. Also, pay attention to their alcohol consumption during holiday parties and family gatherings. According to Sewell, alcohol can provoke inappropriate behavior or interfere with medications.
“Older family members with special needs can get lost in the shuffle and chaos of happy family gatherings,” Sewell says. “So, with all the hustle and bustle of the season, just remember to be sensitive and loving. And plan ahead.”