The holidays can be a difficult time for many of us, but especially for aging loved ones. Winter is one of the worst times of the year for older adults. The early nightfall and cold temperatures can trap them in their homes for days at a time, and the hazardous weather can rob them of their mobility. And that’s just the physical part of a season that’s also deeply difficult both emotionally and mentally.
Nearly all of our holiday rituals can amplify feelings of loss and loneliness as we age, from the ever-diminishing number of cards we receive as friends pass or forget us, to our families feeling like we’re becoming more of a burden or nuisance than a valued member of seasonal festivities.
The Holidays Aren’t Always Joyful
With all that, is it any surprise that older adults are more likely to report depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness during the holidays? I don’t think so. Whether we’re reminded of the family members that have drifted across the country or friends we no longer see, the unyielding march of time can turn what should be a fun and exciting time of the year – a bright spot in the middle of a dark and gloomy season – into some small, broken fragment of its past luster.
The burden of alleviating a loved one’s holiday loneliness often falls on the family caregiver, and this is no easy task. But whether it’s just giving them the opportunity to see their grandchildren or keeping up family traditions, older adults can feel less lonely if they’re given the opportunity to be involved in the holidays.
1. Focus on Family During the Holidays, Not Showmanship
Family caregivers can work with the rest of the family to coordinate a fun, festive, but less stressful holiday event, whether that’s hosting a holiday potluck instead of cooking the whole dinner, or coordinating smaller, more regular family dinners instead of having one big get-together. Provide opportunities for family members to catch up and see one another, especially if some live farther away than they used to, and treat every moment as special. Traditions can come and go, but family is what matters most this time of year, and ultimately, we just want to see the people we love.
2. Take Part in Your Loved Ones’ Joy
If you’re an adult taking care of a parent, use some of that time to reconnect with them. It can be easy to lose sight of what you have while you have it, and we can get frustrated during this special time of year. Take the time to sit down with them, go through old photo albums, decorate the home or even just open Christmas cards and write new ones for the people you both care about. For many older adults, there can be tremendous pressure to enjoy the loud, sometimes stressful events of the holidays, so taking some time with them to unwind and talk about their favorite memories can go a long way.
3. Reconnect with Old Friends
It’s hard to keep friendships into adulthood, and that’s doubly true with older adults. However, caregivers have a great opportunity to reconnect older adults with good friends from years gone by. With social media, you might be able to reach out to your loved ones’ friends, and help them reconnect and rekindle their old friendships. Often, the experiences we have as we age can leave us feeling disconnected, but having someone there who shared those experiences can help in coming to peace with those situations.
4. Remind Older Adults How Important They Are
If your family has years of holiday traditions, it can be difficult for those once responsible for baking cookies or decorating the house to cope when they can no longer take part. Remind them how important they are, not just to you, but to the entire family. Help them do what they feel capable of, and really emphasize that they are loved and admired by those who hold them dear.
5. Keep in Touch
One of the biggest causes for holiday loneliness is just not having anyone around to spend the holidays with. If possible, plan regular activities with your loved one, and work with the rest of the family to provide opportunities to go shopping, cook or just go out to lunch. Remember to provide plenty of time to rest, as excessive commitments can be difficult for older adults and may leave them feeling stressed out or fatigued.
Support Your Loved Ones, and Understand their Feelings
Ultimately, the best way to avoid holiday loneliness is to start working with your loved ones to address it. Their feelings and emotions are valid and shouldn’t be dismissed. Rather, understand that they do need time to visit with their family, but also time to decompress, and help them to avoid overexerting themselves. It’s better to provide regular visits with family members and friends than combine them into one large, hectic event, especially if your loved one may not see many of the attendees again until next year.
As a family caregiver, one of the biggest, most difficult responsibilities is providing the support that older adults need to feel like they’re still part of the family. Taking the time to help them feel included, not just in the events and festivities but also in their family members’ lives, can go a long way to reducing holiday loneliness. The holidays can be a balancing act for family caregivers and leave them feeling confused and a little lonely themselves. All you can do is your best and understand that your efforts are appreciated by those around you.