Elderly Need Support When Coping with Holiday Blues

Holiday Depressions and Seniors

Holiday advice from Dr. Linda Rhodes

Q: My mom has been acting really “down” lately and told me that she’d rather be alone over the holidays. What do I do?

A: Your mom really isn’t alone when it comes to feeling the “holiday blues.” For many older adults, the holidays are often bittersweet: Your parent may become more aware of the passing of time, the absence of their parents, the loss of their siblings and friends who have died. They may also miss loved ones who live a long distance and can no longer celebrate the season with them. Family traditions that they once looked forward to may seem too overwhelming to celebrate or may simply have gone to the wayside. It’s not hard to see why the “holiday blues” can take hold.

The endless stream of commercials depicting happy families and couples exchanging gifts, along with holiday music flooding grocery aisles and malls, sets up high expectations for everyone to feel happy.

Dr. Roger Cadieux, a geriatric psychiatrist with Commonwealth Affiliates in Harrisburg, sheds further light on holiday blues: “The holidays are potentially both joyous and stressful, especially for the elderly. It is a time of high expectations and anticipation. If the expectations are not realized, then the individual may feel very disappointed and even guilty. The elderly, whose physical and emotional stamina is not at a level of their children, grandchildren and other relatives, are all the more vulnerable to depression.”

”And widows or widowers,” Cadieux warns, “may experience an anniversary reaction around the holidays. They are reminded of what they had and, unfortunately, what they have lost and may become very depressed at this time of year.”

So what can you do for your mom? The American Geriatrics Society’s Health in Aging Foundation has developed a “Beating the Holiday Blues Tips,” that I think you’ll find helpful. Let me highlight some major points:

Accept her feelings. Acknowledge that the holidays can be difficult and that there is nothing wrong with not feeling “jolly.” Allow your mom to express her feelings without guilt or shame. All too often, people keep their feelings to themselves because they don’t want to dampen everyone else’s cheery mood. So give her permission to explore what’s triggering her sadness. Beyond the loss of loved ones, some causes are financial strain, ill health, difficulty in mobility, seeing and hearing, and the strain of travel.

Get out and about. Invite your loved one to activities without overwhelming her. The goal is to keep her involved with family life, yet, respect her needs. Offer to drive her to a friend’s home for a visit, or pick up a friend and bring her to your mom’s home. If loved ones are at a long distance and you have access to a computer or smartphone, set up a call so your mom can enjoy a visit online (e.g. Skype or gmail video chat). Ask her if there’s anything she’d like to do that you can make possible for her.

Volunteer. Researchers have found through brain imaging that volunteers often enjoy a “helper’s high,” when endorphins are released from the act of giving and helping others. It’s definitely a mood elevator. So, why not set up the opportunity for your mom or dad to feel good about themselves by calling your local schools, churches, synagogues, mosques or civic organizations to find a volunteer activity for them.

Change things up. If it’s getting to be too much for your parent to host or attend large family gatherings, offer to have it at another’s home but find some way for your parents to still celebrate their role as head of the family (e.g. offering a toast or leading a prayer). If traveling is too much for them, perhaps, have a few family members visit on a different day to celebrate.

If your parents are recently widowed, allow them to set the pace as to how involved they want to be with family festivities. If they do attend an event, however, let them know how much you miss their spouse. Some people think that by “not bringing it up,” they’ll make the survivor feel better. But on the contrary, the survivor often feels sad that everyone is acting like nothing has changed — as if the loved one didn’t matter any longer. Sure, it might bring a tear or two, but those tears will heal the heart much more than silence.

Being open to their sadness may be a gift in itself.

Dr. Linda Rhodes is a former Secretary of Aging and author of The Essential Guide to Caring for Aging Parents. She can be reached at rhodescaregiving@gmail.com.