Guest Editorial: Older Adults and the Holiday Blues

By Gail Nelson
Senior Counseling Program

The holiday season has the power to evoke strong feelings in most of us, who from earliest memory have taken part in traditions and rituals sacred to our families. For many, it is a highly anticipated chance to spend quality time with loved ones, a merry social whirl of parties and festive gatherings, presenting myriad opportunities to express generosity and love and indulge in delicious treats. In general, the holiday-engendered air of good will tends to amplify a contented person’s sense of happiness, security, and connectedness. Alternatively, people who are experiencing great changes in their morale and lifestyle brought about by age, infirmity, and loss may find the holidays intensify sorrowful thoughts of people and things missing from their lives and bring home just how different the present is from long-ago days of abundant company, plentiful resources, and good health. 

With the holidays rapidly approaching and the well-documented prevalence of the “Holiday Blues” among older people in mind, here are some practical guidelines to minimize the possibility of succumbing to holiday-inspired depression:

For older adults who have found the holidays challenging, try adjusting your expectations of both yourself and others. Forget about perfection, and simplify tasks; ask for help if you need it. Even if you have always done things in a certain way, making a change does not have to be a negative. Perhaps you will create new traditions better loved than the old ones. Focus on spending time with the people you share love with rather than on an idealized version of holiday bliss.

Be mindful of your health and well-being, and make sure to get enough sleep, appropriate exercise, and proper nutrition. Give thoughtful gifts that are within your means. Take part in as many activities as you are comfortable with, and know when to beg off if your schedule is getting too hectic. Make realistic plans that enhance enjoyment and minimize stress.

If your family is far away, make time for phone calls, and keep them apprised of how you are doing. Be honest if you are struggling and you need some encouragement. The important thing is to stay connected and avoid isolation during the “happiest time of the year.” With that in mind, make time for others who might be on their own, too. Family comes in many different flavors these days, and a group of like-minded individuals sharing time, good food, uplifting music, and perhaps some coordinated activities can make the holidays brighter. 

For those who are caregivers or have older adults in the family, endeavor to include older members in holiday preparations. Invite them to special events, and ask them to share their stories and traditions. Make your home safe and accessible and, if feasible, set aside a quiet space where they can get away from the hustle and bustle and recharge. Be mindful of the possibility of reduced circumstances and keep gift exchanges reasonable. Communicate openly, and if you notice your loved ones appear sad or depressed, validate their feelings and encourage them to talk, being careful not to judge or make light of their concerns. Help them to cultivate a joyful spirit by your example.

Finally, be sure to check in with your older loved one often in the weeks after the holidays, when the letdown from the end of the season and the anticipation of a new year’s problems to contend with might weigh heaviest. Seek professional help if symptoms worsen and/or last more than a few weeks. Charles Dickens said, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.” Let us all embrace that sentiment as we move into and beyond this holiday season!

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