Holidays are supposed to be a happy time. Television ads show us family gatherings, the radio is filled with holiday music and newspapers feature stories of family reunions and traditions. For many older adults, however, the holidays can be particularly difficult. Memories of past holiday celebrations with spouses, siblings, and friends can be painful when loved ones have passed away. They also become a reminder of the distance from children, friends, and loved ones who have moved away. Illness or lost mobility adds to that sense of isolation. Many seniors find their holiday cheer is replaced by a feeling of loss, loneliness, and isolation, which frequently leads to acute sadness and depression.
Seniors feeling depressed and sad during the holidays, typically try to hide those feeling from friends and family. They don't want to worry their loved ones by showing how they are feeling. What you may not realize is that depression, left unchecked, can lower the immune system, leaving older adults more susceptible to life threatening infections and illness.
You Can Help
You can lessen or prevent those feelings of sadness and loneliness. Try these suggestions for bringing back the joy of the season:
Whether near or far away, keep in touch with the older adults in your life. Even a brief visit or phone call will help. We’re all very busy in the days leading up to the holidays, but setting aside a little time will give you a break from the hectic pace, too. Encourage other family members and friends to do the same.
Send a few extra cards and notes or drop off a book or movie you think they will enjoy. These simple acts are a great way of saying, “you’re important to me, and you’re not forgotten.”
Offer positive suggestions for regular social outings and interaction. You don’t want to push too hard, but you can make that interaction seem doable when you offer transportation and other help that may be needed. If you don’t have a way of providing that extra help, talk to someone who may be able to do it for you. Making it seem easy, available, and no bother is important.
If you think an older friend or loved one is depressed, explain to him or her that you are concerned. Offering an ear and a little sympathy can make a big difference.
If you can't be with older family or friends, encourage them to invite some close friends over to share the holidays. Help with ideas and making a plan for how it could work. It becomes a shared holiday activity and something they can look forward to doing.
Suggest a way they can make a difference by volunteering their time. There are countless community groups, churches, and synagogues that need help.
Most seniors are on a fixed income. When discussing shopping and holiday gifts make it clear that you set a budget for gift giving and stick to it. Offer encouragement for small gifts or just a card and explain that there’s no reason to feel guilty if they can't afford to buy an expensive gift. .Remind your older loved one that it’s the person who will be remembered, not the gifts.
When Holiday Blues Linger
It’s unfortunate that many seniors and their families see depression as an inevitable condition of aging. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While most older persons who suffer from holiday blues quickly recover, others sink into clinical depression. If you notice your friend or loved one is withdrawn and shows little interest in associating with others, you need to pay attention. Other signs to look for are loss of appetite, not getting dressed during the day, or spending too much time in bed. You may also see signs of alcohol abuse.
If the blues continue past the holiday season or start to include some of these symptoms, it’s important to get professional help immediately. If you don’t know where to turn, try Findapsychologist.org. This new consumer resource can direct you to licensed, credentialed psychologists in your area. Findapsychologist.org ensures privacy and immediate access at any time of the day or night. The Findapsychologist.org website is a free public service with a directory of more than 12,000 psychologists practicing in Canada, the U.S., and territories. Unlike other website directories of psychologists, the psychologists listed on Findapsychologist.org include only those whose educational and professional credentials have been verified by an independent third party--the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology (National Register). States and provincial licensing boards as well as the healthcare industry use the National Register to verify the credentials of psychologists before they issue a license to practice psychology, making the information on FindAPsychologist.org the most reliable source available today.
Judy E. Hall, PhD
Registrant since 1978
January 4, 2012
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