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Help Seniors Overcome Holiday Stress: 4 Tips

12-2-2015 3-43-23 PM

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November 30, 2015

Nearly everyone looks forward to the holiday season—but not necessarily to the stress it seems to bring along. Your life may already feel like a pressure cooker as you juggle your senior loved one’s needs with those of your family, your career and yourself. Add in holiday stress related to shopping, cooking and traveling, and it might be easy to overlook the stressors that could be hindering your senior loved one’s ability to enjoy the holidays to the fullest.

Holiday-related stress may look different seniors than it does to caregivers. Seniors may not feel the pressure of shopping for the perfect gift or of planning the ideal family dinner, but they may feel sadness or anxiety— two emotions that can prevent them from feeling happy during the holidays.

The good news is you may be able to minimize these stressors for your senior family members without adding to your own holiday strain. Here are four types of holiday stress seniors might have to cope with—and what you can do to help.

1.    Grief

The holidays bring about memories of beloved friends and relatives who have passed on. Seniors may particularly miss their late spouse at this time of year. Even if a senior family member lost his or her spouse many years ago, they may find themselves grieving again at the holiday season.

To help a senior family member cope with holiday grief that involves the loss of a spouse, consider talking about it. Caregivers often worry about upsetting their loved one, but “sharing the sorrow” by encouraging seniors to tell stories about their deceased loved one can be a good way to help them grieve, according to Mental Health America. You might start by asking the senior if he or she is thinking about his or her late spouse, or share your own happy holiday anecdote involving the deceased loved one.

2.    Dietary Concerns 

Picture the holiday dinner table set for the entire family, with all kinds of delicious foods and traditional recipes made especially for the occasion.

Now imagine surveying that table with a sense of anxiety about how a favorite family dish might upset your stomach because of a new medication you’re taking. Or, the fear of eating a food you used to enjoy that now upsets your stomach or gives you diarrhea.

Many factors can influence the types of food a senior is able to eat. Problems with chewing or swallowing may make it difficult for them to eat ”regular” food. Medical conditions and medications may restrict a senior’s diet. A senior’s digestive tract simply may not function as well as it used to function. As a result, senior family members may worry about whether a holiday gathering will include foods they can eat safely and without the fear of post-meal discomfort.

You can help relieve this anxiety by asking about the senior’s dietary requirements in advance. Find out if a senior family member must avoid certain foods, or if he or she will need a selection of soft foods like mashed potatoes. Then, make it a point to incorporate some senior-friendly dishes into your family dinner so that everyone can enjoy it.

3.    Mobility Concerns

Seniors who have fallen in the past or who use an assistive device like a cane or walker may wonder if they will be able to attend holiday gatherings held in a location unfamiliar to them, like the home of a relative they’ve never visited. They may be concerned about whether or not they will have to go up and down stairs or how far they will need to walk in order to get from the car to the party. They also might worry about their safety if they have to walk through snow or other slippery conditions to get from the car to the door.

Giving seniors information in advance can help them avoid stressing over these issues. Describe the places where they will be attending each party, church service or other holiday-related event. Tell them about possible issues like stair steps or long stretches of walking. Then, work together to formulate a plan that addresses these issues in a way that enables the senior to enjoy the activity instead of worrying about whether or not his or her legs will hold up.

4.    End-of-Life Thoughts

Senior family members may experience bittersweet feelings about the holidays. On the one hand they may enjoy gathering with their families, but on the other hand they may wonder if this will be “the last” holiday for them.

Talking about death is hard, and you may not want to come right out and ask a senior loved one if he or she is feeling this way. Instead, you can ask them what you can do to make the holiday as special as possible for them. This approach allows them to make specific suggestions for things they may want to experience “one last time,” such as enjoying a unique family recipe, listening to particular music or participating in a specific activity like looking through photo albums.

Seniors deserve to enjoy the holidays without feeling stressed. With a little forethought about the anxieties that may be sapping your loved one’s happiness, you can make the festive season as enjoyable for him or her as possible.

Have any of your senior family members ever talked about the stress they feel during the holiday season? What stressed them out the most? How did you deal with it? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. December 21, 2015 at 8:10 pm | Posted by Christina

    This is thoughtful, but it also implies the family will be present or the senior will be able to go to family. My problem is getting the family to communicate, three sons and you think someone could manage to spend the holidays with their mother...sad. And she won't arrange it herself. Signed, a granddaughter


  2. December 11, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Posted by Michelle Kane

    My mom is unable to send cards out because she does not have the use of her Right hand any longer, due to a stroke. She has expressed how badly she feels that she is unable to send "presents" (for her that means checks) out to her children and grandchildren. In order to relieve her troubled mind, I have told her that the greatest gift she can give all of us is celebrating her love at Christmas with her family. That's all, that's it. A small smile appeared on her lips as I could see much of her anxiety had been relieved.


  3. December 10, 2015 at 9:17 pm | Posted by Susan S.

    I work for Home Instead Senior Care as a Care Giver in St. Augustine FL. Two of my clients are so very opposite yet similar. Both have lost their loved one. Mr.T's wife died 12 years ago and he can't quite get over it. I have tried to "Christmasfy" his house and he said "No just can't do it." Then one day I noticed he was playing Christmas songs on his day a wooden Rudolf is peaking out of his bushes...the following day 2 beautiful wreaths of red berries were hanging on the garage door lights on both sides. I said how pretty it looked and he replied, "It does look nice doesn't it". He is legally blind. The other one Miss M's husband died and she said he was a Christmas junkie. When she spoke of him she sounded so sad and she said Christmas depressed her. I simply told her that maybe she could think of Christmas as a dedication to her deceased husband. As we decorated the tree, which was the first tree in 3 years in that house, she said "This one is for you Mr. P" Tears came to my eyes. Now her house is decorated beautifully with bits of old and new pieces for Christmas. We have started to make ginger cookies and look through the cook books every day now. She even has lights outside of her house. She could not wait for her daughter to see what "we" did. She totally has pride in all we do and have done. She has Dementia, and everyday it is a new experience. I guess what I am trying to say is let them mourn their loved ones but try to turn it into something good. I am just as thrilled to see them every time I go to their house as they are to see me walk through the door. A good hug can last for 3 days! Merry Christmas ~ and a healthy Happy New Year!


    • December 22, 2015 at 9:56 am | Posted by Beth

      Here is what has worked for us, caring for my mother will dementia and my mother-in-law with post-polio and age-related dementia. - Keep everything simple. On our side, we exchange only the simplest gifts. Our wonderful Home Instead caregiver, Linda, assists my mother in getting small bills into Christmas cards. - My mother attends a 2:00 p.m. "simple Christmas Eve" service that is perfect for seniors. ( if you are in Charlotte NC). Daylight, not crowded or rushed, and beautiful. - We eat at 5:00 p.m., the right time for the mothers although not the preferred time for others. - Both mothers have small (about 18") trees, one brass and one ceramic. Festive but simple. The brass tree can hold several dozen simple ornaments. - We use amaryllis flowers as a fun and festive choice. Both mothers love to see them grow, and the colors are perfect for the holiday. - BTW, both mothers live in the same senior community. We are very fortunate that option was available to us. Again, the most important thing for us is to keep things simple and few. Blessings on all caregivers in the holiday season. Your loving spirit makes is what makes the biggest difference for your loved one. Beth


  4. December 10, 2015 at 2:24 pm | Posted by Carol

    Our tradition is for my 2 teenagers and husband and myself to stay with my parents for the holidays. In the past, my mom has "hosted" us by cleaning, baking, having groceries in the house, clean sheets on the guest beds. This year, she fell and has had a host of physical issues as a result. My dad prefers us to stay with them but my four sibs are encouraging us to stay in a hotel so as not to stress out my mom who has trouble relinquishing control. I have discussed with my parents the possibility of staying in a hotel this year for a few days but my dad wants us to stay with them. ( He has heart failure and we never know if this will be his last Christmas. ) So, my mom agreed that I would plan and cook meals with our kids do cleanup and whatever other chores may come along for them/ us while there. We hope to go out in the daytime for awhile just to give all of us a break and them some peace as our teenage son has adhd and requires extra attention stimulation besides sitting at home and watching tv with grandparents. Sigh...Your thoughts....advice......I want this to be a stress-free event for them and know that I will be the one with the biggest burden but to me it's worth it if it isn't upsetting. We can always go to a hotel if need be. Is this just crazy or what do you think....what might I be missing in considering them/ their needs. Thanks for your service. Carol


  5. December 10, 2015 at 10:22 am | Posted by Pam

    Wonderful article.


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