As major retailers roll out their ads to announce the holidays are approaching, many find themselves scrambling to prepare food, buy gifts and make arrangements to spend time with loved ones. Unfortunately, for a portion of seniors in America, the holiday season can present a challenge as travel becomes more cumbersome, and many loved ones have either moved away or passed on.
According to the Administration on Aging (AoA), “About 29 percent (13.3 million) of all noninstitutionalized older persons in 2015 lived alone. The proportion living alone increases with advanced age.”
Additionally, the AoA concludes that a smaller portion (roughly 3.2 percent) of seniors 65 years and older live in institutional settings—a figure that also increases with age.
During what is supposed to be a season of joy, some seniors are grieving for happier times in years past. How should they cope with this pain? A few local experts in senior living give their insight.
Understand the Challenges
Often times, in more youthful stages of life, it is easier to dismiss various holiday disappointments with the idea that “there’s always next year.” However, as aging seniors face health issues, family distance and the reality of loss, it is important to not take for granted the little moments that make a holiday joyous when present but sad when absent.
Jeff Price, Director of Community Relations at Bentley Commons, suggests that one of the hardest things for seniors to deal with during the holidays is a change in tradition.
The shift in tradition can lead to some serious emotional issues.
“I believe the most common issue for seniors during the holidays would be depression, especially if they are homebound or not in great physical health,” said Alicia Adams, Director of Community Relations at the Avante Group.
Additionally, according to Lisa Martin, Director of Resident Life and Wellness at Westminster Canterbury, depression can lead to another list of issues for seniors including increased illness, substance abuse, self-isolation and a decline in overall function.
“Many times with a recent loss, the person left to grieve does not want to celebrate the holiday. They just are not feeling the holiday spirit without their loved one. Within the first year of the loss, the bereaved will have to find a way to celebrate the holiday with new traditions,” said June McNamara, social worker for Westminster Canterbury.
If left unchecked by grief counseling or some other form of coping, loss or loneliness can lead to the aforementioned symptoms of depression. Paul Whitten, location manager of Whitten Funeral Homes, says help is available for seniors as soon as they make funeral arrangements.
“We have a complete library of grief support materials available at no charge, covering a very wide range of topics,” said Whitten.
Additionally, Whitten Funeral Homes offers a unique, free service known as the “Compassion Hotline” that gives callers 24-hour access to licensed grief counselors. They also plan a special event to help anyone who has experienced a recent loss.
“Each year we offer our Service of Remembrance to each of the families we have served that year. This gives people an opportunity to remember their loved one prior to the major holidays and also recognize that others are dealing with the same issue in their family. Grief shared is often times grief diminished,” Whitten said.
Hill City Pharmacy also offers help to seniors in need by making sure to establish a strong relationship with each person, especially if the senior is taking medication to cope with depression.
“We take extra time with our seniors to make sure they understand their medications and that they are able to understand how to organize their medications safely,” said Bryan Moody, President of Hill City Pharmacy.
Another way seniors can alleviate some emotional pain during the holidays is to stay involved in their communities and take part in various activities.
Assisted living centers like Bentley Commons, Westminster Canterbury and Avante all offer various events to keep seniors busy, including charity drives, Christmas caroling, big meals and more.
“Finding new friends or groups where they feel a sense of belonging or just a special new tradition that brings them joy can help. Get out and get involved in things even if you don’t feel like it. Sometimes just being around joy and love can lift their spirits,” Martin said.
According to Adams, seniors should reach out to family members or friends to remain active socially. Additionally, she suggests researching some volunteer opportunities.
“It’s vital that no matter what your health situation may be, that you get to maintain a happy and active lifestyle, whether it is the holiday season or any season,” Price said.
Helping the Senior in Your Life
“Listening, providing comfort and support, and offering help are the best ways to help seniors deal with grief. Knowing the signs of depression is very important as well,” Adams said.
Although you may not be able to provide an instant fix, there are small ways you can help the seniors in your life feel a little warmer around the holidays.
“Be respectful and sensitive to the fact that the holidays are not necessarily the easiest time for seniors. It is so easy to get tied up with the hustle and bustle of the season that it is easy to forget that for some it’s a very hard time of year,” Price said.
Whitten suggests something as simple as involving an older family member in meal preparation, such as peeling vegetables or folding napkins. He also suggests, “always letting them walk down memory lane.”
“Families and friends should check on their senior loved ones more often during the holidays and even winter months with bad weather. Help them set up their Christmas tree or assist with writing Christmas cards,” Whitten said
Although the holidays can present many emotional challenges for seniors, a support system established by their family, friends and loved ones can make a big difference.
“Recognize their needs and provide the resources that can help,” Whitten said.
By Jeremy Angione