Older Adults and Holiday Blues

For many of us, the holidays bring the anticipation of enjoying days away from work, from school and the everyday grind of life. They are an opportunity to be with family and friends, and to celebrate in religious or secular fashion the beauty and meaning of the season. With food, gifts, music and gatherings, there's an aura about it that signifies that this is a special time, far removed from the ordinary.

Many of our most treasured memories revolve around the holidays, and lining the walls and counters of our homes are cards and photographs that memorialize this special time of year. But inside the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it may not be apparent to us that for the elderly, it may not be the same.

The Roots of the Problem

There used to be a time, not long ago, that families lived together. Often in the same house, but certainly nearby, just "over the river and through the woods." Children became parents, parents became grandparents, and sometimes grandparents became great-grandparents, and they all lived together, working and caring for one another until their final days.

help concept with hands of women, focus point selective ,soft studio light

World War II began to change all of that. The war caused young people to leave their farms and small towns and to travel, not only across the country, but around the world. When the war was over there was no "keeping them down on the farm." Young women were now working, veterans went to college on the GI bill, and the war spawned a thousand different factories and businesses that drew people from across the country. Many arrived in Seattle that way.

As families began to scatter, caring for Grandma and Grandpa started to become more complex. Retirement villages appeared by the hundreds in sunny locations, and with advances in medicine, it now appeared to be inappropriate to allow our elderly to live their final years at home if their life could be extended in hospitals and nursing homes.

All of this (and much more) resulted in today's situation, where there are millions of elderly people living away from their families. Independent living communities, assisted living centers, adult family homes and skilled nursing facilities are now where a large portion of our elderly family members are living out their final years and days. There are many good reasons and benefits to this recent way of caring for our elderly; on the other hand, there are many adverse results that become more pronounced during the holidays.

No longer in their own home, it is no longer reasonable for Grandma and Grandpa to host the celebration; plus, not living in the home where the celebration is taking place means that they no longer participate in all the preparation for it. If they are disabled by sickness or injury, then their fate is to be alone for much of the day and night, lying in a care center room, often with a roommate that they do not know, experiencing feelings of loss, sadness and a deep longing for life to be the way it once was. They may have visitors and activities provided by warm-hearted staff, but this only temporarily breaks the long periods of boredom and pain, both physical and emotional. Because this generation was raised with such admirable characteristics of self-reliance, decency, duty, self-respect and hard work, they often do not complain, and put on a happy face, but the hidden cry is nonetheless present.

No longer able to be in the middle of it all, and perhaps only able to make brief and temporary appearances with family and friends, makes it difficult to feel like you belong and play a meaningful part. If you were always a person who was busy doing for others, making and baking, building and gathering, and this is no longer a part you can play, then what is your part? This can be a difficult transition.

Death comes more often to the elderly, family friends, neighbors and even the celebrities that you once enjoyed. For those who have recently lost a loved one, this may be the first holiday season without them. Grief has a chameleon nature; it affects all of us differently. Often it is triggered in these times, and try as one might, it won't go away. The memories come flooding in, and often with it is the longing, once again, for things that once were but are no longer.

What We Can Do

What can those of us who love and care for our elderly family, friends, patients and clients do? First, we need to provide understanding without judgment. Try to put yourself in someone else's shoes, empathize and feel what is going on in them.

Second, don't try to immediately fix it, but be with it—the pain, the loneliness. How often have I seen family members who try to distract or deflect the pain and anguish of their elderly parent! Rather, try providing sensitivity and an atmosphere of love and support. Identify the obvious pain that is in the room and face it together. It might not always be easy and sometimes can be messy, but it is so much better to see what is and deal with it squarely and cleanly rather than to ignore and mutually deceive.

Third, make extra efforts during the holidays to be there for others, to include them in a fuller way rather than just the holiday meal. Even someone lying in bed in a nursing home can make things, and be included in planning and gift buying.

Fourth, speak what is in your heart. Don't wait to let those you love know how you feel about them. Show it in actions and words.

We didn't create this current world where families are far strewn across the world and separated from each other, yet here we are. In every problem lies an opportunity. The holidays might actually be an invitation to all to bring a little more love and peace and joy to those who paid the price for our future.

Contributor Allen Tacke is a geriatric mental health counselor for Navos Mental Health Solutions. He works with clients in skilled nursing facilities in the Seattle area and has created programs that stimulate mental and emotional health in independent living centers and senior centers throughout the Puget Sound. He can be reached at allen.tacke@navos.org.

Photo credit: "Winter," by @Doug8888, accessed 11/24/14 at Flickr Creative Commons.