Faster than Santa’s Sleigh, the holidays are upon us in all their glory. Along with tidings of good will and merry-making, this time of year can also bring sadness to seniors who are no longer able to celebrate as they did in their youth.
While Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa bring togetherness and happiness to many, we shouldn’t forget that they can also be a time of stress, confusion and loneliness for older adults, especial those beginning to experience age-related ailments and memory loss. That’s why we at Sunshine Retirement Living communities take extra care to make sure all our residents in our assisted living, memory care, and personal care communities are well equipped to deal with sometimes unsettling events of the holidays and prepared to experience tidings of comfort and joy instead.
For Jennifer Gross, Executive Director at The Haven at North Hills, this is the time of year that she is reminded that no two residents are alike and there no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays. She says:
“We like to remind our staff and families that the holidays may be a joyous celebration for some and distressing or sad for others. Some have visitors and some are alone. Let’s be respectful and learn about our residents so we can provide opportunities for them to celebrate the holidays according to their own preference.”
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at five specific challenges that seniors face at this time of year and how to address them.
Food for thought on the big feasts.
Starting with Thanksgiving, a major part of the holidays at this time of year is the opportunity to break bread with family and friends, not to mention carving turkeys, hams and lots of sugary, high-calorie desserts. It can be quite challenging for seniors who are on special diets or simply don’t indulge in food as much as they used to. Here are some ways to keep palates and stomachs happy:
As for the chefs at Sunshine Retirement communities, many keep a watchful eye out for our residents with the philosophy shared by Santos Barrientos, Executive Director at The Gardens at Brook Ridge:
“Our chefs don't cook much with salt and we always offer sugar-free desserts for those with diabetic diets. We’re also happy to provide softened or chopped servings and pureed meals per doctor's orders.”
One is the loneliest number.
It’s no secret that instances of depression rise across all generations and across the globe during the holidays, especially among the elderly.
“Some folks absolutely love and have no trouble coping with all the added activity; others can become withdrawn, fearful and want to be isolated,” says Beverly White of Heritage Point in Mishawaka, Indiana.
On top of that, many seniors have no family nearby often feel more alone during the holidays when their closest friends are off visiting relatives.
“All staff members need to be extra full of love, hugs and compassion,” adds White. “We need to be diligent in paying close attention to body language, unusual tearfulness, extra fidgeting and anxiousness so that we are able to keep our residents calm.”
Of course, Sunshine Life Enrichment Directors make a point of including residents who are not away with family in all their community holiday activities. But there’s more to it than that, as Gross from The Haven, points out:
“I remind the staff to pay attention to the person sitting alone in their room or who does not get visitors. Take time to stop with a smiling face or provide them with a holiday card.”
Together, we do our best to make the holidays a joyous and positive experience for every resident.
Can a big happy family be too much of a good thing?
If your extended family doesn’t get together all that often, Grandma or Grandpa may not realize how much the kids have grown and become more rambunctious. Likewise, the younger generations may not be prepared to see Grandma or Grandpa exhibit accelerated signs of aging, fragility and frailty, and loss of memory. And an intense get-together can easily trigger some unexpected reactions or behaviors related to those issues.
For most seniors, we suggest having the grandkids come visit the retirement community for a meal or a Christmas activity. This will allow everyone to get reacquainted and caught up in the grandparent’s most familiar and comfortable environment.
“In those cases,” says Barrientos from The Gardens, “notify them of the importance of being mindful of other residents in the community and making sure the kids are well behaved while visiting loved ones.”
If you choose to take older loved ones away from the retirement community for a visit, plan an outing that everyone can enjoy – maybe a holiday concert, a play or a sleigh ride. Or arrange an activity at home that keeps all generations engaged, such as decorating the tree, baking cookies, building a gingerbread house, or singing Christmas carols.
Planes, trains and automobiles – keeping holiday travel manageable.
For families arranging to have older loved ones come visit during the holidays, Michelle Ledford, Executive Director at Windsor Heights in Beachwood, Ohio offers several excellent precautionary suggestions.
Above all, enjoy your time together.
After you have ensured that your older loved ones are safe and happy, relax and focus on making the most of the holidays and your time together. Encourage group activities to get your family moving. Dance to some favorite holiday tunes or take an evening stroll through the neighborhood to see the lights. By all means be merry, but be mindful that alcohol may dangerously interact with medications.
Also, many of our fondest memories from childhood revolve around holidays past. Encourage Grandma and Grandpa to wax nostalgic and reminisce about the holidays. Even seniors with advanced memory loss retain long-term memories and may be able to speak vividly about a Christmas more than 50 years ago.
“Relaxing reminiscence is a goal that will set you up for success,” says Jennifer Gross. “Pull out photo albums, watch familiar holiday movies, play familiar holiday music, bring out the old favorite decorations, and rekindle family traditions that bring the past to life.”
It may be a recipe for coaxing a few tears for all seated around the table. But much like the Grinch who couldn’t steal Christmas, it will help everyone discover the true meaning of the holidays that never fades away.