Keeping Elder Holidays Special

By Barb Dupras

The holidays are a special time for celebrating family, renewing your connections with loved ones and being together.  But families, like life, go through change, especially with older loved ones.  Keeping the spirit of the holiday alive despite these changes keeps the fabric of family strong.

When there have been changes in a senior’s life—  a new debilitating medical condition,  loss of some independence, loss of a loved one, or even a change in the environment, the holidays can bring depression.  This can be exhibited by loss of interest in things previously enjoyed, slowed thinking or response, decreased level of hygiene, inability to focus or concentrate, change in sleep patterns, loss of appetite and/or increased forgetfulness.  If you have a feeling something is just not right, it might be good to talk to your loved one— it may be he or she is experiencing a simple fear that that can be remedied with reassurance. Communication is always important.  Just knowing that you care gives your loved one that emotional support.  During the holidays, continue to give your loved one a feeling of being needed (lack of this can also be a fear).  Have him/her assist with holiday preparations such as decorating or cooking.  Take a drive to see the holiday lights. Encourage him/her to tell stories of the past.  Have the youngest serve the eldest first at meal time.  All these things will help your senior feel loved no matter what changes have taken place.  But if your loved one continues to exhibit symptoms of depression after two weeks, it may be a good idea to consult your doctor.  The doctor would know if it could be a side effect from a medication or interaction between the meds and can give you information on how it could be treated.  Also be aware that the senior’s generation did not recognize depression.  The senior’s reaction may be one of not understanding, feeling that this shows weakness of character or is a mental illness.  Some people have the mistaken belief that depression is a part of aging.  Depression in the elderly results from losses and changes that are not caused by the physical aspects of aging.  A strong  deterrent to depression is having a strong network of support from family and/or friends.

Another big change can be a medical condition resulting in loss of physical functioning – stroke, severe arthritis, etc.  Be mindful of your senior’s new physical needs.  Are there steps in the house that would be difficult?  Does the senior now need help getting up the porch steps?  If the holiday is at the family home, does the senior need an elevated toilet seat?  Can it be brought from the senior’s home?  Also, with any new condition, one’s energy level would certainly change.   Be aware that your senior may tire easily and need to rest.  Also, he/she may not tolerate the stimulation of being with a lot of people as well as before but may not want to say anything.  Also be aware that there may be new dietary needs.  Locating an Elder Care online site could prove to be an invaluable resource for information.

One of the biggest challenges in celebrating holidays is with a loved one who has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  If you are the caregiver and the festivities are at your house, it may be a good idea to send a letter to the family who are coming explaining the changes in your loved one so they will not be surprised or offended.  It is important to let them know that the senior cannot process information as he/she did before.  It helps to be specific.  Also, if you are the caregiver it may help to make things simpler to give yourself a break.  Asking for a holiday potluck may be a nice variation.

In terms of the senior, it would be helpful to have a special room where he or she could rest  or be out of the fray of people.  The person with the dementia cannot tolerate much stimulation.  Helping your loved one maintain the usual routine as much as possible does help, as it gives the senior a feeling of stability.  Even though the dementia slows down functioning, it is still important to include the senior in the festivities as much as possible, though at a later stage of Alzheimer’s, this could be a challenge to consider carefully.

If your loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s is in a nursing facility, you can still celebrate together with a visit.  People with dementia often cannot remember what they ate five minutes ago but do remember in detail the history of topics important to them.  To help make a connection with your loved one, you could bring in pictures or an old photo album and talk about the past.  You may be surprised how much will be shared.  Another idea is to bring in old recordings of songs of his or her era.  Or even sing them with him or her.  There always is a thread of remembrance of favorite songs no matter what the severity of dementia.  You can also start a project in which he/she puts together old pictures in an album.  Be creative – the results will be a lasting memory which you will cherish.  For more information regarding dealing with dementia and/or Alzheimer’s disease, the local Alzheimer’s Association in Marquette has a library filled with information.  Phone calls with questions are also welcomed.

One of the most common challenges in these times is the distance between families.  We all know that it is important to stay connected.  In this high tech age there are some opportunities that may help.  For those who have a computer, having a regular meeting using a video conferencing program such as Skype program can help.   Family members can see each other on the screen and actually talk with one another.  Another idea is to give your grandparents webcams.  Then make a date every week to connect.   Obtain a free conference line on your phone that you can send to all family members.  Celebrate with your seniors long distance by signing up at or  Charges are the same as long distance calls for each person.

We can make the holidays the special time they’ve always been meant to be,  regardless of the changes.  Our elders are a rich source of wisdom, history and love that can help bind a family together in  precious ways.  Let’s always value them and make them as much a part of our lives as we are able.

Barbara Dupras is a newly retired Senior Center Social Worker.  She is also an energy practitioner and is on the board of Natural Connections.  Barbara lives in a wonderful home on the Chocolay River with her cat Vido. 

Reprinted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Winter 2011 – 2012