By: Anita Kamiel, RN, MPS
Although we like to think of the holidays as a joyous time of year, not everyone feels that way. It can be a depressing and lonely time for seniors — especially for seniors who are separated from their loved ones. In addition, some seniors might be reminded of lost friends or family members or for the first time find themselves spending the holidays without their significant other. These losses bring on a lot of strong emotions and can be difficult to face alone.
Those of us that work with the elderly approach this time with trepidations. It is a period when they enjoy time with their loved ones, but may mourn all they have lost in terms of loved ones as well as physical capabilities. I have tried to put together some helpful tip sheets in addition to some concrete suggestions on how we can help the senior loved one, caregiver and their families navigate joyfully through this holiday season.
So, what can you do as a loved one of a senior who might be having a difficult time coping during the holidays?
1. Really listen to your senior loved one when they want to talk.
When your loved one talks, listen. Encourage them to express what they are feeling about the holidays, good or bad. If possible, just check in with them daily either by stopping by, calling or even using Skype to see how they are doing and to be there for them if they need to talk. Often, seniors just want to know that someone cares about them and that they are not alone.
2. Ask them for help and advice.
Seniors often get depressed because they feel they cannot participate in holiday planning the way they used to. If you are planning a holiday celebration, let them know they are a big part of that celebration. Ask for their advice or help preparing for the event. Even something as simple as asking them for a recipe can make them feel included in the process. Most importantly, remind them how much they are loved by everyone in the family.
3. Spend quality time with them.
Quality time with your loved ones is important all year long, but especially during the holidays. It can be a great remedy for seasonal depression in the elderly. Look at old holiday pictures, cards or videos with them. Leave them somewhere visible and accessible so your loved one can take a walk down memory lane when they are alone. Ask to hear their memories of the season or stop by to watch some favorite holiday movies.
4. Plan a family gathering.
There is no better way to brighten someone’s mood and show them how much they are loved than by surrounding them with family. Dedicate a special night for everyone to get together for dinner, view a family video or even enjoy a game night. Invite friends, family and anyone else you think your loved one will enjoy seeing. Conversely, let them have a say in which family gathering they would prefer not to attend.
5. Help them with their holiday planning.
Many elderly seniors cannot get out and shop like they used to. Depending on their physical health and age, they may no longer be driving or may not be able to move around a store or mall without assistance. Offer to take your loved one out to do their holiday shopping. If getting out is not feasible for them, bring over a laptop or tablet to help them shop online. It might be a fun experience for them. You can help them decorate their house, wrap gifts or even make gifts. Also, a little extra help baking or preparing meals might be really appreciated.
6. Help them keep to a regular schedule.
With all that is going on around holiday time, it can be easy to slip out of a regular routine. It is important that seniors stay on as much of their normal schedule as possible including keeping up with their medication, getting about seven to nine hours of sleep and eating their three healthy square meals a day. It is equally important to not overeat or overindulge in sweets or alcohol. Be vigilant or tell their caregiver to make sure they keep up their strength during the holiday season.
7. If they are mobile, take them out.
There is no better distraction than getting out of the four walls surrounding them every day. You can bring them to social activities they normally attend or forums for their hobby. Museums in small doses could be quite manageable and shows are even better since you get to sit down. You could even take them shopping if they are so inclined in the busy season. Even grabbing lunch in the neighborhood could be just the fun outing they need.
8. Let’s get physical!
In addition to all the other physical benefits, exercise is great for mood improvement. It can be as effective as anti-depressants without the ill effects and toxicity. There are plenty of exercises designed for the elderly to do at their level of ability taking any limited mobility and stamina into account. Yoga and Tai Chi are also excellent low impact alternatives. Exercise can enhance their weight bearing, balance and muscle density. A qualified personal trainer that comes to the house might be a good solution for those who are unable to get out to classes or a gym.
9. Get them an iPad.
There are many studies that demonstrate the cognitive and psychological benefits of the Internet for the elderly. It opens vistas for them in terms of connecting with the outside world and like minded people. It is also a great platform for connecting with grandchildren and relatives. Buy them an iPad if they don’t already have one, crack it open and sit together with them as they explore what is a new and exciting technology for them. They’ll learn a new skill that could spark some creativity for you both.
10. Consider getting a pet.
Don’t underestimate the value of pets in the life of a senior. Having a manageable, low maintenance pet can provide not only a much needed distraction and companionship, but a sense that seniors can still love and care for another living thing. These are important factors that can ward off the all too pervasive affliction of depression in the elderly. This is also an opportunity to employ an important form of therapy called therapeutic touch.
11. Arrange time for them to laugh and put on a happy face.
If your senior loved one is not up to going out, invite their friends in. Help them make it a pleasant experience by serving light fare and arranging an activity they can have fun with. Even watching a comedy can provide comic relief for all involved. Remember, positivity is infectious. If you’re able to keep a smile on, you’ll spread that holiday cheer to everyone around you, including your loved one who may be struggling with a bout of seasonal depression.
12. You’re never too old for a spa day.
Of course, there is nothing as relaxing as a pampered experience at the spa. However, that might not be feasible for your senior loved one. As the baby boomers age, house call businesses are burgeoning. You can get everything in the comfort of your home, from manicures to massages. Calling in some spa-like professionals could also be a fun activity with their friends.
13. Hire a home healthcare provider.
If you do not have the time to help your loved one during the holidays, consider hiring a home health aide. An aide can help them with errands, decorations for the holidays as well as preparing meals. Home health aides can also provide much needed companionship. You will feel more at ease knowing someone is covering for you and helping take care of your loved one during what might be a vulnerable time in their life.
Depression in the elderly is a serious problem that is far too often overlooked. If you feel the situation is really serious, consider bringing in a professional. There are support groups for all sorts of conditions which could be extremely helpful for appropriately directing your loved one to get insight and help from those facing the same challenges. One on one talk therapy and supportive counseling can help them work through their individual underlying issues without the risks and side effects of medication. However, when medication is deemed necessary, be sure to monitor their intake since the elderly metabolize medications differently than younger adults. You might want to explore some alternative remedies for depression such as omega-3 fatty acids, folic acid, SAMe or St. John’s wort. Also, be on the lookout for any warning signs of suicide. Tragically, when the elderly decide to take that step, they are much more ‘successful’ at it than their younger counterparts.
Anita Kamiel, RN, MPS, is the founder and owner of David York Home Healthcare Agency, licensed by the State of New York. She holds a master’s degree in gerontological administration and is fully acquainted with all factors related to eldercare services and the latest guidelines for seniors. Thirty years ago, she realized the need for affordable, quality home health aide services provided and supervised by caring individuals. You can contact her at 718-376-7755 or at www.davidyorkagency.com. David York Agency is also on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.