Although the winter holiday season is supposed to be a time of sharing joy and good tidings, oftentimes people—especially those who are older—find that, as the season unfolds, they feel progressively disappointed, stressed and sad. Some elders in elderly care home are feeling the same sadness when their family or love ones are too busy and don’t have time to visit them.
There are many influencing factors that can contribute to seniors being at particular risk of suffering from the “holiday blues,” including:
- Reminders of past losses of significant loved ones–Many seniors have survived a number of their cherished friends and family members and these losses often take on greater significance during the holidays.
- Sadness over the contrast between “then” and “now”—For many older people, the memories of holidays past so outshine present day celebrations they feel unable to focus on or experience pleasure in the “now.”
- Unrealistic expectations—the holidays can bring a host of expectations, such as family togetherness, festive events and feelings of expanded happiness. Reality too often falls short of these expectations, which can cause an individual to plummet to new lows of sadness, feelings of loneliness and despair.
- Spending the holidays alone—Some seniors live by themselves or at home healthcare and/or at a distance from friends and family and spend much, if not all, of the holidays alone. Grown children often become busy with their own social obligations and may not realize how much their parents or grandparents look forward to sharing time during the holidays with them.
- Coping with failing health—The holidays can often serve to underscore the limitations failing health imposes on the ability to participate in once-enjoyed activities.
What Can You Do?
The following strategies can be useful in helping to get around potential sources of the “holiday blues”:
- Adjust your expectations—For example, if you think the perfect family get-together won’t be a part of this year’s holidays, keeping this realistic assumption in mind can help you avoid frustration when and if something should go wrong or be less than desirable when your family gets together.
- Limit predictable sources of stress—If you feel the annual trappings of shopping, decorating, cooking and attending social events risks becoming overwhelming and stressful, limit the activities you commit to.
- Get together with friends and family members—As much as possible, share the holidays with friends and family members in person, as well by phone, e-mail, and mail. The holiday season is also a good time to contact someone you have not heard from for awhile. For those who have recently suffered the loss of someone especially close, spend time with special friends and family with whom you can reminisce and share stories and cherished memories about your loved one.
- Attend holiday community events—Most communities offer special events during the holidays, such as theatrical and orchestral performances, that can be enjoyable to look forward to and to attend.
- Join a social group—Feelings of loneliness and isolation can often be remedied by participating in activities with others. This can also help in opening up the potential for making new friends. You might consider looking into groups affiliated with your local church, museum, library or community center.
- Engage in volunteer activity—Helping others is a pretty foolproof method of making the holidays feel more meaningful. There are many volunteer organizations that need extra help during this time of year.
- Enjoy activities that are free—Financial strain can be the cause of added stress during the holidays, however, there are many ways of enjoying the season that are free, including driving or walking around to admire holiday decorations, going window shopping without buying, making a snowperson with children, and attending free concerts.
- Don’t drink too much—Many of the season’s parties and social gatherings include alcohol. Be aware that excessive drinking will only increase feelings of overwhelm or depression. Alcohol is NOT an antidepressant and, in fact, often worsens mood.
- Seek new, enjoyable ways of getting physical exercise—Exercising, for example, aerobics, walking, skiing, hiking, yoga, or swimming can help burn away a lot of stress as well as the extra calories of holiday meals.
- Adopt a pet—Many have found that assuming the responsibility of caring for and loving a pet brings new joy and companionship into their lives.
Remember that life brings changes–As families change and grow, traditions often need to adapt to the new configurations. While you can hold onto certain family rituals, for instance, a certain holiday activity or preparing a long-cherished family recipe, some traditions, such as everyone gathering at your house, may not be possible this year. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by comparing this year’s holiday season with the “good ol’ days.”
Spend Time With Supportive and Caring People
In all of the ways listed above—as well as any other opportunities you can think of that specifically apply to your life—it cannot be emphasized enough how important it can be to spend the holiday season in the company of supportive and caring people.
Many seniors have found that seeking the counsel of a therapist during this time of year provides just the kind of support and care that helps them with the many emotional issues that arise in response to the holidays. Therapy provides a safe, comforting, and confidential setting in which to receive the kind of help and understanding that can best assist in first relieving, then understanding, and finally recovering from the effects of feelings of sadness, disillusionment or loneliness .
Could It Be Depression?
The added demands of the holiday season can sometimes overload an already stressed, almost depressed emotional system. If you are unable to shake what you think are the “holiday blues,” you may be suffering from depression. The difference between the “holiday blues” and depression is essentially based on the duration and the degree of the symptoms. When conditions and affects such as the following last for two weeks or longer, it could, in fact, be depression:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood
- Sudden loss of pleasure and interest in activities that are usually enjoyed
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Difficulty sleeping, or increased sleeping
- Behavior that is more nervous or agitated than normal, or more slowed and unresponsive than normal
- Complaints of being tired all the time and having low energy
- Significant weight loss or gain
- Social withdrawal
- New and persistent physical symptoms that don’t respond to treatment, such as headaches or digestive disorders
- Difficulty with thinking or concentration
- Thoughts of suicide**
Depression is very treatable–but first it must be recognized. If you or someone you care about are experiencing these symptoms, it’s critical that these signs are not just dismissed as part of aging or that you imagine the depressive feelings will eventually go away on their own. Consult a mental-health professional as quickly as possible. Depression is not a sign of personal weakness; people suffering with depression cannot merely “pull themselves together” and get better.
If left untreated, the depressive symptoms will only continue on beyond the holiday season and progressively worsen, causing needless pain and suffering, not only to the person who is depressed, but also to those who care about them. Untreated depression can even become a life-threatening disorder as it persistently distorts thinking, making the individual feel more and more hopeless about themselves and life in general.
There are therapists who are particularly skilled at helping those who are suffering from depression so that they’re better able to enjoy a winter holiday season that’s merry and bright and to look forward to the new year with health, hope and optimism.
**Suicidal ideation is always a serious matter and should be immediately responded to by enlisting professional assistance, for instance, calling “911,” and/or seeking help from a local suicide hotline (listed in your Yellow Pages under “Crisis Intervention Services”), and/or contacting a local mental-health professional.