Start new traditions to manage holiday blues in elderly


Q. My elderly mother is in a nursing home. She has already feeling sad about Christmas. What can we do to make her holiday more pleasant?

A. The holidays often cause feelings of sadness and hopelessness in the elderly. There are several reasons for this. First, many seniors remember their spouse, friends, and family members who have died, and they know that those times will never return. Second, many elderly people have unrealistic expectations that the family will all be together. Since more families are now geographically spread apart, this “storybook Christmas” happens less frequently. Third, seniors often see the holidays as a reminder of failing health.

There are several ways that you can make Christmas happier for your mother. If she is able to shop, take her with you, but limit her activity if necessary. If she is unable to go with you, do her shopping for her. Let her wrap the presents or watch you wrap them. Bring friends and family members to see her for short visits throughout the holidays. Give her gifts that she can enjoy in her current surroundings. When my mother was in the nursing home, I drew holiday pictures for her door. This was her favorite present because people stopped by to admire the pictures and would then visit with her. Chocolates were also a favorite.

You may attempt to start some new traditions with your mother. Make a special dinner or take her out for a nice meal, whichever she prefers. Open your presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. Go to a special church service. Invite some of her friends and your friends to your home for a pre-holiday celebration.

There are several websites that provide suggestions for managing holiday blues in the elderly. Two excellent ones are www.4therapy.com and www.medicinenet.com. Whatever Christmas plans you make, you should not feel guilty. Most of us do the best we can. No one has the perfect holidays to which I can attest as a psychotherapist.

Q. My children, who are 8 and 11, have been given every toy they ask for and yet they always seem disappointed at holiday time. What can we do to make the holidays more memorable? Obviously, the answer is not more toys.

A. Your family should establish some holiday traditions that do not include receiving gifts. You can start with activities such as making ornaments for the Christmas tree, baking cookies, or creating Christmas cards. Some other yearly holiday traditions may include viewing the local Christmas lights, watching movies, eating at a favorite restaurant, listening to holiday music, or an endless list of activities that children enjoy.

Above all, be certain that part of the season is devoted to giving back to others. You can encourage your children to “adopt” a family and use some of the money you would spend on their presents to help those who have few resources. Many local organizations can pair you with a needy child or family.

Christmas, of course, will still include some gift giving. You can encourage a more appreciative attitude in your children by limiting the number of gifts they receive and by creating realistic expectations. Even if you can afford to give them every luxury available, they need to understand that they should not have every luxury available.

Lastly, be certain that you are involved in your children’s activities throughout the season. Many parents over-compensate with gifts instead of spending quality time with their children. Years from now, they will not remember most of their toys, but they will remember that you made their holidays special with love for them and kindness toward others.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a limited private practice in Pine Bluff. If you have questions, e-mail them to drnryburn@gmail.com. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.