Share the Christmas Spirit > The gift of togetherness

Posted On November 10, 2006

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The Gift of Togetherness > Sharing the Holiday Season with the Elderly.

We are approaching the season when our thoughts naturally turn homeward, to warm cozy kitchens, the irresistible aroma of turkey roasting in the oven, and the anticipation of joyous family gatherings. Customarily, this is also the time of the year when emphasis is often placed upon wide-eyed youngsters and their merriment. What is often over-looked, however, is the effect the traditional holiday season has upon the elderly.

The discovery of a loved one’s noticeable decline is oftentimes a stark realization for out-of-town family members who arrive for a visit and are suddenly caught off-guard. What is a family to do when mom or dad’s condition becomes a concern? Amidst the flurry of activity, it is especially important to be attentive to the needs of older adults at this time of the year. Thoughtfully planning multi-generational family activities in which the elder can participate, serves as a gentle reminder as to the important role he/she still plays in the family, and can be the ultimate gift of the season.

Chances are you have already given some thought as to which family member is going to host Christmas morning brunch this year, or perhaps Hannukah dinner, as your family prepares to light the first candle on the menorah. Most adult children assume it is time they lifted the burden of entertaining from their parents, and dutifully begin to make holiday preparations. While some older adults enthusiastically welcome the opportunity to “retire” from their hosting duties, others have a great deal of difficulty relinquishing the leadership role within their family and becoming a guest. Women who have enjoyed the traditional role of matriarch for decades may be especially challenged as they struggle with a perceived loss of identity. Families can minimize these feelings by including older adults in the early stages of holiday planning. If a loved one doesn’t appear up to the task of independently hosting the family dinner, yet just cannot bear to give up the tradition of Thanksgiving at Grandma’s just yet, volunteer to arrive early in the morning and “assist” her in the preparations. Simply helping her to set the table with her heirloom wedding china, and joining in the preparation of her “tried-and-true” recipes, lends itself to a memory not soon to be forgotten. If it has been determined the hosting torch will be passed this year, be sure to incorporate a few traditions along with the new additions as you prepare to celebrate.

Feeling exhausted after a day of holiday decorating? Imagine how frustrated your loved one may feel as they long for twinkling lights and a jewel-like tree adorned with the familiar ornaments they’ve collected over the years. A sense of loss over physical limitations and the inability to spruce up their home like they once did, can further contribute to an older adult’s depression and feelings of inadequacy. You can do wonders for the spirit of an elder by making a date with them and spending a few hours decorating, perhaps also sharing a cup of cocoa or tea. Use this opportunity to tap their memories of past holidays, making sure to record their recollections in a family journal for future reference. Even those experiencing cognitive decline will enjoy reminiscing about their early memories. If by chance your loved one has already moved from their home, make an extra effort to include them in decorating your family’s tree, hanging the stockings, or polishing the menorah.

Most would agree there are few life experiences which compare to the wonderment of a child during the holiday season. The magic of believing in the spirit of the season is contagious! For this reason, be sure to plan as many intergenerational opportunities for socializing as feasible for your family. Consider inviting your loved one to spend an afternoon baking cookies or making latkes with the youngsters while sharing with them a treasured recipe. Perhaps teens could organize a neighborhood caroling group and include a wheelchair-bound grandparent at two or three neighborhood homes. Including older adults in these types of holiday activities validates their need for acceptance as a contributing family member, even though their physical limitations may increasingly cause them to question their importance.

Everyone enjoys reminiscing over photographs of years gone by! Be sure to provide plenty of opportunities for your loved one to linger over family photo albums. Doing so will provide a springboard for elders to talk about their deceased spouses or siblings. Sharing the memories they hold of the important people in their lives will have therapeutic benefits for the older adult and lesson the loneliness which frequently peaks during the holiday season. Don’t forget to take plenty of photographs of the current festivities, as these will allow them to link the holidays of the past with those of today.