Reducing Loneliness: How to Help Seniors During the Holidays
Published in AgingCare by Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders, updated Nov. 2021
10 Tips for Reducing Loneliness During the Holidays
Make a point of actively listening when your loved one wants to talk, even if the discussion is negative. An honest and empathetic conversation can help them process what is bothering them, whether they are mourning a loss or coming to terms with new challenges in life. It may also reveal why they are feeling down and inspire other ways of lifting their spirits.
Remind them how important they are as a part of your life, your family members’ lives and these annual holiday celebrations. They may feel useless or burdensome if they cannot contribute to or fully participate in the festivities like they used to. Encourage them to do what they are capable of and be especially careful not to act like what you do for them is done out of a sense of duty. Show them they are loved.
Over the years, holiday cards often bring bad news and diminish in quantity. I used to sit with my mom when she opened her cards because so many of them brought news of illness or death. She was also keenly aware of the people she didn’t hear from. Be gentle with your loved ones if these annual greetings are an important tradition of theirs. If possible, ask family members and friends to contribute cards, photographs or drawings to help keep the senior’s seasonal mail more upbeat. My mom needed this connection with her life-long friends, so I helped her write her own outgoing cards each year as well.
Help your loved one see that you are trying to simplify your holiday plans to focus on the real meaning of these celebrations. Let them know you are trying to ignore the increasing hype over food, gifts, decorations and parties in order to focus on the people and values you cherish. Remind them that they have taught you the importance of family and friendship and thank them for that.
If a senior is in a long-term care facility, check with the activities director and local schools or extracurricular programs to see if they can arrange for children to do virtual or distanced visits with or performances for the residents. New activities and interactions with younger generations can be very uplifting for elders who are in physical or emotional pain. Visiting pet therapy is another source of entertainment and socialization that can bring joy to seniors whose social lives have been significantly impacted by COVID-19.
Check with your loved one’s religious organization to see if they can offer extra social and/or spiritual support. For example, the Stephen Ministry is a program offered by many Christian churches that provides one-on-one support to those who are having difficulties in life. Many houses of worship can arrange for a congregant or leader to visit a senior in need, either in person or virtually. Just having someone to talk to can go a long way toward relieving depression.
Help them add festive touches to their home or room in the long-term care facility. Ensure that these items do not present a safety hazard and try to decorate in stages to prolong the fun and give them something to look forward to. Many seniors enjoy reflecting on past holidays as they unpack cherished decorations, so be sure to listen to their stories and ask about special pieces. If you can’t be there in person, at least phone or video call while they’re decking the halls. Some small, easy-to-use decorations in senior apartments include removable window clings, garland, and artificial wreaths or floral arrangements.
Cook traditional baked goods or treats with your loved one if it is safe to get together in person. If they reside in an assisted living facility or nursing home, bring familiar treats that represent your holiday customs for your elder to enjoy and share with their friends. Try to make their dining table festive, too, by offering to send themed decor, appropriate colors and seasonal flavors.
One year, I was able to use a small conference room at my parents’ nursing home to host a New Year’s Eve party for them and their friends. They absolutely loved it. Just be sure to follow current CDC guidelines for minimizing COVID-19 risk at holiday gatherings. If traditional holiday parties or gatherings can’t be held in a safe way, call your elder’s friends and/or family to see if they would be able to attend a virtual gathering instead. Keep in mind that it doesn’t necessarily have to be on a particular holiday. Realizing that the people they care about dialed in to spend time with them is priceless for an elder. Consider keeping virtual get-togethers small for elders with dementia so they do not get confused or overwhelmed. Technology can be disorienting and too many participants may cause them to become frustrated.
The most important thing you can do with a senior to make them feel loved and included this season is to simply spend time with them in a safe way. Look at family photos, watch home videos or holiday movies, listen to seasonal music, or do crafts together. For some, these traditions may need to take place outside (weather permitting), via FaceTime or Zoom, or while you social distance and wear masks. Regardless of what you decide to do together, any time you can spare is a precious gift.