How to support older family members during the holidays

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Forty-three percent of older adults report feeling lonely on a regular basis, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. During the holidays, those numbers may be amplified, thanks to the “holiday blues,” which can cause irritability, fatigue and sadness, according to the American Psychological Association. Knowing how to care for and support your older loved ones in small ways can help reduce some of that loneliness and help you connect with them on a deeper level.

Navigating this time of year with your older loved one can be emotional and stressful for family caregivers. Here are a few tips from professionals that will help you support older adults—without overextending yourself.

What to do during the holidays

DO: Include your family member in event and/or meal planning

The holidays are chock-full of celebrations and family meals. Include your older loved one in the planning, from choosing the courses to picking out linens, or ask them to help you cook if they are able. According to Misty Taylor, a registered nurse and senior vice president of Clinical Operations and Quality at BrightStar Care, this makes older adults feel needed and gets them excited about the upcoming event or meal with family.

DO: Make some of their favorite meals or treats

Maybe your loved one grew up eating rhubarb pie on Christmas Eve or they have a go-to family latke recipe. Whatever it is, make sure to include their favorite food or dessert in any meals or holiday celebrations. This makes them feel special and shows you care.

“Making their favorite foods or treats can also be really powerful if a senior has memory challenges,” says Alicia Allen, a registered nurse in Broomfield, Colorado. “It brings them back to something they likely remember and love.”

DO: Help them primp

In preparation for events (or just to have a special day out), treat your family member to a spa day—either at a local business or at home. Paint their nails, get their hair done, do their makeup, trim their ear hair or pull out their favorite fancy attire. Especially if your loved one lives in a senior care facility or doesn’t get out much, this can be a refreshing change of pace and boost to their confidence. Just remember they may not make it a full day, and they’ll definitely need to rest afterward.

DO: Look at family photo albums

Rebecca Axline, a licensed social worker from Houston, recommends caregivers spend time looking at photo albums of holidays past. You and your loved one can reflect upon memories and share a safe space to remember happy thoughts. And if there are pictures that bring up tears or grief, that’s OK, too.

“Many people try to avoid sad memories, thinking they will upset their loved one,” says Axline. “But, in fact, it can [be] a healthy way to release normal feelings.”

What to avoid doing during the holidays

You want your parent or family member to have a holiday that is full of connection and love. Many of the professionals and caregivers we talked to urge family caregivers to make sure proposed activities are in line with what your loved one wants. In that spirit, here are a few things that family caregivers can avoid to make their loved one’s holidays more joyful and less stressful.

DON’T: Make decisions for them

“Your elders may not want to come to your house for a holiday meal or a family gathering,” says Suzanne Asaff Blankenship, author of “How to Take Care of Old People Without Losing Your Marbles.” “They may not want to ride around looking at lights. They may not want to go shopping for presents. That’s OK.”

Instead of directing their days or having specific expectations of your loved one, Blankenship recommends you “take the holiday at their pace.” As a bonus, it allows you to relieve any pressure that you may have put on yourself.

DON’T: Expect only happy emotions

The holidays can be an emotional time for older adults. Richard Ueberfluss, owner of Assisting Hands, a home care agency in Naperville, Illinois, points out that widowhood, loss of close friends, separation from family, ill health and memory challenges can lead to feelings of sadness for older loved ones.

Taylor reminds caregivers that it’s OK for loved ones to be sad, to grieve or to need space during the holidays. She adds that you can “let elders talk about loved ones they are grieving as a way of remembering. Don’t be dismissive of this.” Together, you can celebrate the positive aspects of their memories and connections.

DON’T: Quiz them or expect them to remember everything

“If your loved one has cognitive or memory changes, avoid quizzing them on specific dates, people’s names or events,” Axline says.

This can cause a lot of anger and sadness in your loved one, especially if other members of the family are around. Don’t ask if they remember someone you’re introducing them to or what they remember about a specific event or date. Instead, use music, smells or touch to create a more relaxed and positive environment, says Axline.

For more Dos and Don’ts, check out the full article.