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    Seniors, Caregiving and the Holiday Blues

    agingAt its best, the holiday season should be a time of happiness and joy, of being nestled in the loving bosom of family and friends. It is a wonderful picture, but the holiday season is fraught with stress for most folks. Expectations of a “perfect” holiday, fed by advertising and media coverage, can contribute to depression for those who don’t feel their holiday is measuring up. The truth is that for many seniors and their caregivers, the rosy picture is a far cry from reality.

    Many people suffer from “holiday blues,” even without the stress of caregiving. For many elders, feelings of sadness, loneliness, and isolation are their holiday companions. The season can be an especially hard time for people away from family and/or who are living alone. This is also especially true for many elders in the LGBT community who have lost their partners, have been ostracized from their family, and find themselves alone and/or dependent on close friends who have become their caregivers. Add holiday season frenzy to the mix, and it’s not hard to see how the blues can emerge.

    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

    Many seniors have outlived a number of their cherished friends and family members, and these losses often take on greater significance during the holidays.

    The contrast between then and now

    For many older people, the memories of holidays past so outshine present day celebrations that 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.

    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.

    Home for the holidays

    For many LGBT individuals, old and young alike, the holidays mean waking up in their own homes feeling isolated because they’re not welcome home for the holidays, or they live at a great distance from friends and family and spend much, if not all, of the holidays alone.

    To these real risk factors that can cause the holiday blues for our elders, we add the significant obligations of caregiving and the sometimes unrealistic expectations for a “perfect” holiday. Together, these factors can lead to a formula for disaster. For those in the “sandwich” generation, there is an extra factor to create stress during the holidays, since many caregivers are responsible for elders and children at the same time. How can elders and their caregivers cope with the demands of creating a nice holiday environment for their loved ones and stay true to themselves?

    The following strategies can be useful in helping to get around potential sources of the holiday blues for elders and for caregivers as well:

    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. Set reasonable and manageable limits for yourself.

    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 number of activities to which you commit. Remember, caregiving is not off for holidays.

    Avoid overstimulation– If you’re a caregiver and are already stressed during the holidays, do not add insult to injury; avoid overly stimulating environments which can increase the elder’s stress and yours. Invite fewer people to

    elder’s stress and yours. Invite fewer people to dinner, for example.

    Attend holiday community events– Most communities offer special events during the holidays, such as theatrical and orchestral performances, which can be enjoyable for seniors and their caregivers to look forward to and to attend. Do not stay isolated.

    Enjoy activities that are free– Financial strain can be a major 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, playing board games with children, and attending free concerts.

    Remember that life brings changes– 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.”

    Watch what you eat and drink– It’s OK to treat yourself, but avoid the temptation to overeat those holiday goodies or overindulge in alcoholic beverages that will create ill moments for the elders and fatigue for the caregivers.

    Get your exercise– Walk the dogs, walk with your loved one, take a yoga class or do chair-yoga. Exercise can be a tremendous benefit to your physical and emotional health.

    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, thus avoiding drama queens and trouble makers. Happy Holidays!

    Doris Bersing is a clinical psychologist, specialized in Gero-psychology and LGBT issues. She shares her passion for clinical work with teaching and mentoring.