Audrey Breaux loves Christmas. The 76-year-old mother of five and grandmother of eight from New Orleans starts planning for the holidays in October, deciding which of three trees and more than a thousand collectible ornaments will be put on display that year. She plans her Christmas dinner menu while shopping for Thanksgiving, and begins baking and sending out her signature Christmas treats the first week in December. By December 10, gifts for every one of her children, children-in-law, grandchildren and their girlfriends and boyfriends are wrapped and under the tree.
But this year, she's having a hard time getting in the spirit. Arthritis has dramatically limited her physical mobility, and her mind wanders. "I keep thinking about my husband and how much he missed," she says. "The two grandkids who were born after he died turn 12 next year. They never knew him. I still miss him like it was yesterday."
To make matters worse, the recession has hit this fixed-income senior and some family members hard. At least one out-of-town branch of the family won't make it to the holiday celebration at Breaux's -- something that would have been unthinkable in years past -- and the monetary limit on gifts has been lowered considerably. "It isn't that people need expensive gifts," she says. "It's the worry. "
An Increase in Sadness
Breaux may be feeling sad, but she isn't alone. According to Mental Health America, some two million seniors suffer from some form of depression. While there's no evidence that the holidays bring an increase in clinical depression, experts say the season can be especially hard on seniors who are trying to cope with physical and emotional change in their lives. The carols in stores, the decorations in homes, the platters of cookies passed at every gathering -- things that represent the joy of the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-Christmas-New Year season -- can trigger memories of people and things gone by. That can lead to holiday depression. (Get information about helping seniors with depression)
"The holidays are a time of tradition and the gathering of family and friends for many people," says Mary Stehle, a licensed social worker and Care.com senior care advisor. "For some seniors, this can be a time that reminds them of losses...the loss of loved ones, the loss of a home, the loss of good health."
How to Help
Stehle and other mental health professionals say it's difficult for many seniors to talk about their holiday blues. They may feel that they don't want to dampen the mood for others, or they may not want to admit that they feel depressed during what should be a happy time. You can help by getting your elderly relative or friend to talk about it. "It's helpful for seniors to acknowledge that this time may be difficult," she says. "Acknowledging that might allow them to feel okay about sharing some of the thoughts on their mind, which could make them feel better."
Other things you can do to help your favorite senior get through the holidays include:
Plan ahead. Valentin Bragin, New York psychiatrist and author of "Conquering Depression in the Golden Years," says it's essential for seniors to feel connected to other people during the holidays. "The key message is do not stay home alone during the holidays," he says. "Stay active and look for places where people celebrate the holidays together. Adult children have to be involved in holiday planning, and at least ask their parents what they're planning to do. For people living in adult communities, the administration usually organizes special events, meals and entertainment. People who live at home might reconnect with one another, go to a community center or spend the holiday with their children or other relatives. " Bragin says it's helpful to begin a program of exercise, calm breathing, hobbies and reading -- things that contribute to resilience and self-balance -- before the holiday season gets into full swing. (Learn more about the benefits of exercise and fitness for seniors.)
Really listen. Listening to someone talk can help them process their feelings, and it creates a sense of connection. "Take the time to listen to your loved one," says Stehle. "They may need to reminisce about their childhood or past holiday traditions." Sometimes a senior won't acknowledge sadness, but if you listen, you'll hear them complain more about physical ailments or express a lack of interest in social activities. Take their physical complaints seriously, but keep in mind that the holiday blues may be a contributing factor. The complaints can be your cue to gently encourage your friend or loved one to talk about how they're feeling. Says Karla Repper, a clinical psychologist at Baptist Behavioral Health in Jacksonville, Florida, "Give them an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about what might be making them sad, but don't be too insistent. If they want to share stories about times past, actively listen and reflect with them. Convey that their experiences matter."
Offer specific help. Maybe your mom can no longer remember all the steps to make her classic holiday pecan pie. Or maybe your dad can't climb the ladder to put up his favorite hot chile pepper lights. But with your help, these traditions can continue. "The aging process often requires traditions to be altered and new traditions to be created," says Stehle. "Creativity can help. Try to make sure your loved one feels a part of the holiday." Repper notes that exercise is a great prescription for holiday blues, so offer to take your favorite senior out for a stroll. "Even low-impact 30-minute walks in the sunshine can have a positive impact on mood," she says. "It's hard to get motivated to do it alone, so having a friend or family member go along would be great."
Finally, it's important to realize that while the holiday blues may be difficult, it is temporary. If your loved one is seriously depressed for more than two weeks, get help. "Ups and downs in mood are normal," says Repper. "Depression becomes a clinical problem if the symptoms -- low mood, low energy, tearfulness, disrupted sleep, change in eating habits -- persists for more than two weeks. Then it's time to seek out a psychiatrist, psychologist or mental health counselor who can recommend a course of treatment." Depression is not a normal part of aging, cautions Stehle, and if present, clinical depression can be treated with medications, therapy, increased exercise and socialization.
Audrey Breaux has decided to immerse herself -- and her memories of her husband -- into a project. She's putting together a scrapbook of his life, with photos, stories and sayings, for the granddaughters who never knew him. And she's trying to be grateful. "Even if everyone can't make it, I'm still going to have a house full of people with me at Christmas," she says. "That's more than a lot of people will have. In many ways, I'm lucky."
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