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How to support older family members during the holidays

Help make the holidays magical — not miserable — for older loved ones with this expert-backed list of dos and don'ts.

How to support older family members during the holidays

Due to a variety of reasons, a quarter of adults 65 and over are considered socially isolated, and a “significant portion” of older adults in the U.S. report feeling lonely, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. And the American Psychological Association notes that during the holidays, those numbers may be amplified, thanks to the “holiday blues,” which can cause irritability, fatigue and sadness. 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

Here, a list of “dos” when it comes to caring for and connecting with older loved ones this holiday season.

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.”

“Making their favorite foods or treats can also be really powerful if a senior has memory challenges.”

—Alicia Allen, registered nurse

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.”

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

—Rebecca Axline, licensed social worker

DO: Guide a “life review” 

Allen, who has worked in geriatric care facilities for over two decades, also recommends doing a “life review” during the holidays. This is a nursing assessment used to help older adults look back on their life and find meaning and peace, but it doesn’t have to be clinical, Allen says. 

You can do a life review by asking your loved one questions like, “What are some of the most satisfying things in your life?” or “What is your favorite piece of music?” Allen says this also works for older adults with memory challenges, as the questions are less about specific events or people and more about what they think and feel. 

DO: Revive old family traditions

Lisa Mayfield, president of the Aging Life Care Association Board of Directors in Seattle, believes holiday traditions are a great way to honor the past in a joyful way. Maybe your loved one’s family always played dreidel or drove around to see holiday lights. Maybe they watched a particular holiday movie on Christmas Eve. Think of things you remember doing with your loved one while you were growing up or that you know of their own childhood traditions. You’ll want to ask them if they’d like to engage in those activities before doing them, but the odds are high that your loved one will be excited to relive those happy moments. 

“Include them in the spirit of the season. Engage with them, let them participate, let them observe the family’s festivities. Let them hear the laughs and be included in whatever way they are capable.”

—Misty Taylor, registered nurse, Senior Vice President of Clinical Operations and Quality at Brightstar Care

DO: Keep your loved one involved

Even if you’re worried that your parent or family member can’t contribute to holiday festivities due to physical or memory challenges, Taylor says they can still be involved. 

“Include them in the spirit of the season,” she says. “Engage with them, let them participate, let them observe the family’s festivities. Let them hear the laughs and be included in whatever way they are capable.”

DO: Enjoy the moment

Mayfield encourages family caregivers to strive to be present with their loved one.

“Despite health or memory changes, your family member can still enjoy the moment,” she says. “Don’t let your anxiety take away from your time together and the opportunity to step out of the regular pace of life.” 

While you may worry about your loved one’s age, declining health or memory loss, this is the perfect time to just enjoy what is, right now. 

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.

“Let elders talk about loved ones they are grieving as a way of remembering. Don’t be dismissive of this.”

—Misty Taylor

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. 

DON’T: Force things

Abigale Johnson, a licensed social worker who practices in New York and New Jersey, asks that family caregivers aim to be patient. 

“The holidays can be a very difficult time of year for our older loved ones, especially if they have lost their partner or other family members,” she says. “Some of our aging loved ones may appear more irritable, depressed, apathetic, fatigued or isolated. It’s important to be patient, meet them where they are at, which means not forcing them into large family gatherings or busy holiday plans if they are not interested.” 

Mayfield adds, “Adjust your expectations, and try to let go of how things used to be. Although easier said than done, look for ways to appreciate who your loved one is now and create moments of gratitude.”

Stop and enjoy the holiday magic, whatever it looks like

There’s no denying that celebrating holidays with an older loved one can be emotional and maybe even stressful. But hopefully, these expert insights and tips help you navigate this time of year with a little more grace and joy. The key is to provide a safe and loving space for your older loved one to enjoy themselves in their own way. 

It’s also a time to reconnect and enjoy each other’s presence, so make sure you aren’t putting too much pressure on yourself or them. Tracey Lawrence, author of the book “Dementia Sucks,” says it best: “While the holidays can be a very tough time, they can also be magical. It all depends on how you view them.”