Senior woman smiles during a visit from daughter and grandchild during the holidays.

Holiday Happiness for the Whole Family

Winter is here, and with it comes some of the most memorable times of year – the holidays. Perhaps more than any other occasion, the holiday season is steeped in family tradition, with cherished elements that sometimes span generations. But when family members get older, or have declining health, maintaining their involvement in those traditions can become more a burden than a boon.

How can families make sure that older relatives are included and part of the family’s holiday events even if they can’t participate the same way they used to? Visiting Angels, the nation’s leading non-medical home care company, has some suggestions.

Evaluate what your loved ones can reasonably manage during the holiday season. No one wants to admit they may not be able to make dinner for 25 anymore, or host everyone for brunch. If you’re not sure what’s appropriate, ask your loved ones, speak to their caregiver if you have home help or even talk to their doctors.

Determine what traditions matter the most. Something most families never do is ask if they really want to continue holiday traditions, or if they’re holding on to them from habit. Take a moment to evaluate which elements of the holiday truly hold meaning for your family, and which are just “the way we’ve always done things.” You may learn that what matters is different from what you expect, and it may open up new ways to celebrate that are easier and more meaningful.

Small modifications can make a big difference. If hosting the holiday is important to an older relative, perhaps the family can take care of preparing the table or even bring the meal over. Or consider catering – most grocery stores will provide full holiday meals at very reasonable prices. You can use the family serving dishes and favorite china but avoid the preparation and cooking time, or ditch the china and use elegant disposable dinnerware, even. Your loved one might make one favorite dish, but the bulk of the work could be handled by others. Instead of everyone staying at the family home, some relatives might stay with extended family to help ease the burden of entertaining.

Consider hiring home help during the holidays.  Home help can enable older relatives to accomplish everyday tasks and holiday preparations, and can allow you to spend more time being part of the family and not primarily a caregiver. It can also provide a respite that can be critical during the busy season. Just be sure to screen caregivers carefully or use a reputable agency like Visiting Angels for peace of mind.

Be flexible. Pacing and timing of events can make a world of difference for older relatives.  If someone is in poor health, perhaps changing the time of a family event to earlier in the day would allow them to participate more fully. Instead of planning to go to Midnight Mass, a morning or afternoon service might be a better choice. Marathon family events could be too much to manage – schedule in downtime like a walk or rest as part of the event to allow everyone a chance to recharge.

Look for opportunities to make things easier in a meaningful way. Managing tasks like shopping and decorating can be a challenge for older relatives, but there are ways to make them easier and still preserve dignity and meaning. Grandchildren can be enlisted to drive their grandparents to shop, giving them a chance for some time together. Perhaps a younger cousin can learn how an older relative does the decorations by helping, or what the secret family recipe really involves. Look for ways to provide assistance in accomplishing tasks that also allow older relatives to pass on beloved traditions, and everyone will benefit.

Make plans early. If you do need to modify the holidays, don’t just spring it on the family. Discuss options early on, and try to involve everyone, including your older relatives, in the process. Brainstorming is a great idea – you may find that a whole new approach is what everyone really wants. Pat Drea, COO of Visiting Angels national organization, tells the story of how her family handled Thanksgiving when her relatives got older. “We created a family reunion at Thanksgiving. We’d rent a house and go to the beach about three hours away. I’d drive my parents and my siblings would come with their families. We created something flexible and memorable that gave everyone what they liked and needed from the holiday, but took the burden off of our parents. “ Many vacation rentals can be even better than home for the holidays – consider an extended gathering somewhere convenient for everyone, or even a special inn or B&B for your celebration, to create a unique and memorable holiday that focuses on what everyone can enjoy, not what they can’t.

If your relatives have dementia or Alzheimer’s, the holidays can pose some special challenges. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Try to keep to routine as much as possible. Lack of sleep and dramatic changes in mealtimes can be disturbing to people with dementia. Try to keep the celebrations within normal schedules to minimize the impact.
  • Make sure extended family understands the situation. If returning relatives haven’t seen their loved ones in some time, it could be a shock. Call or write to give them a heads up on what to expect, and also to reassure them about appropriate interactions.
  • Try to have more visits with fewer people. Instead of bringing all ten family members over at once, perhaps groups of three or four can come and visit. A smaller group will allow your loved one to put their family members in context more, and can be less overwhelming.
  • Prepare your loved one with photos and conversations about the visiting relatives. Short term memory is often absent in people with dementia, but showing them photos of the relative who will be arriving and talking about them often may help provide a context for their visit.
  • Adapt decorations for safety. Flashing lights can be very disorienting to people with dementia. Switch to solid lights for decorations. Thick wrapping paper and lots of ribbons can be confusing and hard to open – using tissue paper or gift bags may be a better option.
  • Share memories often. Loved ones may not remember from morning until night, but they may recall the past very clearly. Ask about their holiday memories, share old songs and photos, and most of all, listen. Being heard can be the greatest gift you can give someone.

What really matters is that everyone gets to enjoy the holidays and their relationships. This is the time to be a daughter, son, grandchild or cousin, not a caregiver. Don’t be afraid to ask for help to make that happen.

If you're interested in more information about how in-home care can help your senior loved ones, contact your nearest Visiting Angels office today or call 800-365-4189.
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