How to manage the holidays with an aging loved one

Author: Jeff Cramer
A daughter embraces her mother in a hug while both of them smile

Sometimes the holidays can be a difficult time for parents and relatives, and it can be hard to see our loved ones struggling. If they’re beginning to get lonely or are having trouble living independently, the holidays can become a tough and stressful time – for everyone.

Tara Fleming-Caruso, collaborative care advisor at NewBridge on the Charles, a Hebrew SeniorLife continuing care retirement community, offers some advice on how to make the holiday season enjoyable while still honoring the needs of your aging loved one.

Q: What are some ways we can include our aging parents in holiday celebrations?

A: There are so many ways! One of the gifts our parents gave us are the rituals and traditions that brought us all together during the holidays. We can honor this by creating opportunities for continued contribution and participation.  For example, when planning the menu and making food for holiday events, use old family recipes that that have been an important part of celebrations over the years. Include your parents in the preparations – make sure everyone has an important role – and use the time and experience to reminisce about the special times you’ve shared together over the years. Put out pictures of past holidays. This can be a touching way to teach younger generations about life when our parents were younger and a way to share meaningful experiences that happened in the past.

Q: Why are the holidays a hard time for our aging parents?

A: Even though the holidays are portrayed as happy times, they can also engender sadness. For example, there may be deep feelings of loss and grief when attending a family gathering for the first time after losing a life partner. Or maybe it’s the change in role if the parent is no longer hosting the holiday celebration – it can be a difficult transition for them to be a participant rather than the host. The holidays, just in general, can also be very stressful between the planning, travel, and change of routine. Adding cognitive, physical, medical, and emotional challenges on top of this can make for a very difficult experience.

Q: If your loved one lives in a community for older adults already, are there ways you can bring the holiday celebrations to them?

A: A shift from the predictable structure and routine of daily life can be confusing and overwhelming for an aging parent. One way to mitigate this is to participate in the holiday celebration hosted by the community. This is a wonderful opportunity for the older adult to bring their adult children into their new home and to introduce them to new friends, the community, and the staff. You can also choose to bring your own family’s holiday traditions into your parent’s new home. Pick a few key elements from your meaningful holiday traditions –food, music, rituals, etc. Celebrate the old traditions in a new environment!

Q: If you notice your loved one is struggling during the holidays or think they need some extra support, what are the best ways to go about beginning that process?

A: Families often recognize that their aging parents are having a more difficult time, particularly during holiday visits, because they’re spending more concentrated time together. Because of this, it’s a good time for families to make time for an annual “check in” on how their loved one is doing and what matters most to them as related to lifestyle and care options. Having a regularly scheduled opportunity to check in normalizes what might be a difficult conversation. The Conversation Project provides a great tool kit for beginning the initial conversation about needing extra support or strategies for what can improve the quality of life for the parent or adult child.

Q: What is your advice for adult children who are struggling to plan holiday celebrations because of the health of their parents?

A: It’s okay to first acknowledge the loss of a holiday ritual or routine that can no longer happen. Change is hard, and seeing changes in our parents is also difficult. But reframing and reinventing a holiday experience is a wonderful way to create new rituals and opportunities for connection and joy. You don’t need to make the new celebration on the date of the holiday, it can be sometime around it. By keeping the celebration simple and easy, it can make for a much more enjoyable time. The goal is to make new memories together, through meaningful experiences.

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Jeff Cramer

About Jeff Cramer

Content Specialist

Jeff Cramer is the Content Specialist at Hebrew SeniorLife, where he contributes content for digital platforms like social media, the HSL blog, the HSL website, and e-newsletters. Jeff spent five years as a local TV news anchor and reporter telling...

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