Navigating the Holidays with Aging Loved Ones during COVID-19

Whether in person or virtual, the holidays can be a challenging time with an aging parent. Learn what to watch out for and how to continue cherished traditions.

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

It’s no doubt this year’s holiday season will look and feel different because of the pandemic. Many of us are thinking about how to adapt our family traditions for the holidays to still be able to spend time with loved ones.

There are a number of factors that go into the decision of whether to celebrate virtually or in person with older adults, who are at a much higher risk of becoming severely ill if they contract COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has guidelines for making decisions about in-person gatherings during the holiday season.

In many cases, the holidays may be a time that you realize your loved one is lonely or is having trouble living independently and that 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 and celebrating safely to reduce the risk of COVID-19. 

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

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. While we might not be able to be together in person this year, we can still honor these traditions - we just have to be a bit more creative! For example, when planning the menu and making food for holiday events, ask your parents or  family members to share recipes that have been an important part of celebrations over the years. Reminisce over the phone about some of the favorite memories you both have from past celebrations when you were together. And if you have a parent who is Zoom savvy, you can do the meal preparations together in real time and eat together virtually. Think about preparing a holiday 'slideshow’ and you can share that while you eat or wait for food to cook. 

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 - even more so this year as the pandemic has prevented families from regular social contact and connection. In addition, there already may be deep feelings of loss and grief when approaching the holiday season if this is the first celebration after losing a life partner. Or maybe it’s the change in role if the parent is no longer able to contribute to a holiday celebration as they used to in the past. Adding cognitive, physical, medical, and emotional challenges on top of this can make for a very challenging experience.

There is a silver lining, however! In years past, the holidays may have taken a heavy cognitive and physical toll on an older adult, between the stress of planning, traveling, and the change of routine. Because fewer people will be traveling this year, these particular stressors will be eliminated for many of us. Technological challenges aside, having a family celebration through Zoom or Facetime can bring great joy to the day – without all of the ‘normal’ hassles that came with holiday celebrations in the past.

Q: When we visit aging parents in person we often notice signs that they may be having trouble taking care of themselves. What can we look for when our only connection is virtual?

A: If you can only visit your parents 'virtually', you are going to have to rely on asking some key questions to gain insight into their well-being.  For example, 'how well have you been sleeping?' might give you some insight into whether or not they are feeling anxious (difficulty sleeping) or depressed (sleeping a lot, both day and night).  Asking about recent meals they've cooked for themselves will give you information about nutrition, self-sufficiency and potentially mood.  Discuss current events and/or social outlets that have been an important part of the person’s life. Based on the answer, do they still seem engaged and interested in connecting with others?  Lastly, how does your parent look?  Are there any observable changes (weight loss/gain, grooming differences)? If you have concerns, be transparent. Sharing your worries may open the door to an honest conversation about what is going well and what could be better.

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- whether in person or virtually. It’s a good time for families to schedule 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 or concerns over COVID-19?

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. And since the pandemic is requiring all of us to ‘reinvent’ how we work and play, we all have permission to create a different holiday experience this year that might even work better for the older adults in our lives. The goal is to make new memories together, through safe, shared experiences – online or in person.

 

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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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