Health & Medicine

Those holiday doldrums

The holidays are meant to be joyful. But for many senior citizens this season is difficult and sad. One survey found that two-thirds of its elderly respondents suffered from depression around Christmastime, often to the extent that they were unable to take part in previously pleasant activities.

Numerous factors contribute to holiday sadness in the elderly. They may grieve for a spouse, loved ones and friends who have passed away. They may long for a home or family that no longer exists. They may feel abandoned by relatives who are spending the holidays elsewhere.

Seniors frequently suffer physical limitations or illnesses that detract from their enjoyment. Some also experience financial hardships that create anxiety and leave the most meager festivities unfeasible.

To make matters even worse, the holidays are accompanied by physical and environmental changes. Daylight has been diminishing for weeks, increasing the likelihood of seasonal depression and lethargy. Meals are prone to be skipped or filled with sugary treats. Stress levels and excitement soar.

Fortunately, there are ample steps every senior can take that lighten their seasonal moods and don’t break Santa’s bank.

Start by seeking out friends. Being alone causes you to feel isolated and reinforces the very “Bah, humbug!” state you’re trying to overcome. Get on the phone and arrange a small gathering to play Bunko, sing carols or watch a movie. The group’s energy will be contagious and make everyone feel better.

Get involved. Volunteer at your church, serve meals at the homeless shelter, drive shut-ins to doctors’ appointments or share a plate of homemade rum balls with your neighbors. Research repeatedly shows that doing something nice for others is a sure-fire way of boosting your own spirits.

Pamper yourself. Put on fresh, attractive clothes. Prepare one of your favorite meals. Play holiday music in your home. Decorate your surroundings with lights and pine boughs. Purchase an affordable gift you’ve been eyeing in the store or catalogue. Treat yourself like the incredibly special person that you are.

Limit alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant, so it’s especially unwise if you’re struggling with sadness. It can also interact with your medication and create a potentially dangerous situation.

Eat healthy food. An occasional slice of fruitcake or handful of candied almonds probably won’t create any problems. But having too much figgy pudding could wreak havoc on your emotions as well as your waistline.

Stick to your usual array of fruits, veggies, whole grains and low-fat proteins with only a smattering of festive sweets added in.

Get moving. The endorphins generated by moderate exercise are guaranteed to make you feel chipper. Thirty minutes of daily walking, swimming, weightlifting, bicycling or aerobics is equally good for your muscles and your psyche.

If you have physical limitations, exercise in a way that allows you to activate as many muscle groups as you comfortably can. Or follow a regimen that has been prescribed by your doctor or physical therapist.

Redefine your holiday. There’s no law that says Christmas must be spent at home or with your family. Sign up for an elder hostel tour. Eat Chinese take-out at the beach. Ride the train to visit a high school friend. You’ll set the stage for a new adventure. You’ll write your own holiday script.

Seek professional help. If you’ve tried all the tricks and you’re still having a blue Christmas, don’t despair. Talk to someone knowledgeable about senior depression. Your sadness may be due to other causes or be severe enough to warrant medication. You deserve happiness during the holidays. It’s well within your reach.

Help your elders keep their holiday spirits up

Do your holiday plans include spending time with a senior citizen?

Then consider these ideas to make the experience pleasant for all of you:

Be thankful for the memories. Elderly family members may find it hard to discuss current topics. But they’re happy to recount events from their past. You can stimulate conversation by supplying them with photo albums or mementos, then asking questions about their lives.

Plan ahead. Older guests may tire easily or become confused if they’re overstimulated. Allow them ample quiet time, away from younger family members, so they can nap or refresh.

Think location, location, location. Hearing may be an issue, so it’s best to seat seniors in the center of the table where they can be included in the conversation.

Involve seniors in the preparations. Grandma may be dying to help, but unable to bake like she once did. Give her tasks that she can handle, like folding napkins or mashing the potatoes.

Talk in small groups. Elderly family members may prefer speaking with only one or two people at a time. It’s wise to chat with them for short periods of time, allowing others to rotate in.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit