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Sharing the Holidays With An Elderly Loved One

When was the last time you discussed holiday routines and traditions with your older family members and friends?  Traditions are a valuable tool for promoting togetherness and a sense of belonging, but the many additional expectations and demands that we place upon ourselves during the holiday season can result in stress that becomes overwhelming for some folks, especially older ones who are starting to slow down.  Just because Mom has always baked several different types of cookies (all family favorites) for years, doesn’t mean she continues to enjoy doing it. An honest discussion can help promote the passage of a tradition to a younger family member, or allow for the possibility of beginning a new one.

When an elderly relative or friend develops physical or mental limitations that prevent them from carrying out the holiday traditions to which they are accustomed, creativity may be needed to assist the individual to actively engage in holiday preparations and celebrations. If the individual is in a care facility, flexibility will be important.  The key is planning for activities that are appropriate to their interests and level of functioning.  Following are some suggestions for adaptations to holiday activities or alternatives to those events that may no longer be possible.

Shopping:  Is the stamina for going to the mall missing, but gift-giving still important?  On-line shopping is convenient, but the individual may miss holding and examining a potential purchase.  A shopping outing to a single destination, such as a holiday bazaar at a church or fire company may be more realistic, and allow your loved one to reconnect with their former community at the same time.  To avoid potential pitfalls with the trip, you may want to research accessibility, crowd size, and type of merchandise beforehand.  Another option is to do the shopping yourself, and then set up your own “storefront” with the merchandise. The past few years I have purchased items on my daughters’ Christmas lists, spread them around my mother-in-law’s living room, and allowed her to have first choice of which ones she would prefer to give (if she doesn’t have her own ideas about what to purchase).

Decorating:  If your loved one is no longer at home and this was always a favorite activity, perhaps he/she can join you for an afternoon as you decorate your own house, or you can check with the activity staff in a facility about allowing residents to help decorate.  When decorating a room or apartment in a new place, be sure to check regulations about items such as live greenery and candles.  Greenery will probably have to be artificial.  A variety of air fresheners are available which can substitute for the fragrance of a candle (as long as a roommate doesn’t mind), and battery operated candles are available which can simulate a flickering flame.  Are there certain decorations that while cherished, are not expensive or fragile family heirlooms? Try to bring some of these familiar items to brighten up the environment.  Space may be limited, so choose carefully.  A bulletin board may be a good idea to display holiday cards, or a basket if your loved one would like to be able to look through the cards independently.  If you are planning to hang anything directly on the wall, purchase tape which will not damage the paint, or request assistance from the maintenance department.  Any electrical decorations may have to be checked and approved by the maintenance department prior to use.

Baking:  This activity will largely depend on the functioning of the individual.  When impaired physical and/or mental functioning is present, it will probably be more enjoyable for all involved if recipes are kept simple.  Measuring and mixing dough may be too difficult, but dropping dough on a sheet to bake may be doable. Perhaps one can assist with finishing cookies that have already been started, such as spreading icing on prebaked cookies. The availability of an oven to bake them may be an issue, so look for some no-bake recipes to try.  When leaving baked goods in a loved one’s room, they may need to be left in small quantities to avoid over-indulgence or becoming stale too quickly.  Be aware of other residents who may be tempted to help themselves to treats left on a bedside table.  If your loved one requires assistance to eat, let the staff know that the goodies are available, and ask that they assist in making sure your loved one gets to enjoy them.

Sharing a meal together is often one of the highlights of a holiday celebration.  Logistics to consider if you plan to have your loved one attend a meal at home include:  the ability of the individual to get in and out of a vehicle, the presence of steps to enter the home or once inside the home (especially to access a bathroom), adequate space for a walker or wheelchair to maneuver (if needed),  the size of the gathering (individuals with dementia may be easily overwhelmed by a large group), special dietary needs of the individual (such as soft foods or ground meat), the need for medications, and the willingness of a family member to leave during the celebration if the individual wants to return to his/her own home or care facility earlier than planned.  If a trip “home” is not possible, some facilities may host a special holiday meal for residents and their families.  Participation by family members in special holiday activities hosted by care facilities may be a welcome break from routine for all residents, allow family members an opportunity to interact with staff members on a more personal basis, and show appreciation for the care they provide.

Karen Kaslow, RN