How to lift Mom’s spirits when she’s got the holiday blues

I am a long-distance caregiver for my 85-year-old mom who lives alone in her home in Walnut Creek. We will be spending the holidays with her. She tends to be more withdrawn and sad during the holiday season. What can I do to help and not feel overwhelmed by all I have to do? — R.T., San Diego

It’s wonderful that you are getting together with your mom during the holiday season, and also good that you recognize that the holidays can bring a mixture of stress, sadness and cheer.

The holiday buildup and excitement driven by the media creates an expectation that all of us must feel jolly, that families get along perfectly, and that we all share the same wonderful holiday traditions.

For many of us, this may not resonate with our reality or our culture. Some of us experience grief and may need some extra support, beginning with Thanksgiving, through Hanukkah, Christmas and the New Year.

This can be a challenging time, particularly for seniors who live alone. Loneliness and feelings of isolation may be exacerbated by the holidays. According to the American Psychological Association, 1 in 4 Americans report experiencing loneliness specifically during the holiday season.

Among older adults, lack of socialization is a key trigger for loneliness, which can be especially pronounced during the holidays. The inevitable loss of friends and family members are often brought into sharper focus during this time of year, which may lead people to avoid participating in holiday events.

Your first step in helping your mom is to recognize any signs of holiday blues. You may notice unusual signs of fatigue, sadness and possibly lack of interest in participating in the festive season. While blues can be normal, depression is not and will require evaluation and treatment.  Some signs of depression to watch for: persistent sadness, hopelessness or feelings of worthlessness, losing interest in things she used to enjoy, sleeping too much or too little, having trouble concentrating, having little energy, noticeable changes in her appetite or weight, and articulation of her thoughts of dying.

If what you are seeing seems contained to a reaction to the holidays and not an indication of ongoing depression, there are many interventions to help your mom feel more included and less lonely. Research has shown that even just once-weekly in-person contact helps adults over the age of 65 feel less lonely. Homebound seniors who have meals delivered to them once a week reported significantly less loneliness than those who did not. Because your visit is time-limited, you may consider arranging for volunteers or friendly visitors to provide companionship for your mom throughout the holiday season.

During your visit, ask your mom to share her favorite stories about past celebrations with friends and families. Going down memory lane and sharing these good memories with you will help her feel more connected to you and bring up happier times.

During this process, you can also acknowledge her losses and provide her with time and space to talk about them. Remind her how important she is to you and your family, and how the traditions and values that she taught you define the tone of your celebrations.

You can also plan fun holiday activities together such as shopping, listening to music, going to a movie, incorporating exercise (walking), cooking or menu planning. These can become new traditions.

And don’t underestimate the power of physical affection. Hugs, holding hands and other physical gestures of affection have the potential to ease her mind. These acts of affection can make your mom feel less isolated, and help reduce her stress and anxiety.

Keep your mom busy and make her feel useful. Include her in plans and invite her to holiday activities. If you’re going to a potluck or inviting friends for dinner, you can help her feel involved by helping prepare some of the meal.

In the midst of the seasonal activities and commotion, you need to take care of yourself too. Carve out some quiet time and see if you can simplify some of the holiday chores while still honoring your traditions. Let go of perfection and enjoy the company of others. Whatever you celebrate, cherish the warmth of the moment as well as your mom’s presence at the festivities of the season. As the Dalai Lama said:  “Happiness is not ready made. It comes from our actions.”

Rita Clancy, LCSW, is director of adult services at Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. Her columns appear regularly in J.’s Seniors sections. Have questions about your aging parents? Email [email protected] or call (510) 558-7800, ext. 257.

Rita Clancy
Rita Clancy

Rita Clancy, LCSW, is the director of adult services at Jewish Family & Community Services of the East Bay. Have questions about your aging parents? Email [email protected].