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Coping With Holiday Grief and Stress

Tips to help seniors and caregivers have happier holidays

Older woman socializing during holiday meal

In addition to bringing joy, the holiday season can also bring challenges, particularly for older adults and their caregivers.

Erin Emery-Tiburcio, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating older adults, offers the some strategies for dealing with emotions and stress and enjoying the holidays.

Focus on the gift of life.

Older adults, like younger adults, focus on families around the holidays, so any losses in the family often come to the forefront. And older adults, by virtue of having lived longer, are more likely to have experienced losses.

"It can help, in these situations, to have some way to honor people who are no longer there," Emery-Tiburcio suggests. "Take a moment of silence, for example. Or continue a tradition in honor of someone who isn't there anymore so that they remain a part of it. The challenge is shifting from focusing on the loss to focusing, particularly during the holidays, on the gift of their life."

Also, holidays are lonely times for many people, particularly for older adults who may not live near their families, because it often feels like it should be a time when family should be around. Many people reason that if they feel alone, going out and seeing other families together will make them feel lonelier, so they might as well stay home.

"But that can actually make you feel more isolated and lonely," Emery-Tiburcio says. "Instead, it's better to work on scheduling time with other people or activities you enjoy."

Share the load.

Many caregivers now are part of the sandwich generation — taking care of their kids and their parents at the same time.

"Caregivers may feel extra stress during the holidays because they feel they need to manage everybody and everything, uphold all the traditions and generally make sure everything is just right," Emery-Tiburcio says.

But if you're balancing all of those responsibilities, it's important to cut yourself some slack. Instead of offering to host and do all of the cooking, ask others to pitch in and share the load. Ask others to help with the shopping. And suggest a potluck dinner, with everyone bringing one dish. 

If there are older adults among your friends or family who are able, ask for their help in holiday preparations. That does two things: It not only offsets your stress but also provides meaningful activity for the older adult, makes them feel more included and honors the gifts they have to offer. 

"And if you are an older adult, ask how you can help friends and family members with holiday preparations," Emery-Tiburcio suggests.

Relax — and do what you enjoy.

Whenever you feel stressed, try to take a moment to relax. You can do something as simple as closing your eyes and slowing down your breathing: The slowed breath provides an antidote to the stress response.

Another important strategy is to keep doing whatever you do that brings you joy — which is different for everyone. This could mean being around other people, or maybe it's painting, cooking or reading. "These things may not take away the fact that it’s a difficult time," Emery-Tiburcio says. "But they will bring moments of peace."

When should you seek help?

Talk with a doctor or psychologist if you or a person you're caring for experiences five or more of the following symptoms for two weeks or more:

  • Agitation, restlessness and irritability
  • Dramatic change in appetite, often with weight gain or loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Feelings of worthlessness, self-hate and guilt
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Trouble sleeping or excessive sleeping

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