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Help Seniors Avoid Holiday Stress

With Christmas just days away, it's important to remember the seniors in your family. The holidays can be stressful for even the most laid-back folks, so imagine the toll on those not used to all the hustle and bustle in their lives.

Nancy Graham, the deputy editor of AARP: The Magazine says seniors need special attention.

"It's a festive time of year, but it's also very stressful — especially for older people," she said. "It can be very overwhelming with all of the shopping, too much food, too many parties and too many memories. My mom was saying how the worst part of this time of year is that she has to cross a couple of names off her Christmas card list."

Graham says you need to be sensitive to those feelings so everybody has a good time. She has several tips for folks to get through the holiday season.

Set reasonable expectations: "That's the most important thing," she said. "Take your cues from your guests. Don't push them to do everything — to go on every shopping trip, out to dinner. Stick to their schedule, too. If they're used to eating at 5 p.m. and you eat at 9 p.m., that can be a trigger and cause tension."

Remember that downtime is very important: "The most important thing is to give them time to rest and give them a place to escape to," Graham said. "Give them a walking path, a place that's safe to walk, their own room, a place to take a nap. And give them a break from the grandkids. That's the dirty little secret. Grandparents want to be with their grandchildren, but not all the time. The 12th rendition of jingle bells with the dogs barking and the kid on the piano — it's not that cute."

Plan activities for everyone: "Maybe your mom doesn't want to go tobogganing or caroling in 30 degree weather, but would enjoy baking or playing charades," said Graham. "We went shopping the other day. My daughter wants to go ice skating. Mom didn't want to, so we went to see 'King Kong.' "

Include old and new traditions: "Traditions are a mixed bag, because, obviously, they can bring back memories," she said. "But, on the other hand, they can also be comforting. Again, to quote my mom, but she just lost her husband. And she was saying on Christmas Eve, 'I really want to stay home. It's my favorite time of the year. I don't want to go out. I just want to be in front of the Christmas tree.' So ask. You can also adapt old traditions. If the old tradition was chop down the tree, maybe the new tradition is everybody decorates the tree together."

The key is to ask. Don't be afraid to talk about it. There is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays.

Assess health: "It's not just physical health, but mental health," Graham said. "It's loneliness. This is a time of year that brings up a lot of memories. You want to look and see are they eating right? Are they not sleeping? Are there changes in sleep patterns? Are they lethargic? If someone is grieving, listen to their stories, give them a hug. Don't pretend the person who passed away doesn't exist."

Remember those who aren't with you: "If they're far away, send small packages. In particular to those in nursing homes," Graham said. "I did a service project with my daughter where the Brownies went and sang Christmas carols to the old folks and so many said they have family that didn't come to visit. If you have family in a nursing home, don't forget them. If you don't, it could be a project to visit those you don't know."

Anticipate safety and comfort needs: "(Seniors) may not want to ask, because they don't want to be a burden," Graham said. "For instance, my mother-in-law, who has had pain and can't walk well at the moment, we went shopping and I said 'Do you want a wheelchair?' and it made the trip more bearable. But she wouldn't have asked for that."

Give the gift of time: "They want to be with you. Don't spend all day cooking. Order in, buy theater tickets and be with them," Graham said. "If you're alone or you can't be with an older person this holiday season, volunteer. I think that's the best thing you can do for Christmas."