The holidays are typically busy with celebration, filled with friends, family and festivities. But while there is certainly joy to the whirl, there can also be anxiety, especially for older adults who might find the season a reason for stress and unhappiness.
Dilip Jeste, MD, is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, director of the Stein Institute for Research on Aging and associate dean for Healthy Aging and Senior Care. We asked him to discuss what science says about age, health and the holidays.
Question: Holidays provoke memories. That’s a good thing, right?
Answer: Yes, it is a good thing when the memories are of happy times and they can be especially powerful in the later years of life. Memory and the ability to “review life” are important parts of the healthy aging process. And it’s important to share the positive memories, particularly with younger folks. There’s the value of transferring knowledge from one generation to the next, but also the documented health benefits of staying socially connected with others.
Even older adults whose memories are impaired in terms of remembering recent events often enjoy sharp clarity about things that happened in the more distant past. Those memories can be jogged by pulling out old family albums or videos or by playing music.
It’s not enough, though, to just have older folks sit around recounting bygone days. They need to anticipate the new, as well. They should be involved in current holiday activities as much as possible, like helping with food preparation or decorations. This gives the seniors a reason for enhancing their self-esteem as active contributors to the family life. Additionally, just taking a drive to look at holiday displays or window shop can be engaging.
Q: What about celebrating too much?
A: If an older family member is vulnerable to over-stimulation, plan ahead. Limit activities or the length of time an older person will be involved. Budget time for naps, if necessary. Ask someone to be that person’s companion for the day, to monitor how he or she is doing and make sure they are comfortable and not too exhausted physically or mentally. Keep in mind that festivities can dramatically alter a person’s ordinary routine. Avoid over-eating. Limit or eliminate alcohol consumption, which can provoke inappropriate behavior or interfere with medications.
Q: Any special considerations regarding older people with cognitive impairments?
A: Familiarity helps. If a holiday get-together is in the home of a person with memory impairments or behavioral problems, don’t rearrange the furniture. It could be a source of confusion and anxiety. If the gathering is someplace new to them, be aware of potential hazards, such as slippery throw rugs.
Avoid criticism that can embarrass or shame. If an older adult forgets an earlier conversation, refrain from saying, “Don’t you remember?” On the other hand, formally acknowledge how much the rest of the family is thankful for the senior’s participation.
Older people always come bearing gifts. They have wisdom, emotional stability, self-knowledge and compassion that have been gained over a lifetime of experiences. In the happy chaos of family gatherings, it’s easy for older members to get lost in the shuffle. Remember they bring a lot to the party.