The fervor sets in around the middle of October, when pumpkins appear, seeming to beg to be carved into jack-o-lanterns and homeowners give in to the newish tradition of putting up ornate and ghoulish yard decorations. Then comes the demand to focus on being thankful, with gatherings of family members and the hand-wringing over serving a moist bird. Black Friday follows, with its exhortations to bring on the holiday cheer by shopping ‘til you drop. And the hangovers from the champagne-soaked celebrations of the new year seem to last into the spring.
But for many people, particularly seniors, the stress and strain of the holiday season and its aftereffects means just one thing: a whopping case of the blues.
Why Seniors Are Hardest Hit
“For many older adults, this is a season of amplified feelings of loneliness and isolation; millions of seniors struggle with the holidays as the hardest time of the year,” according to Patrick Arbore, director and founder of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services. “Their daily, tragic isolation is magnified by the ghosts of memories, a reflection on what or who is no longer around. This sadness, and possibly regret, can be far more dangerous then we realize.”
Dangerous — and often overlooked or misunderstood. The holiday blues — feelings of sadness, stress, and irritability that often occur from about November through January — are both temporary and seasonal; they may also be punctuated by some moments of relief, peace, or happiness. This distinguishes the emotional state from depression, another common malady among seniors, which is ongoing and unaffected by the calendar.
Experts say holiday blues are more specific, and more often prompted by a number of common triggers, including:
- Unrealistic expectations — the pressure to make the season the hap-happiest time of the year
- Striving for perfection — roasting the moist bird, finding the most fitting gift, crafting the most deluxe decorations
- Financial difficulties — money troubles brought on by overspending or guilt caused by “not being able to give enough”
- Focusing on past holidays celebrations — back when a spouse was alive, when the kids all came home to celebrate, before so many friends died or moved away
- Fatigue — expending energy struggling to live through the holiday bustle and hustle
- Family “togetherness” — which rarely turns out as peaceful and loving as the Waltons made it seem (perhaps even the Waltons struggled with this)
- A yearning for life to be different than it is — bigger, better, fuller
- Resurgent feelings of grief and loss — the biggest bugaboo for many people.
Holidays and Grief
While it’s not completely clear why the holiday season often intensifies feelings of grief, the connection is undisputed. Sometimes it’s easy to track, such as a first holiday season that comes around after the loss of a spouse or other close loved one. Sometimes family estrangements and conflicts, which often rise to a fever pitch during the fraught holiday season, can also emphasize personal feelings of discord. And sometimes it’s the images of other happy revelers as depicted in the media or imagined in the mind’s eye that contribute to the holiday blues.
Grief expert Arbore explains that while periods of sadness are “inherent aspects of the human experience,” the holidays often cause earlier losses to resurface. “Many losses are ‘un-grieved’ and come to the surface of our emotions at this time of year,” he says.
And reawakening the sorrow of grief can cause a whole avalanche of physical and emotional symptoms. Most profoundly, grief can siphon off energy — making it hard to get out of bed in the morning and attend to simple life tasks. It can cause a person to feel edgy and critical and resentful of everything and everyone. And grief tends to feel deeply personal — emphasizing feelings of loneliness and isolation. The realities that grieving prompts in a person may make it impossible to indulge in the gay gatherings and other festivities common to the holiday.
Ways to Cope and Conquer
There are a number of things to do and remember that may help both seniors suffering from the holiday blues and those who care for them have more light and life in the season.
- Be realistic. Keep expectations reasonable about everything, including what you can and cannot do, buy, or attend. This usually involves lowering expectations from the unattainable to the more mundane but often still rewarding. And be flexible, too. Bear in mind that as family members’ circumstances change, time-worn traditions may need to change, too. The traditional family touch football game may need to yield to a brief group walk, instead. Put some effort into coming up with new traditions.
- Live in the present. The oft-quoted reminder to “Be here now” often helps life from feeling too overwhelming. And at no time is it more relevant than during the holidays. Try to forgive old grievances with family members and friends, or at least work up a healthy and quiet tolerance for their “endearing eccentricities.” Reserve discussions of difficult topics — politics comes to mind — for a different time. Resist the temptation to compare the good old days of the past with the ones you’re living now. Those good old days have likely become more sugarcoated over time, anyway.
- Acknowledge your feelings. It’s common knowledge that repressed feelings last longer than those that are aired. So be honest with friends and family about what help you may need or why you may not be able to participate in planned activities. A tricky corollary: Happiness is a choice — at least somewhat of a choice. So while acknowledging feelings of loss and sadness during the holidays, it may also be important to vow to go forward with optimism.
- Seek support. If possible, seek out the company of community, while actively avoiding people who are depressive and depressing if need be. And sometimes, the best help can come from a stranger; there are warmlines to call for friendly conversations, with most volunteers trained to listen and give additional specific resources for additional help. Often it helps just to give words to your frustrations and fears.
- Don’t overspend. Sinking into debt can lead to additional depression and stress lasting long after the holidays are over. A prudent approach requires budgeting before buying and keeping track of holiday spending as you go along. Also bear in mind that many gifts, such as spending time with a person watching a favorite old movie or reminiscing over a photo album, don’t involve spending a dime. Ironically, while many people get swept into the overspending rut, they also lament that they don’t receive any thanks for their generous checks or carefully selected presents. Consider removing the persistently thankless from your list.
- Pay attention to your health. You’re well aware of the drill: Get plenty of sleep; be sure to exercise or move around regularly; eat and drink in moderation. While many people throw those cautions to the wind during the holidays, when time is tight and taken and sweet treats are within easy reach, there is no better time to heed them. Sluggishness caused by inactivity and the extra pounds and muddledness associated with too much food and drink only add to the long-term effects of the holiday blues.
- Learn to say ‘no.’ Of all the profundities computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs was known to utter, one of his wisest was this: “It’s only by saying ‘no’ that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” If the idea is new or foreign to you, practice. And don’t make the mistake of adding too many details or feeling the need to embellish with alternative facts when refusing an invitation. A simple: “No, thank you” or “Thanks, but I can’t take on another commitment right now” suffice best.
- Schedule some time alone. Put something unusual on your holiday list: specific time just for solitude, relaxation, and regrouping a bit, purposefully taking time out from the holiday hecticness.
- Reach out. If you’re the one stricken with the holiday blues, make it a gift to yourself to reach out to others. Find a volunteer opportunity for a group or cause that interests you. Contact a friend or relative you haven’t seen or heard from in a while. Make a special effort to connect with someone new at a coffee shop, at your church or synagogue, at a senior center or gym.
- Share the care. Stop procrastinating about your heartfelt intention to do something nice for another person in your life, particularly an older person. “Calling an older friend or relative can be a caring experience,” Patrick Arbore says. “Inviting an older person to lunch, or for a drive in the evening to see the holiday lights, can be a sweet and tender way in which to be together for a little while.”