Make the Season Brighter

For many older adults, the magic of the winter holidays has nothing to do with presents, but with presence.

Most of us anticipate with a feeling of excitement the opportunity to share the holidays with our loved ones near and far, even if we aren’t there with them.

We celebrate traditions, special meals, holiday treats and catching up with our family members who travel great (or small) distances to be together and reach out to those with whom we can’t be together.

Unfortunately, it is not all moments of cheer for some, often particularly our elder loved ones. Far too many of our seniors find the holiday season to be a time of remembering losses and feeling sad or depressed.

Traditions change as we transition from childhood to adulthood and into elderhood.  We can create new traditions with our aging loved ones this holiday season. Talk together about the feelings they are having. Sharing these feelings and knowing that someone is listening to them can make seniors feel much better.

Why is Mom So Sad?

Not to get you down over the holidays, but to make you aware of what might be happening around you, here are some statistics on depression.

  • 15 out of 100 adults over 65 suffer from depression impacting 6 million Americans over 65
  • 15-20% of older adults who live in our communities suffer from depression
  • 25-35% of older adults who live in long-term care facilities have symptoms of depression, this number has been estimated to actually be nearer 50%
  • An estimated 2 million adults over 65 in the US have a diagnosable clinical depression
  • 25% of those with chronic disease suffer from depression

Depression, however, is NOT a result of aging as many people believe. We can age without becoming depressed.  Depression can happen to anyone, at any time and any age. Many people don’t seek help because they may feel that it won’t help because whatever is causing the depression will continue. Depression can have many causes such as the death of a spouse or close family member, a severe illness or chronic pain, loss in independence, and loneliness.

Untreated depression in the elderly can lead to a variety of problems, including alcoholism, substance abuse, and even suicide. Someone living with severe pain and depression is four times more likely to attempt suicide.

Every 100 minutes an older adult dies by suicide – – the highest overall death rate of any age group.

Family Activities to Keep the Blues Away
  1. We can help keep older adult loved ones from being part of the statistics by helping them fight off depression over the holidays.
  2. Play favorite music and classic movies during the holiday season to bring smiles instead of frowns.
  3. Technology can create connections!  Set up Skype video calls or Facetime with family members who can’t visit for the holidays so that family can connect, and sing, laugh and share stories together.  This is a meaningful gift to give to one another!
  4. Spend one-on-one time with an elder adult. Find fun things to do to occupy them throughout the season and shortly afterward so that they don’t have time to let their mind dwell on sad times or losses they experience.
  • Make cookies
  • Take a nature walk
  • Write holiday cards and notes
  • Play a game
  • Visit a museum
  • Go to a local event like a parade or church choir
  • Take in a holiday movie
  • Drive around the neighborhood looking at holiday lights and decorations
  • Do a craft project
  • Plan the family meal and shop together
  • Get together to watch old comedy shows that bring a chuckle, like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners or Laurel and Hardy. Many of these shows can be found on the TV, in DVD form or streamed from the internet. Use these programs to open dialogue to engage their mind and relive memories.
  • Get physical! Go for a walk, dance, hula hoop, go bowling, toss around a ball, chase your dog, or any other physical activity your elder adult loved one can safely participate with other family members. Make it a habit, not just one you do during the holiday. Staying physically active will help keep your senior mentally fit as well.

Remember, depression can have real, negative physical effects on older adults, including fatigue, withdrawing from activities, sadness, abnormal sleep patterns, anxiety or irritability, use of alcohol or drugs, or suicidal thoughts. We can help them avoid it, though.

Keeping your older loved one engaged, being observant to signs of depression and seeking help when it is needed will keep the blues away not just during the holidays but all year long!


Jean Garboden, Director of Education & Innovation at Compass Senior Living

About the author: Jean Garboden is an Elder Advocate and Eden Alternative Educator with over 30 years’ experience in not-for-profit and for-profit healthcare organizations. She is honored to lead the mission and values culture development for Compass Senior Living in Eugene, Oregon. Jean lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she enjoys the weather and volunteers with the Nevadans for the Common Good, advocating for caregivers and elders in southern Nevada

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