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A Season of Gifts: Seniors & the Holidays

I have always thought of Christmas time … as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time. Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”

Is any author more closely associated with Christmas than Charles Dickens? And does any author seem more in touch with the highest ideals of that holiday—which, coincidentally, seem to be shared among many of the winter holidays celebrated around the world? Themes of joy, dedication, charity, hope, and finding light in dark places shine out throughout Dickens’ work, and he was known as an enthusiastic celebrator of Christmas. His son, Henry, recalled that, at Christmas, “My father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything.”

Many scholars believe that Dickens not only resurrected Christmas following a decline in its celebration during Puritan rule in Britain, but also that his depictions of jolly, abundant Christmases focused on family gatherings and helping the poor influenced the way the Christian world celebrates the holiday to this day. He even popularized the term “Merry Christmas”!

In “A Christmas Carol”—and in many of Dickens’ other works—giving to others is a major way to show that a character truly has “the spirit of Christmas” (another idea for which we owe a debt to Dickens). Families with elderly relatives have many opportunities to bless the lives of their seniors with gifts, tangible and intangible, that improve their lives and boost their independence. Seniors face many challenges to their health and well-being during the holidays. Thankfully, a little time, thought, and careful planning can alleviate these problems. So, whatever holiday you’re celebrating, here are a few tips—from Evolve and from Mr. Dickens—to help you give non-tangible gifts to your loved ones this year.

The Gift of Physical Safety

Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering. Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”

Ensuring the safety of an elderly person is important, sometimes overlooked, and often complicated. Whether your loved one is at home or visiting relatives, here are some things you can do to keep them physically safe:

  • When you can, schedule visits in a senior’s own environment. Their physical surroundings should be more comfortable and navigable, and their mental acuity and health are often best in familiar surroundings.

  • While you’re visiting, check for safety hazards. Are there rugs or electrical cords that could pose a tripping hazard? Must your loved one navigate steep stairs when, with a few changes, they could potentially live all on one level? Are entrances to their home easy to navigate? Is the kitchen equipped for an aging person, with oft-used equipment in easy reach?

  • As you’re assessing the environment, think about things you could add to enhance safety and livability, from simple fixes like handled doorknobs, bathroom grab bars and bath chairs, and rocker light switches to more involved changes like replacing thick or worn carpeting with an easier-to-navigate surface.

  • When a senior is coming to you, make their visit as safe and non-disruptive as possible by giving them an easy-access room with a nearby bathroom and removing walking hazards as much as possible. Stock their room with a a schedule of planned activities, drinking water, and perhaps a few snacks. Help them find places to store prescriptions and plug in necessary medical equipment.

The Gift of Comfort

I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time … as the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”

Beyond physical safety, there are many things you can do for an elderly loved one that not only help ensure they enjoy the holidays, but that also ensure comfort and keep them from becoming over-tired. Here are a few ideas to help you:

  • If you find the holidays exhausting, imagine how your elderly relative feels! Carefully gauge the activity level that is right for your senior: aim for a full schedule of enjoyable activities, but not too many. Include them in activities you know they would enjoy, but don’t expect them to be a part of every last thing. School programs, short church or synagogue meetings, and holiday piano recitals are casual, easy-access events that bring holiday cheer while often taking place during the day or in the early evening. For gatherings that might go later, designate a person to drive your senior home whenever they’re ready to go. Considering your loved one’s limits might help you realize you could drop a few events, too, and give yourself the gift of increased peace!

  • Schedule well and give advance notice. Even if they don’t have memory problems, seniors will appreciate a clearly defined schedule they can refer to in advance. Once you know your plans, print out or clearly write them for your loved one, in larger print. Provide a couple of copies; consider hanging one up near a phone or front door. The more they’re aware of what’s coming up, the better they will feel.

The Gift of Companionship

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”

Although America is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness and depression across ages, elderly people are at particular risk of these conditions—and the holiday season can be an especially lonely time. According to the Centers for Disease Control, studies have shown that social isolation increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, to a level of risks associated with smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity. Isolation and poor socialization have been linked to increases in the risk of dementia, heart disease, stroke, depression, and suicide. All it takes to limit these risks is, simply, other people:

  • One of the greatest gifts you can give to any person—of any age—is time. Don’t just commit to spending time with an elderly loved one during the holiday season; pre-plan regular visits and/or outings during the entire next year. One son of an elderly parent turned driving his father to a monthly haircut into a meaningful outing, with lunch afterward and lots of good conversation along the way. Offer to help supplement an elderly person’s house cleaning, or just stop by for a visit with a small treat.

  • Go to them. It bears repeating: even short visits can make a huge difference in helping an elderly person feel loved and wanted—and sometimes short visits are best, depending on your loved one’s condition.

  • Arrange reunions. If possible, help your loved one connect with some of their peers during the holidays. Arrange lunches, and accompany them if necessary. Think about whether your senior would enjoy one-on-one time or a small group gathering, and make plans accordingly. Or, bring a friend as a surprise during one of your scheduled visiting times.

The Gift of Good Cheer

He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness. Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”

Above all, this season is about light: finding it in dark places, in dark times, and at the darkest point in the year. Here are a few ways you can bring that light into a senior’s life:

  • Keep up contact. Frequent phone calls—or, if your loved one has access, video calls—not only brighten a person’s day, they help loved ones assess how seniors are doing. During these calls, don’t just ask the usual “how are you”; share memories. Play trivia games. You could even sing together! Some extended families present a grandparent with a family “advent calendar” of loving, appreciative letters a person can open each day leading up to Christmas, while others record video messages. And, again, keep up that attention throughout the year.

  • Consider new traditions. If your loved one can’t do some of the things you all used to enjoy together, it might be time for new activities. Here are some that seniors might enjoy:

    • Driving around to enjoy Christmas lights, followed by hot chocolate or tea at home.

    • Sharing favorite memories. Get started casually, by just asking questions about a loved one’s childhood, or use online memory prompts to help get the conversation flowing. Record these conversations, and you’ve created a family heirloom.

    • Decorate a senior’s house for the holidays—and remember to come back afterward to clean it all up!

    • Make a holiday music playlist—or any kind of playlist—and enjoy it together.

    • Watch holiday or classic movies: let everyone pick one, and plan times to see them together.

    • Help your senior with their holiday cards, if they want to send some. This is a great thing to do while decorating and/or listening to music together!

    • If you attend public events like a festival of trees or a concert, consider pushing your loved one in a wheelchair to avoid tiring them out, and consider wearing masks (if your entire group does it, it’s easier than singling out one person).

    • Bake cookies or make other treats together. This is a great opportunity to pick your loved one’s brain for recipe ideas.

    • Sing together! You can enjoy holiday music, or choose a list of your loved one’s favorite tunes and give them a try as a group.

It will take some thought to lovingly care for your elderly relatives during the holidays, but every effort you make will help bring more light to their lives—and to your own!

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more. … He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” Charles Dickens, '“A Christmas Carol”

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