Beating the holiday blues

By Betsy Zuber

I struggled to write this column because there already is so much press about how people suffer from the holiday blues. Yet my elderly clients often report that this is one of the hardest times of the year for them.

I can understand. I remember how my grandmother spent one holiday crying because she got a watch from my mother. It seemed clear to me at the time that grandma was not acting like she normally would when receiving a gift.

But grandma was spending another holiday season without her husband of 60-plus years. She also was dealing with other losses in her life: moving from Oregon, her inability to be in charge of the holiday meal preparation and the loss of the ability to perform other holiday rituals. The watch was only a reminder of grandmother's struggle with her desire to participate in the merriment and family holiday traditions vs. the numerous losses she was grieving over.

My clients feel the stress of the holidays. Some often tell me they can't wait until they're over. The colder weather and darker days that come with the holidays contribute to seniors feeling homebound. Also, some families are too busy and distracted with their own activities to pay attention to their elders. Additionally, there are great expectations and pressures this time of year to be joyful, positive and willing to participate in every tradition. All this, despite the fact that some older people may be grieving the loss of loved ones. They may also lament their inability to function without help, to prepare traditional holiday foods, go shopping or attend gatherings. All this can add to an already stressful time of year.

But there is some good news here. There are ways for both older and younger people to enjoy the holiday season.

Tips to make holidays brighter

? Be creative and change traditions or rituals. Sometimes the need to do every family tradition or holiday ritual can add stress.

? Change the family meal to a potluck, only put out a few decorations, and spend more time with family and friends doing free events around the area. That way certain traditions can be preserved, but the workload is lessened. This can help reinvigorate people to again find meaning in the holiday season.

? Take time to listen to your loved ones: Find out how they view the holiday season, and what it has meant to them. Also, share their grief, if need be. It can aid in healing. Even though talking about someone's grief may not fit with the stereotype of a festive holiday, it can be a perfect time for remembering.

? For all ages, take time to do things for others. Spending time feeling helpful keeps you from focusing on dreary thoughts. Find ways to get outside, even for short periods, even when it is cloudy and gray. You can still benefit from the daylight.

Breaking away from what ``has to be done'' or ``how you should feel'' can reduce your stress during this festive season. Circumstances may conspire against you and create a not-so-joyful holiday. But if you allow for changes that help you cope, you can get through it. And if others around you understand that you need time to not be joyful, it will also help. There is not just one way to negotiate the holidays.

Betsy Zuber, a geriatric specialist, has been working in the field of aging for 15 years. You can contact her at 236-3525, e-mail her at, or mail her at MIYFS 2040 - 84th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island, WA 98040. Mercer Island Youth & Family Services is a department of the City of Mercer Island.

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