It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Maybe.

It’s busier than usual. It’s demanding, more so than usual. There are beautiful decorations everywhere. There are parties, concerts, and lovely opportunities, but sometimes too many. Sadly, it can feel stressful and tiring. Perhaps not as much for our elder loved ones, as for those family caregivers of elders who are juggling working, raising children, and the holidays on top of it. We all experience it. Although some of it might be our own making, as the saying goes, “it is what it is.” How do we manage what we see, and what we don’t?

Like almost everything, it’s not “either/or,” rather it is “both/and.” The holiday season is when traditions are powerful emotional pulls, and when we access those memories from childhood and days gone by. For the elders in our lives, and also for ourselves, we are deeply aware of those not here to celebrate the holidays with us. Think of the many faces that your elder loved one has spent the holidays with over their lifetime: their parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses maybe, and even children. During these times, we are reacquainted with loss, but we also want to be “joyful.”

Bring Joy Back to the Season

Even though it seems hard to imagine, filling the void of those you have lost and being joyful during the holidays might be possible. Make room for both at your emotional table. There are lots of joyful opportunities: take a drive to admire holiday lights and decorations, eat specialty foods we don’t usually have, and enjoy the cards and music.  Take delight in the large and small gifts the season has to give.

Bring out old photos. It may stimulate temporary sadness, but the sadness is there anyway. Invite your elder to share stories of holidays past, from their childhood and yours. Rather than avoid what might provoke emotion, if we embrace what’s lying dormant, we may find that expression of loss, acknowledgment, and validation of the loss can allow us all to more fully appreciate what’s happening today in our lives; new life, grandchildren or even “greats,” loved ones returning home for the holidays, and the opportunity for caring, supportive, and meaningful holidays.

Life review is such an essential part of an elder’s life and wellbeing. Giving and celebrating the opportunity to share stories, aided by photographs, old films or slides, talking about “who’s who,” and maybe hearing stories we have listened to many, MANY times before, are all part of giving the elder in our lives an extraordinary place during the season. It will bring them joy and will be a gift you give that will come back to you three and four-fold.

Start a New Tradition

Set up a “memory table,” light a candle, and invite your family to speak the names of those we miss. If that is too “out there,” bring those people forward in photographs to dedicate the space to all those we miss and love. It helps to make it a tangible and physical demonstration, rather than to be floating around inside us. This tradition will take on a sacred feel, which means, it’s doing its job.

In whatever way you merge yesterday and today in your family and with your elder loved ones, know that doing so is more meaningful than you realize. Providing a safe space for sadness, in the midst of joy and celebration, honors our feelings and the losses we have sustained, and cares for the places in our hearts that still hold that pain. It can add an extra layer of powerful and healing experience to your holiday.

Written by Joanne MacInnis, RN and Certified Dementia Practitioner.

Originally published in the Manchester Cricket Newspaper, December 2018. 

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