Beat the Holiday Blues

The pandemic exacerbates a seasonal problem
Nh Mag December Issue Cmyk For Print

Illustration by Victoria Marcelino

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the world’s leading experts on infectious disease, says that due to COVID-19 this holiday season will be like none anyone has ever experienced. That is not a good prescription for seniors who, even before the pandemic, were susceptible to the holiday blues.

“I certainly agree that COVID-19 will potentially have a negative impact on our elders who are already struggling,” says Gerianne Patti, M.S.W., L.I.C.S.W., the community support clinician for the Center for Life Management. The center is a nonprofit mental health agency that’s served the communities of southern New Hampshire for more than 50 years.

“Those traditional big holiday celebrations are not going to happen this year for many families and that is a source of concern,” says Patti. “I’ve heard from many folks that there is a sense of sadness about that, and about not being able to participate in their traditions.”

The holiday season, which includes Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other celebrations, stretches from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, and for many people it’s a time of magic, miracles, wonder, joy, happiness and love.

But for others, especially seniors, it isn’t the visions of sugarplum fairies that are dancing around inside their heads. To the contrary, for some the holidays only intensify the awful feelings of loneliness, loss, isolation, anxiety, anger and depression.

When you’re dealing with the death of a loved one, the loss of a beloved pet, life after a divorce or separation, serious health issues, financial difficulties, family problems, or any number of other challenging life situations, it’s terribly tough to feel sparkly, merry and bright.

Then add to the equation the practice of social distancing recommended in the current protocols for preventing the spread of this dreadful and perhaps even deadly disease, and that makes it all even much more difficult.

“There is a concern that our elders don’t have a lot of services so there is that extra stress or burden of isolation. We talk with folks who are afraid to even go out because of COVID-19,” says Patti. “I think it’s important to make the distinction between social distancing and social isolation. They are not the same thing. How do we connect to the outside world? COVID-19 has removed our connection with the outside world. That has exacerbated things for the elderly.”

Nevertheless, there is help readily available.

Increasing numbers of religious and faith-based organizations recognize how harsh the holidays can be for those feeling left out as they deal with darkness, grief and sorrow. Many offer a special “Blue Christmas Service,” usually held on or around the winter solstice on December 21, the longest night of the year.

At these Blue Christmas services, which offer healing and hope, a scared space is created, and the focus is placed on self-awareness and self-acceptance. More traditional services at a local church, synagogue, temple or mosque can also help to provide that same sense of healing, hope and community.

Patti agrees that this can be a source of connection. If it’s safe to do so, she advises finding a ride to go in person, but also recommends getting help on the technological front. Setting up a way to participate virtually is the next best thing.

“If you’re not up on the technology, reach out to your local church and you can get help from someone with that,” says Patti. “The practice of spirituality is really important for folks to take part in. It is certainly a protective factor. Things are different now, and you may not be able to attend your local church’s Christmas mass. However, there are folks in that community who will reach out to our elders in order for them to access that part of themselves,” adds Patti.

Donna Apperti, R.N., B.S.N., has more than 35 years of experience as a clinician, and spent some time as a visting nurse, treating senior patients in their homes. She agrees that this year will present an entirely new set of challenges for them, and that requires a novel approach.

“Use technology. Even if you can’t be together in person, you can still find a way to connect,” says Apperti. “I think people need to be realistic that because of COVID-19, this year the holidays are not going to be the same as they were last year or the year before, or ever. But traditions change. This is a good time to create new ones.

“Plan ahead as much as possible. If you are not going to be able to celebrate with your family or friends this year, or if you’re alone and the holidays have always been a tough time for you, acknowledge that it can be a very sad time. Maybe do something different than you have in the past. Maybe don’t treat it like a holiday. Do something completely different than you normally would.”

It’s also important to remember that help is available on an emergency basis 24/7, even during the holidays when your regular doctors, nurses and therapists are
on vacation.

A program called REAP, which stands for referral, education, assistance and prevention, is highly recommended for adults 60 and older and their caregivers in New Hampshire, and it offers free and confidential help and is available in every region of the state. All you have to do is call Service Link’s toll-free number at (866) 634-9412 and ask for a REAP counselor.

There are also many other traditional 24/7 hotlines staffed by people who are qualified to serve as a lifeline for anyone struggling with panic, anxiety, depression and/or suicidal thoughts at this time of the year.

“If you anticipate or know that the holidays are going to be a tough time for you, plan ahead,” advises Apperti. “If you don’t have friends or family to reach out to, know what the numbers are to call and talk with somebody who is trained to help. Have those resources and those phone numbers available.” 

Tips for beating the holiday blues

This time of year may be magical for some seniors, but for others it can be a struggle. Here are a few tried-and-true suggestions from the Health in Aging Foundation on how to help someone who is experiencing the all-too-common holiday blues.

Include them. Invite them out, and take into account their needs, such as transportation or special diets.

Lend a hand. Offer to help them with their cleaning, shopping, cooking and other preparations such as decorating their homes.

Be a good listener. Be a supportive listener and encourage discussions about feelings and concerns. Acknowledge difficult feelings, including a sense of loss if family or friends have died or moved away. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand how they feel.

Encourage them to talk with their healthcare provider. The holidays can cause people to feel anxious and depressed. But for some, holiday tensions can lead to full-blown clinical depression. Often, older adults don’t realize they are depressed. If you suspect depression in someone you know, you may need to bring it up more than once. Let the person know that depression is a treatable medical illness and not something to be ashamed of.

Categories: Seniors