Is Mom Okay? Things to Look Out for When You Visit for the Holidays

Senior woman at Christmas

Q. My siblings and our families are going to spend Christmas this year with our mother at our family home in Virginia Beach. She lives alone with her dog, Rascal. Since Thanksgiving, the last couple of times I called her, she seemed a little out of it, but insists everything is okay.

I checked with mom’s neighbor, and she said she hasn’t seen my mother in weeks. Although mom is an introvert who likes to mostly keep to herself, the neighbors usually see her walking Rascal every morning, but instead she is just letting him out in the yard.

I am concerned that she is feeling the holiday blues, so I am planning on making the trip earlier than expected. I am not sure if this is a seasonal thing, or if she is feeling lonely and isolated since my dad passed away, since she typically does a good job hiding her true emotions from us. What should we look out for when we visit with mom? And do you have any suggestions for what we can do if she is experiencing loneliness? Thanks for your help!

A. Recently, The New York Times published an article about the epidemic of loneliness among older adults and the effects that social isolation has on overall health and well-being. If your mom is experiencing loneliness, research has shown that it is a major risk to healthy aging, and is linked to a decline in mobility, decrease in cognitive function, depression, and early death. So, you are right to be concerned!

Seniors living independently often respond with a mix of stress and excitement around the holidays. While excited to see family, they may also be careful to hide physical deterioration, memory loss, and sad feelings. Therefore, it can be difficult to know if your mother is truly in need or feels depressed, lonely, or isolated. The cheer is typically up, spirits are high, and often times the people we know the best are the hardest to read.This is why it is wise that you are visiting a little early, before the holiday festivities begin.

Loneliness during the holidays

For many older adults, the holidays (which are supposed to be a happy time) are a time that has grown to represent sadness. Whether it is because family members and loved ones have passed away, an incapacitating illness, or just an overall lack of social interaction, this is the time of year when severe loneliness can set in.

One of the most important things you can do to help combat elder loneliness during the holidays is to understand the condition and its signs, as follows:

•A lack of interest in things that used to bring joy;
•A sudden change of disposition, often going from cheerful to mean or sad;
•An abrupt change in eating habits;
•Further isolation from friends and family members;
•A severe lack of interest in social interaction;
•A severe change in sleeping habits (such as sleeping too long);
•Verbalizing their hatred of the holiday season.

What Can You Do to Help?

While it might sound simple, just spending some extra time with your mother can make a huge difference during the holidays. When you’re dealing with an older adult who feels isolated and depressed, the key is to make them realize just how needed and special they truly are.

One way to make your mom feel better is to include her in as many activities as possible, as it can give her a great self-esteem boost. No matter how simple the task, if you can provide her with a purpose, it will have a great impact. With a little pre-planning, appropriate adjustments to favorite old traditions can be made (or new traditions started) that the whole family can enjoy together. Allowing your mother to be a part of this planning will help make the occasion happier for everyone. Here are some ideas of ways you can include mom:

  • Play holiday music. Put on a festive CD or gather around the piano for a holiday sing-along.
  • Share memories. The holidays are a great time to reminisce, and older family members often love to share stories. Engage them in a trip down Memory Lane. If you’re a past or current client of ours, you can help create “Memory Lane” using the Legacy Stories computer program and app.
  • Write Legacy Stories. Using the Legacy Stories Website and mobile App, you can compose, organize, preserve, and share your legacy stories with your own Legacy Story Blog. This is the ideal solution to preserve and share your heirloom recipes, family traditions, legacy letters, poetry, wishes for the future, wisdom statements, and life lessons and values. Learn more.
  • Help decorate mom’s home. Decorations are a wonderful way to get everyone in the holiday spirit. Offer to help your elderly loved one set up and decorate a tree, hang wreaths, or string lights. Also, make yourself available after the holidays to help take down and store the decorations.
  • Put together a holiday photo album. Sorting through old holiday photos and recalling all the memories is fun for all ages and is a great, simple way to include a senior in the festivities.  Legacy Stories is a great tool to use for this project!  Make it a priority to help your mom start her Legacy Story this year so you can refer back to it year after year and keep building up her personal legacy.

After the Holidays: Helping Mom Cope

There are some things that we can do with and for our senior loved ones to help them stay engaged and relieve their loneliness. Some are easy and some take more of a commitment. Here are some ideas to keep your mother engaged:

1. Sign her up to join the senior center or a class, such as yoga or Tai Chi. Maybe she would like to take a class at the local school to learn more about the computer, how to take photos, or make a quilt. Help her find a book club or other club that sparks her interest, such as a garden club, bridge club, or church group.

2. Set up visits with family, friends, and other organizations so that your mother has regular visitors, when she wants them.

3. Enlist your friends and family to send a card, letter, or whatever communication they enjoy to your mom.

4. Help your mother schedule her week:  Sunday – church; Monday – grocery shopping and errands; Tuesday – library; Wednesday – visit friends or volunteer; and so forth. Each day of the week will hold something special for her, keeping her engaged with the community, and giving her a reason to get going each morning.

5. Connect her with technology so she can contact people she knows via Facebook, send and receive texts and emails, learn something new and join chats for support. Be sure she has security measures in place and understands safety when giving out personal information. We all need a reminder about that!

6. If she doesn’t have transportation, help her find ways to get around, such as public transit or senior services. Getting out will help her stay mentally engaged and give her a sense of purpose.

These are just a few ideas to help you keep your mother from isolation, loneliness, and depression. If you truly feel your mom is depressed, be sure to schedule a visit with her family doctor and discuss professional treatment options. It may also be a good time to explore other living arrangements for your mother, such as assisted living, shared living, or a senior community, and to have conversations with your family when they are all together for the holiday.

Remember, it is always prudent to plan ahead in the event that assisted living or nursing home care is needed in the future. Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection is the process of protecting your assets from having to be spent down in connection with entry into a nursing home, while also helping ensure that you or your loved one get the best possible care and maintain the highest possible quality of life, whether at home, in an assisted living facility, or in a nursing home. As always, please contact us when you’re ready to make an appointment for a no-cost introductory consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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