“Being in a good frame of mind keeps one in the picture of health” -Anonymous
The holidays are a special time of the year, a time of celebration with family and friends. While the holidays are often referred to as “magical” and are characterized in song as “the most wonderful time of the year,” for many people the season is anything but magical.
Instead of happiness and joy, some people get “down in the dumps” or feel lonely and blue during the holidays. While most of us may experience stress from dealing with crowds and trying to find that perfect gift on a limited budget, many older adults face another challenge– coping with loss.
As a result of disease or death of loved ones, older adults often experience feelings of loss and sadness. As a result of health problems, people may not have sufficient energy to go shopping, to make a special holiday feats, or to decorate their home. Even the decorations meant to lighten our spirits and add to the joy of the season may trigger a longing for the past.
For many people the holidays are a far cry from the Normal Rockwell images that picture idealized expectations of the holidays. Think of the images of rosy-cheeked children, smiling parents, and doting grandparents all gazing at holiday decorations and exchanging gifts. These images were designed to evoke memories of happy times in our lives.
Whether having unrealistic expectations of the holidays or dealing with loss and sadness, as health professionals we need to watch for the ‘Holiday Blues’ (depressed feelings) and encourage people to seek support from family, friends, and community based organizations.
Feelings of sadness may come suddenly, perhaps when listening to holiday music or during a family gathering. Contributing factors for holiday blues in older people include:
- Financial limitations
- Loss of independence
- Being alone or separated from loved ones
- Failing eyesight (lessening of the ability to write or read holiday correspondence)
- Loss of mobility and/or the inability to get to religious services.1
Health professionals must know that depression is not a part of natural aging and need to pay special attention to the emotional state of older adults during this time of year. Unlike major depression, a case of holiday blues is time limited, usually beginning around Thanksgiving and continuing through mid-January.2 Assessment may be necessary to differentiate between a case of ‘holiday blues’ and major clinical depression.
Symptoms of Holiday Blues
Symptoms of holiday blues are transient and may include:
- Decreased interest in pleasurable activities
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Agitation and anxiety
- Feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness.3
A generation brought up with a “pull yourself up by your boot straps” mentality when feeling bad about their lot in life may not be comfortable or be able to complain about feeling depressed or down.
As we think about giving and receiving gifts this holiday season, think about health and wellness. One of the greatest gifts is the gift of good mental health.
Health professionals may assist older adults and family members by offering strategies to help manage feelings of loss and grief during the holiday season, and follow-up after the holidays to assess if the sadness persists and may become major depression. There are several resources available to assist health professionals assess depressive symptoms and intervene where appropriate.
Evelyn’s Picks- Recommended Resources
- Tips for Beating Holiday Blues, American Geriatrics Society – This website is dedicated to the health of older Americans.
- Mental Health and Aging: Resources – Website containing a resource list to provide information directly related to mental health and aging.
- Coping with Depression and the Holidays. Geriatric Mental Health Foundation.
- Holiday Depression. University of Pennsylvania Health System.
GERO GEMS is a monthly publication of the Center for Aging with Dignity. Compiled by Evelyn Fitzwater, this publication is designed to raise awareness of aging and related issues impacting health care professionals and our society as a whole.
For more information:
Go to the Senior Health health topic.