Reconnecting with the elderly around the holidays

December 5, 2017 Providence Health Team
Holidays are meant to be a time of celebration spent with people we love. But older adults with health problems or age-related frailty may have difficulty traveling, and have to spend holidays alone.

Holidays are meant to be a time of celebration spent with people we love. But that’s not always possible. Older adults with health problems or age-related frailty, may have difficulty traveling which cause them to spend holidays alone.

Depression, stemming from loneliness, is now recognized as an epidemic among elder Americans. In fact, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, elderly suicide rates are rising, and social isolation is likely one of the reasons for the spike. Ira Byock, MD, Founder and Chief Medical Officer of the Institute for Human Caring, recognizes this has been the case for as long as he’s been a doctor.

“Getting old is not easy,” says Dr. Byock. “As you get older and frailer, it becomes challenging to do normal things. A strong sense of purpose is associated with higher quality of life, and because we are a youth-oriented society, the opportunity for older people to contribute diminishes. They might also see their children less and not have much to look forward to. Isolation, loneliness and boredom can inhibit their zest for living and cause a sense of demoralization or depression which predisposes people for suicide.”

The upcoming holidays are a wonderful time to reconnect with our aging parents or grandparents and help re-establish a sense of meaning. If it’s not possible to visit in person, arrange for an unhurried phone call or a Skype or FaceTime visit.

“We often associate old age with tragedy, sadness and deep grief,” says Byock. “But there are opportunities for people to experience remarkably rich family time and tend to those relationships. The antidote for loneliness is personal connection. There is something inherently affirming and life-giving from having friendships and meaningful relationships with other people.”

If you can make it home for the holidays this year, try connecting with your elders through these activities:

  • Relive fond memories. “Ask your parents or grandparents to show you where they keep their photo albums and flip through them together. Ask them specific questions about photos that catch you eye, including where they took the picture and what they can remember about the day. The goal is to elicit stories and relive fond memories. If they don’t have a photo album you can use as a reference, inquire about their childhood. Did they share a room with siblings? Who was their best friend in grade school? Did they ever do something that got them in trouble? Reminiscing can often balance memories of losses with recollections of joyful times.” Byock suggests.
  • Create heirlooms. “Finding ways to help the elderly contribute enhances their quality of life. Try sitting down together to create an heirloom you can pass down to your kids. Turn on a recording app on your cell phone and interview them about old stories that they haven’t shared in years. Ask them what their earliest memory was of being in school, and what their brothers or sisters were like growing up. Perhaps your grandparents did something remarkable in their youth that you or your parents weren’t aware of. If you don’t have time to complete the interview in one sitting, set a recurring date to continue the conversation that will give them something to look forward to,” says Byock.
  • Ask them to teach you. Dr. Byock continues, “Don’t wait to ask your older family members to teach you that family recipe you’ve wanted to learn. And especially important for elders who had careers in banking, teaching and even marketing, is asking them to act as a mentor to you or a younger member of your family. This will give them purpose and allow them to contribute again, even if it is in less of a hands-on capacity. I can tell you with certainty that intergenerational activities with younger people, like mentoring, are deeply meaningful and life-affirming experiences.”

To find out more about Dr. Ira Byock and the Institute for Human Caring, visit his website today.

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