‘Tis the season to be jolly, but Christmas can also be a difficult time for aging family members – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Holidays are a time of tradition, family, and reflection, and there’s a lot of value and strength in that,” said Lawrence T. Force, a gerontologist, a Psychology professor at Mount Saint Mary College, and director of the college’s Center on Aging and Disability Policy.
Reminiscing about Christmases past “can have a positive outcome, but it can also churn up some negative feelings,” he said.
The paradigm holds true for people of all backgrounds, but Force points out that the older one gets, the greater the chance for the loss of a spouse or other loved one during the course of the year, which can influence the holidays. Families could also experience other changes in dynamics, including marriage or divorce.
On top of it all, the current pandemic – particularly dangerous to the aging population – might increase feelings of solitude, hopelessness, and sadness. Quarantining and social distance are great ways to stop the spread of COVID-19, but that also might mean that some elderly people are alone for the holidays.
“These are unprecedented times, and increases in stress and social isolation are being felt across this nation,” said Force.
Thinking about unpleasant or stressful life changes, like the pandemic, can cast a dark shadow over what was once an enjoyable holiday.
Force suggests that there might be another reason for feeling down during the holidays – Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), in which an individual who otherwise has normal mental health can experience symptoms of depression based on the time of year. One possibility is that SAD is related to a lack of the biochemical serotonin, which is thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness.
Because sunlight stimulates the production of serotonin in one’s body, winter’s shorter days might be partly to blame for changes in mood.
According to Force, a therapy lamp – which emulates natural light – might help push away the holiday blues. Daytime walks might also help seniors to feel better. Force also suggests drinking more water and getting more exercise.
Force has worked in the field of aging and disabilities for more than three decades as an administrator, clinician, and educator. He has authored and collaborated on books, articles, and technical reports that address topics of aging policy, Alzheimer's disease, family caregiving, and end-of-life care.
The Mount’s Center on Aging and Disability Policy was recently awarded a pair of grants totaling $70,000, which will be used to expand two key offerings: the Proactive Caring Program for families of individuals with disabilities, and the Elder Abuse Awareness Virtual Coalition. For more information about both programs, visit www.msmc.edu/cadp and www.elderabusevirtualcoalition.com.
Force is also part of a podcast called Intersections, with the most recent episode dealing with addiction recovery and the holidays. Intersections can be found at www.msmc.edu/Intersections