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Going home for the holidays isn’t always an option for older adults in senior living communities. But this year, even family and friends who’d like to visit have to stay home too.
In many states, strict social distancing and quarantine guidelines are in place at senior living communities. This is to protect their residents who are typically older and have underlying health problems. These factor put them at higher risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19 — and also of being hospitalized or dying.
Even before COVID-19, older adults were also at risk of another public health concern: social isolation and loneliness. In fact, 2017 Public Policy & Aging report found that loneliness was “as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
And the problem is pervasive. According to data from HRSA.gov, two in five seniors reported they “sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful.” And one in five reported “feeling lonely or socially isolated.”
That said, being present for your loved ones in senior communities—even if that presence is from a distance—is the best gift you can give.
Here are four ways to stay connected to someone who can’t be home for the holidays.
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Give Them the Comforts of Home.
Even if you can’t visit your loved one, you can still make sure they get a holiday gift package from you. Be sure to include items that will bring back fond memories of previous holidays.
Pine boughs, wreaths or garlands lend their festive scents and trigger happy memories without the mess and stress of a full tree. Most major stores and online retailers carry mini light strands with clips to display holiday cards and photos from loved ones.
If you already live at a distance, send a package of easy-to-place decorations. Live locally? Check with the staff about dropping off a box of décor.
Here are a few meaningful gift ideas to engage all the senses this season:
- A package of their favorite holiday cookies.
- Handwritten letters, homemade gifts, and pictures drawn by the grandkids.
- A playlist of beloved carols and songs (along with some way to play them, if need be).
- A new pair of cozy slippers or a fuzzy holiday-themed blanket.
- Essential oils or sprays in holiday scents like pine or cinnamon.
Leverage Technology to Connect in Real Time.
Think outside the box about ways to interact digitally with your senior loved ones this season. Call on the tech-savvy grandchildren to foster these connections, like setting up an account or downloading an app remotely. If your loved one needs assistance with signing in or using video chat technology, reach out to the community staff for help.
If it was a family tradition to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” stick to it! Thanks to a wide range of streaming options, you can watch a movie together even if you’re not in the same room.
Set up group Zoom calls with friends or FaceTime with the grandchildren. Do a family Christmas caroling session by video chat. Check out these virtual travel options so your loved one can have a change of scenery without leaving their room.
Whatever you decide, make sure your senior loved one can see your face and hear your voice as often as possible. The holidays often trigger grief and depression (even before COVID), so these digital connections are critical.
Focus on Meaningful Conversations.
It’s acceptable to be upset that you can’t be together in person this year. Your loved one likely feels the same way. Find comfort in knowing that in the past, distance didn’t keep you from creating special holiday memories.
For example, reminisce about other holidays when things were different—maybe because of travel, military service, or a job. Talk about favorite memories from previous holidays.
Although you can’t gather in person, you can still focus on meaningful conversations. The truth is, large family gatherings are not always ideal for these types of conversations. Take advantage of the chance to focus on that aspect of togetherness through phone calls and video chats.
Struggling to connect and care for your loved one? The INSPIRE program is a six-week course hosted by UPMC Senior Services designed to help caregivers who are facing a variety of challenges in caring for older adults.
Plan Ahead for Something Special.
This too shall pass — and having something to look forward to is a great way to stay positive during this hard season. Plan a Christmas in July party, or a belated holiday dinner party in the spring. Put something on the calendar even if it may have to change.
Send a save-the-date card with festive confetti. Start a family email thread to plan a menu or choose a location. These early preparations will help build the anticipation and excitement, and give everyone something to look forward to.
Wherever you live, a completely different holiday season is ahead for seniors and their loved ones. But no matter how you choose to celebrate this year, be creative, flexible, present — and safe.
The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk Factors, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD Public Policy & Aging Report, Volume 27, Issue 4, 2017, Pages 127–130, https://doi.org/10.1093/ppar/prx030
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