I have worked in and with enough long term care communities to know that the winter season is not all merry and bright for seniors and their care partners. As you know, the winter season can be a time of great loneliness and loss due to illness. So mixed in with the sense of excitement at the holiday season is also a sense of “here we are again, let’s see how we fare this year”.
There are lots of great qualities about the holiday season, it brings together family and community which can be a huge positive. It is also the time of year when many people remember their losses and loneliness. And it is also the season for sickness and death. Many of our elders are living their last days with us. So how can you engage everyone more in this holiday season filled with so many ups and downs?
Mer·ry ˈmerē/ adjective: cheerful and lively.
Here are 5 ways to engage more merrily this holiday season:
- Ask what the people want – People tend to celebrate the holidays in different ways and actually celebrate many different holidays. Start asking now what the seniors would like to have happen this holiday season. They may surprise you with some fun new traditions to include … maybe they want to create some new traditions. Assuming that holiday trees, turkeys and pie are what they want is like telling your kids what the plans are and they have no choice but to go along to the relatives house. It’s their home, make them such an integral part of the planning that they feel like it would not come together if they were not in the planning. Maybe they want to be old school this year and string cranberries and popcorn, or make handmade cards or maybe skip a tree and simply put up lights.
- Don’t be fake – That sounds pretty direct but often when the holidays roll around people put on a fake smile and try to be cheerful. We tend to push aside the pain and try to cheer everyone up. But when we are truly caring for each person, we focus on each person and where they are right now. For example, if Sally loves the holiday and is getting excited, there is an opportunity to engage in all the holiday activities with fervor. If Bob feels sad this season because 3 of his fellow seniors have died in rooms nearby, acting as if the holiday is a time to feel cheerful will give Bob the impression that he is alone in his grief. Ask Bob how he feels and perhaps what he needs to feel supported and then listen.
- Help families know what to bring – The person living in long term care may have taken up a new hobby this year or expressed interest in learning something but they did not share that with family or said to a nurse that they really have been craving a particular pie this season. Share that with a family member so they can give a meaningful gift. Unless you love funky socks, getting another pair of socks from a friend or family feels hollow and sad. Receiving a gift that means something makes us feel connected to those around us. This can be especially challenging for people with dementia. Family members may be wondering what if anything they should get for their parent. Share with them what makes the person with dementia light up or engage recently…even if it is something simple like folding laundry, counting bingo chips or listening to specific music. With that in mind family can give something that may evoke that same feeling. Or you can refer them to check out an engagement activity kit that can help them have meaningful interactions with their family members.
- Engage co-workers in the festivities – Holidays are for family and community. Everyone caring for our elders are a vital part of their lives. This is a great time for a caregiver or nurse to share with the seniors a tradition that they have at home. Holiday parties are not as much fun if the staff is standing on the sidelines serving. Get them engaged and create a true sense of community. This is particularly important for those that have no family. The more connected everyone is, the better care that is given. My family lives on the other coast, holiday parties with the seniors have always been a meaningful part of my own winter season.
- Create the seasonal events for the people who want them – Creating the seasonal events for the people who want to be festive creates an authentic vibe for the event. Nothing is worse than having half the group siting there when they would rather be in their room. There is a fine line between encouraging someone to partake in festivities and disrespecting their choice to stay away by pushing them to join in. Let them say no and still love them. Bring them a piece of pie or let them come to the party and leave at their own pace.
Cheerful & Lively. How do you get to cheerful & lively? Particularly for me during the holiday season I like certain things and I avoid certain events. Force me to do too much mingling and I will lose my merry. Ask me to go to a party when someone I see everyday is ill or died, I may say yes and I may say no. Give me meaningless gifts and I will feel less connected. Give me a funky pair of knee-high socks and you make my day. Everyday is different. For the people we work with, every day is different. We forget sometimes and get caught up in the rush of the season. All of the festivities are for the enjoyment of the people we work with. What do they want?
Merry Winter Season,