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How to Identify and Help Seniors Who Feel Lonely During the Holidays

Santa, carols, parties, and presents underneath the tree. For many people, thoughts of these and other seasonal staples elicit feelings of anticipation, joy, and happiness. Unfortunately, not all people experience these emotions at Christmas time. Seniors, in particular, often struggle with grief, sadness, loneliness, isolation and depression. However, there are some things caregivers can do to support aging loved ones suffering from the holiday blues. Here's a closer look at the problem, along with how caregivers can help.

The problem of seniors who feel lonely during the holidays

More than a third of adults over the age of 45 admit to feeling lonely, according to the AARP. In seniors, this can be caused by a number of factors — ranging from emotional setbacks such as grief over lost loved ones to physical challenges like mobility. Lonely adults are less likely to participate in activities which build and boost vital social networks, such as participating in hobbies, volunteering, or attending religious services. This can lead to a dangerous cycle in which they become increasingly isolated from friends and loved ones.

Whatever the cause of senior loneliness and the related phenomenon of senior isolation, addressing them is important. Why? Because loneliness is a significant predictor of poor health. Not only is it a risk factor for accelerated cognitive decline, but it's also linked with increased mortality.

While it's possible to be lonely without being depressed, loneliness can be a “major precipitant of depression” in adults, according to Psychology Today. And just as seniors are especially vulnerable to loneliness, so are they especially vulnerable to depression — a major predictor of suicide in seniors.

How Caregivers Can Help

Caregivers can help seniors cope with loneliness during the holiday season by putting one strategy above all others: Listening with their hearts. Trying not only to understand your aging loved one's feelings but also to empathize with them is the best way to show seniors that they're not alone.

Following the lead of aging loved ones is also important. In many cases, keeping up with the usual hustle and bustle of the holiday season can be overwhelming. Working toward simplicity can help, as can cutting back on large-scale gatherings.

And remember: coping with loneliness is about quantity not quality, so keep the focus on meaningful time together. This may mean stepping back from large parties and instead, keeping the focus on activities and events which allow you to truly interact and connect. Perhaps your aging loved one needs help addressing holiday cards or decorating his tree this year? Or maybe she'd prefer to spend time looking through an old family photo album or baking together than going to your second cousin's annual “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party.” Again, listening is the only way to truly understand what your aging loved one is going through.

When to Enlist Help

The seasonal blues will usually come and go. However, loneliness; feelings of emptiness; social withdrawal; decreased energy; difficulty concentrating; changes in sleep; loss of interest in activities and hobbies; appetite and weight changes; aches, pains, and digestion issues; restlessness and irritability; and thoughts of death and suicide may indicate a serious mental health issue. Contact your aging loved one's healthcare provider if these symptoms last for more than two weeks.

And while senior depression is indeed a concern, there is good news: It's very treatable. In fact, 80 percent of people respond to medicine, therapy, or a combination of the two.

One last thing to keep in mind? While the holidays may lead to sadness and isolation in seniors, these feelings aren't limited to December. In fact, suicide rates often peak afterward due an opposite phenomenon: post-holiday letdown. The overall takeaway? While the holidays are an opportune time to make sure older adults aren't suffering from loneliness, social isolation, and depression, it's equally important to keep watch for these problems throughout the year. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more senior caregiving.

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