How to Support an older loved one over Christmas

Written by Christophe Locatelli12/12/23

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Living Well

 

For the lucky ones amongst us, Christmas brings around a time to be cheerful and spend time with loved ones. However, Christmas can bring challenges and emotions for our older loved ones. Recognising and addressing these challenges is important to make a peaceful, easy-going and memorable holiday experience for our older loved ones. In this article, we’ll delve into why Christmas can be difficult for older people, explore signs of Christmas stress, and share advice on better supporting your older loved one over the Christmas holiday.

Why Christmas can be difficult for older people

 Loneliness can easily intensify during Christmas time for older people who live alone. The loss of loved ones, health issues, and changes in routine can contribute to a sense of vulnerability, making the holidays a time of mixed emotions for older adults. Research by Age UK found that half a million older people across the UK expect to feel lonely at Christmas. The same study also found that Christmas isn’t something to look forward to for more than half a million older people because it brings back too many memories of people who have passed away, or happier times. However, there are things you can do and considerations you can make to enable your older loved one to have a more enjoyable Christmas.

 

Actions and advice for during the holidays

 

Planning ahead if they’ll visit you for Christmas

 

Ask them about their opinions and preferences.

This will give them time to consider what they actually want to do for Christmas, and help them feel a sense of control over the holidays.  Ask them whether they want to celebrate and where. Don’t just assume they’ll want to come to your house if you live separately. If they want to do something with you on a day other than Christmas Day itself, such as visit a Christmas market or other local festivities, book ahead if you can, and look  for easy accessibility or quieter times with less crowds if needed. 

Travel arrangements 

Planning ahead is important when it comes to travel too, making it less likely for there to be problems closer to the day. Check the weather forecast, such as if it’s going to be icy, and leave with plenty of time to drive slower and safely. If anyone is going to use public transport, check rail/bus services before the day of travel, as often there are reduced services during the Christmas period, and no one wants to be left stranded. 

Consider mobility problems

Make sure the house isn’t too crowded and remove any obstacles so it’s easy to move for someone who has mobility issues. If you have kids make sure they’re not running around when your loved one gets up to go to the toilet. Also, if needed, grit and salt driveways and gardens beforehand to avoid anyone slipping on icy surfaces. 

Further, do they need a particular chair to sit in? If they stay over, do they need particular bedding or pillows?

Consider any dietary needs

Certain health conditions and dietary restrictions may mean your loved one won’t be able to indulge in your usual homemade christmas pudding – however there are a wide range of specialist christmas foods you can buy which means they can still enjoy a delicious meal with you. It may require some additional shopping around, but lots of options are lower sugar, low salt and gluten free.  

Do they have dentures that make it hard to chew? To avoid embarrassment and problems while eating, remember to chop the food up into smaller pieces beforehand, ready for when food is served to everyone. 

Do activities they can enjoy too

If your older relative has dementia or other cognitive disabilities, then certain social games or activities can be somewhat overwhelming or confusing. Make sure that any activities you decide on consider everyone and their abilities. If they have specific hobbies they enjoy or games they like to play at Christmas, get everyone to join in – this will allow them to feel included and important and that their interests also matter. 

Set up a quiet place

We can all get a little overwhelmed with large gatherings at Christmas, so imagine how it must feel when you’re older, and you might have trouble with hearing and energy levels. If possible, try to create a space where they can escape the noise for a little while, and come back feeling rested and in a better mood.

Plan dinner seating arrangements 

Make a seating plan that is easiest for everyone. For example, can your older loved one easily get out and move back to a more comfortable chair or get to the toilet quicker? However, ask them who they would like to sit with. They might prefer sitting next to a child and listening to their stories than the more mundane adult conversations. If they have trouble hearing, you might also consider sitting them somewhere with the least echo, or in a direction where they can listen with a “good ear”.

On the day 

Communicate clearly

If your loved one is hard of hearing, speak louder and clearer, particularly if it’s a noisy environment – but try it in a way that doesn’t come across as patronising. 

Think about whether certain distracting background noises can be reduced; for example, having the TV on, or playing Christmas music all day can lift spirits, however, may make it harder to hear people speaking. Consider the placement of speakers and volume to avoid having to turn off the music completely. 

Allow them to share their stories

If they usually live alone, they may not get as many chances to talk in social settings, so allow them time to share their experiences and stories and reminisce on happy times. What was it like when they were a child? What traditions did they have? 

Be Patient 

When they’re talking, try to avoid cutting them off too promptly or rushing them – lonely people tend to talk more once around other people – so be conscious of this. Think of it as a privilege to hear stories from someone from a different generation and that your loved one is still around to do so.

Even if they complain too much or are grumpy, remember to breathe through it and practice gratitude and understanding.

Pay attention to their mood and be there to listen

Christmas can be tough for people who have lost family members and friends, and this is more common for older people, making depression quite common for them during this time of year. Be conscious of how they’re feeling, and think of things to do to lift their mood. Be willing to talk about feelings and remind them of happy times. Having a listening ear sometimes is all that is needed.  

Read more later life articles 

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