When most people think about the holidays, they envision twinkling lights, family time, laughter, funny sweaters, decorations, glistening snow, Christmas carols, Santa Claus, parties, hot cocoa, family movies, and general holiday cheer. In fact, it seems that people are actually under pressure to enjoy themselves during the holidays. Holiday joy is not a reality for everyone, though, especially in this crazy year of isolation. Many elderly residents in Lincoln will spend their 2020 Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in assisted living, rehabilitation, memory-care, or independent living, while others will stay home, often alone, because they don’t have family nearby or are dedicated to practicing social distancing.
While anxiety, depression, and isolation are more common among the elderly than we’d like to believe, research has shown that the holiday season often makes these feelings more severe. People need social interaction, and memories of the holidays of yore, missing family and friends, and the extreme lack of social interaction they’ve experienced this year can leave seniors feeling lonelier than ever. The loss of traditions and acceptance that their life is not like it was in the past can be especially painful during the holidays. It turns out, however, that making special connections with your loved seniors during this season isn’t as difficult as you might think—even if you can’t visit them in person.
We talked to senior-care experts in the Omaha community to find out how they help spread the joyful holiday spirit among the seniors in their care—and how seniors’ families can help keep their moods boosted and make them feel like they are still part of the celebrations. There are some fantastic caregivers in Omaha that are taking tremendous care of your loved ones in senior living, but the fact is, they aren’t YOU, and the seniors in your life need to connect with family more than ever during this holiday season.
We even asked the experts to share some fitting gift ideas for isolated seniors in 2021, and we got some fantastic input that can help you wrap up your holiday shopping for your favorite seniors—or for someone else without family—and know that your gestures will be on-target for their needs. Be sure to read to the end for that list!
CountryHouse Residences for Memory Care (countryhouse.net) Life Enrichment Director Marcia Houchin said the repercussions of the coronavirus have many seniors and their families experiencing COVID fatigue, as it has become clear that fighting the pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. Even in normal times, the holidays are especially fraught with emotion by way of memories about past holidays, family traditions, extreme forms of skepticism, and (often unrealistic) expectations. With COVID in play, things are exponentially more difficult.
“People are just plain tired of restrictions and not seeing their loves ones for months on end,” Marcia said. “Signs of COVID fatigue include loss of interest, as well as anger and feelings of sadness or anxiety. Sadness can lead to depression, which, in turn, can take a deadly toll on both mental and physical health. Residents who were careful in the beginning may now adopt an ‘I don’t care anymore’ attitude and quit following precautions or give up on making healthy choices.”
The staff at CountryHouse has gotten creative to come up with new and better ways to engage seniors during this time. The staff is learning about each resident’s family traditions for the holidays and recreating them in activities including recipes, stories, music, meditation, and the like. Other activities include finding programs to help provide for people in need—like sending care packages to troops and making and sending cards to friends and family.
“These things are important,” Marcia said. “No matter what, we can all do something to be a positive force in the world.”
It’s also beneficial to engage seniors who are struggling with COVID fatigue during the holidays by surprising them with joyful experiences, like carolers singing from the parking lot, fun holiday activities and games, silly and spontaneous fun with staff and, in their assisted-living housing, helping and encouraging residents to decorate their apartments to get into the joyful spirit. Family members should do as much virtual visiting as possible with their loved ones in senior care, too.
“When you’re on Skype, Zoom, Facebook with your loved one, give your visits some creative twists, like gathering the family together in your home to cook a favorite recipe together—like grandma’s famous stuffing or cranberry-fluff salad,” Marcia said. “Or take turns sharing ‘my favorite Christmas’ memories or carry on a family tradition, like reading The Night Before Christmas or the nativity story from the Bible, singing Christmas carols, or opening a gift.”
Going the Distance
Holidays in 2020 mark tremendous change for the elderly, especially those living in assisted living, memory care, or a skilled nursing facility. The potential for seniors’ health to decline during this time is raised dramatically with COVID restrictions and the resulting forced isolation.
“Because so many seniors are not able to see their loved ones in person over the holidays this year, we could see an increase in loneliness, depression, illness, self-neglect, and everything that goes with those,” said Midwest Geriatrics (omahaseniorcare.org) House of Hope Alzheimer’s Care Community Nurse Carly Snider. “It can also be a big challenge for families that may not get to see their loved ones very often and generally use the holidays as a time to do a well-check. I encourage those family members to ask a neighbor or friend to check in on their loved one to ensure that they are doing well.”
At Midwest Geriatrics, the staff goes the distance to make the holidays as festive as possible for their residents. They decorate the community and engage seniors in decorating with them—including their apartments, if they wish. The dietary staff also works diligently to bring the holidays to life with traditional holiday favorite foods and holiday parties, though they’ll be smaller and look different this year. It’s crucial that families of seniors go out of their way to make their loved ones feel included in holiday festivities, too.
“Even though families may not be able to see their loved on in person, there are many ways to show your loved one that you care,” Carly said. “Technology is a prime source of connection these days for a lot of families and friends through Facetime, Zoom, and Facebook, for example. Our residents love seeing their family and friends, but they also love phone calls, letters, care packages, and anything special from the heart. I know our residents love when families drop off their favorite foods or treats, and I think it would be really cool for families and friends to decorate outside of the resident’s apartment and courtyard with holiday décor for their loved ones to enjoy. Maybe get the family together and do a little Christmas caroling outside the resident’s apartment if it’s allowed by their community. If a loved one lives at home, the gift of companionship is ideal.”
Stimulate the Senses
Regardless of opportunities for making connections that aren’t in-person, the truth is that loneliness will be one of the greatest challenges for seniors this holiday season. The feelings that come with not being able to connect directly with their loved ones will weigh particularly heavy on them. Ovation by Avamere Heartwood Preserve (ovationbyavamere.com), which now is taking reservations for new residents to move into its new sophisticated independent living, assisted living, and memory care communities in Omaha next summer, shared some recommendations for helping your elderly loved ones feel as connected as possible this holiday season.
“Think about ways in which you can stimulate their five senses to provide them the feelings of love and connection during this time of isolation,” said General Manager Stephanie Grade. “Create a schedule for family members to ensure that your loved one has received a call each day, and use technology to take that contact to a visual experience whenever possible. Send cards throughout the holiday season so they have something to look forward to when they’re not speaking with you directly. This also gives them something with which to touch and feel your love when they are having a moment of extreme loneliness.”
Stephanie said that one of her personal favorite practices that families can do for their loved ones is to create a family memory or gratitude jar. Each day, you and your loved one write down your own memory or gratitude and add it to their jar. Keep this up until a special day that you select to share with one another what you have written down.
“This could be on a holiday evening with numerous family members in attendance via a virtual experience,” Stephanie said. “What a great way to have them be part of the holidays and share your love for one another!”
Sharing the Love
With so many seniors not able to enjoy visits with family this holiday season, it’s crucial that families and caregivers engage them with the traditions they treasure. The caregivers at CareBuilders at Home (carebuildersathomeomaha.com) are putting together plans to ensure that every one of their clients living in their homes gets to experience some holiday tradition.
“Even before COVID, the holiday season brought with it depression and loneliness for many seniors who were without family or were unable to spend time with their loved ones,” said CareBuilders CEO Brenda Ouellette. “With COVID changing our daily lives and now affecting our traditional holiday events, this year will be extremely difficult for families and their loved ones who cannot share together in creating traditional holiday memories.”
In an effort to keep their clients engaged, CareerBuilders at Home will be making and sharing Thanksgiving dinner with their clients who would otherwise be alone. They will also coordinate with families to video-chat with their loved ones if they are not able to be together.
“Our team of compassionate caregivers will also be working closely with our office team to make sure no client goes without a Christmas gift, meal, and even a little celebration with Christmas Caroling,” Brenda said. “Families can send Christmas packages, too, and our team can set up a video call so they can talk on Christmas morning over a cup of hot cocoa or coffee.”
Making Dreams Come True
Amid the COVID restrictions, Care Consultants for the Aging (careconsultants.com) is finding that more seniors are staying in their homes because of the quarantines and the inability to have visitors inside senior communities. During the holidays, many seniors feel intensified heartache of the loss of friends and family and general holiday blues. In 2020, more than ever before, they also struggle with the reality that they may not be able to join in the holiday festivities and meals and having people checking in on them. That’s where Care Consultants for the Aging comes in. Their caregivers will make sure that your loved ones are safe and content during the holidays, that they get time visiting, cooking, or playing games, and that they feel loved and included to the greatest degree possible given restrictions.
“CCA provides comfort to the seniors through making their wishes come true,” said Care Consultants Omaha Business Development Director Blake Thomas. “We can spend the holiday with them, taking them shopping or making a special meal for them. Families of seniors can make special connections with their loved ones that mean more than you can imagine. Drop off or send their favorite holiday treat, and then Skype with them while they enjoy that special treat. In these times, we have to get creative.”
If you are caring for your senior loved one but find them declining to a point where you must consider moving them to a senior-living home during the holidays, Oasis Senior Advisors (www.oasissenioradvisors.com) of Omaha will be there for you. They are an outlet for caregiver support, offering free senior-housing placement services so you can find the right community that meets the needs of your loved one. Oasis Senior Advisors rely on their cutting-edge OasisIQ™ software, as well as their extensive knowledge of the community, to reveal the best option available to each specific client.
At Prairie Meadows Alzheimer’s Care Center (jeaseniorliving.com), the staff helps seniors live as closely to “normal” as possible during the holidays and throughout the year. Their Meaningful Memories program helps them get to know residents by learning their life stories and finding out their preferences, including likes, dislikes, family, hobbies, careers, achievements, and cherished memories. People living with memory loss face greater challenges than most of us but that certainly doesn’t mean that they’ve lost the capacity to experience joy and the ability to continue leading meaningful lives. If they have a favorite restaurant where they always went to have pumpkin pie during the holidays, Prairie Meadows will make sure they still get to enjoy that.
“Our residents have access to a whole host of amenities and programming options to help keep them active and engaged in daily life,” said Community Resource Director Don Woods. “Plus, we have a nurse here 24/7, which is way above and beyond the minimal regulations of eight hours a day, and we partner with home health, hospice services, everything we need to provide all of the services they need so their families can rest assured that they are safe and cared for, even if they might not always remember who they are. They still cherish their time together, enjoying the same things they always have.”
COVID restrictions really take a toll on memory-care patients, too, psycho-socially and overall, because they don’t understand why they can’t do the things they’ve become accustomed to. The Prairie Meadows team helps them through by doing a lot of redirecting, but hearing from people who care about them can be quite helpful. If you’re struggling with being a family member of someone with dementia, the holidays can be particularly rough, but keep in mind that Prairie Meadows offers support groups for families throughout the year, whether your loved one lives there or somewhere else.
Kindness, Caring, and Faith
Amid the challenges for seniors in winter and throughout the year is the transition to or updating of Medicare and other insurance products—including life insurance—all of which can be overwhelming. That’s why Lisa Wilsey partners with Insurance Advisors in Omaha (LisaWilsey@yahoo.com). She can help you take the guesswork out of the confusing insurance landscape and get you set with the plans that are best for your specific needs. That includes everything from Medicare Advantage to Medicare supplements, D plans, Medicare Part B enrollment, Affordable Care coverage, life insurance, dental insurance, cancer plans, spend-downs, Medicaid support, and more. Lisa goes above and beyond to protect her clients and make the process as pain-free as possible for them.
“I guess none of us could have predicted that we’d be facing our current circumstances,” Lisa said. “So it has caused people to take a look at their life insurance to ensure their families are protected in the event of their loss.”
If you want to help seniors continue to thrive through pandemic restrictions this holiday season, Lisa suggests that people take extra time out of their days to call their senior loved ones and send cards regularly so they have that to look forward to. In short, while Medicare is Lisa’s main business, when you hire her, you’ll find that kindness, caring, and faith are all part of the package!
“My advice is to do what you can for seniors who are isolated during this holiday season,” Lisa said. “Send cards and call a couple of times a day if you can. We all thrive on interaction with others. I have a few things I always say. In fact, sometimes my clients tease me about it, but these are things I really believe: Kindness matters, and faith changes everything, which seems especially true in these times.”
Gift Ideas for Seniors
The senior-living experts we talked with combined to create a tremendous shopping list of perfect gift ideas for seniors who are spending more time alone than ever, so you can find the right gifts to keep you loved one engaged and thriving. There’s a lot of creative thinking involved here, so get out your pen and finish your gift list:
- Technology, including voice-activated music and Echo Show 8, which allow family members to “drop in” on a loved one for a video visit; motion-activated, stick-anywhere LED lights; a tablet to play games or video call; audio-book subscriptions; electronic games; their favorite music.
- Custom photo albums or calendars that show birthdays and anniversaries, along with smiling faces; a supply of greeting cards and stamps; photos of past holidays; books to read; puzzles, adult coloring books, craft projects and art supplies; large-print playing cards and games, like Sudoku; paints and canvas, cross-stitch projects, word-search books.
- Gifts of comfort, such as weighted blankets, compression socks, adaptive clothing, a super-cozy robe, an aromatherapy mister, a fabulous pillow; a blanket with family pictures to wrap themselves in for comfort and enjoyment; and the gift of companionship.
- Helpful items like a cup holder for their wheelchair; a walker caddy or tote bag; a gel or memory-foam seat cushion; an electric toothbrush; a rechargeable shaver; a mobility cane or grab bar.
The holiday season is a great joy for so many people, rife with family memories and traditions, shining stars, and heartfelt stories of love. With COVID running the show in 2020, the holidays promise to look very different, with fewer gatherings and planning challenges arising at every turn. As you lay out your plans to bring warmth and love to your holiday season, be sure to keep your eldery loved ones front and center in your minds and hearts. Even if you can’t see them in person, there are many ways to engage them and make them feel the joy, too. We’ve provided the advice and suggestions of some senior-care experts here, and we hope you will take it to heart this holiday season!