Happy Holidays for Seniors: 8 Ways to Make this Year Special for Residents
The past year has been fraught with stressful events.
From COVID-19 to political unrest, it’s been a year with many ups and downs. Nowhere has been quite as impacted as the senior living community. Now as we move toward the holidays, senior care braces for another tough moment. But the truth is, even on years that are less dramatic, loneliness and holiday sadness can still be a problem for seniors. How can you help plan happier holidays for seniors this year?
December marks the beginning of the holiday season. From Chanukkah to Christmas to the New Year’s celebrations, it’s a time of festivity and togetherness for family and friends. This year, however, the holidays promise to look a little different for us all, especially holidays for seniors.
Anyone who works in senior care wants senior residents to experience joyful, happy holidays. As people advance in their years, traditions and memories become even more poignant. It’s important to mark the moments and make them special. Adjusting to life in senior care can be tough, especially this year during a pandemic. Seasonal loneliness is normal, even in the best of times, and it can be a health hazard for the elderly.
So how do senior care professionals create positive holidays for seniors? How can we combat the loneliness that often creeps up, even when we don’t need to socially distance? Here are a few ways to make this year special for residents who may be feeling alone.
1. Schedule Plenty of Staff
After such a tough year, many staff members are probably looking forward to escaping reality for a bit this holiday season. But as the CDC is advising, we should limit travel and gatherings over the holidays. Encourage staff to take their vacation later in the year; this may mean adjusting policies on time-off and allowing some flexibility and rollover to the next year.
Health experts have announced that a vaccine is likely on the horizon and those with compromised immunity, like seniors as well as frontline workers, will have early access. Remind staff to keep their eye on the future and encourage them to pitch in right now to help get residents through this time.
Extra staff can ensure that residents get a little more one-on-one time this year. Many senior care professionals form close bonds with those in their care. It’s those friendships that are so vital to lonely seniors during the holiday season. An extra conversation can go a long way toward brightening someone’s day. Studies have shown that even brief, positive encounters can elevate people’s moods and have a lasting impact on their happiness.
2. Focus on Sensory Experiences
Our senses are powerfully connected to our memories. Smells, tastes, and sounds can evoke strong reactions and help seniors feel more connected to the world around them. Even in memory care, patients have shown positive responses to music and other stimuli.
Even with social distancing in place, there are many ways to connect seniors with the sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes of Christmas. Scents often evoke memories and emotions, and the scent of pine needles, chocolate, peppermint, latkes, or cinnamon can make residents feel instantly elevated and festive.
Put up a tree in the common area, diffuse natural scents, or provide seniors with a holiday sachet to tuck in their bedside drawer. Play the Nutcracker Suite, Bing Crosby, or Louis Armstrong for residents who enjoy music. Twinkling lights in the hall, shiny bulbs on the tree, or the sight of a soft snowfall outside an open window can help residents feel peaceful and comforted. These small but impactful sensory moments will help them feel the holiday magic and wonder.
3. Organize a Card Exchange
If your residents are mainly encouraged to stay in their rooms or suites, staff can help them connect with their neighbors by organizing a card exchange. Provide an array of holiday papers or blank cards from the dollar store and allow residents to select a card to send to a friend or two down the hall.
Staff can help distribute the cards to different residents around the unit. A card exchange can also be carried out in a “secret Santa” format, where residents randomly get a neighbor pen-pal to send a holiday greeting to.
Be sure that families have all the information they need to send cards to seniors for the holidays. There are also groups that organize card deliveries for seniors who don’t have many social ties. Many times, grandchildren and friends may send cards to the front desk or drop off gifts for staff to deliver. Encourage staff to carry out these deliveries with extra holiday cheer and well wishes—how exciting to play Santa’s helper for someone who’s feeling alone this season!
4. Help Residents Connect with Technology
We are so lucky to live in a time when technology can help us connect during this period of social isolation. For seniors, holidays will be a little brighter when they can Facetime or Zoom with a loved one. Some residents may also hope to do their holiday shopping online.
A few tech-savvy staff members may need to assist with laptops, phones, or tablets to help seniors find a way to connect with their families. Many older folks enjoy the magic of technology, once they feel comfortable using it with their loved ones. Help them navigate safely.
Technology can also be a useful way to help seniors enjoy holiday music, find recipes, and DIY ideas, scroll through photos and enjoy videos. If your senior living center has access, making a few tablets or Chromebooks available for checkout can make a world of difference. Technology has been a boon throughout the pandemic, and it will likely be even more important for seniors during this year’s holiday season.
5. Involve the Kitchen
There’s nothing quite like the food of the holidays! Our meals connect us to the season and serve as traditions that help us feel festive. Since many of those in senior living will be unable to attend family meals this holiday season, keep the menu festive at your senior care center.
Offering a festive holiday dinner along with healthy-but-delicious deserts will help warm your resident’s spirits and remind them of the tastes of the season. A special breakfast on Christmas morning or a mid-day feast will help everyone feel right at home.
Think beyond the Christmas cookies, and get the kitchen on board to create holiday treats and meals all month long. Look at the foods and traditions from around the world for different ideas. For example, eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Eve is said to bring about luck, according to the Southern United States. In Japan, soba noodles are seen as auspicious (a long noodle, means a long life). Of course, everyone loves a bubbly toast to ring in the New Year as well.
6. Provide Holiday Movies
Another way people connect with the holiday season is by watching festive movies! Depending on your facility’s policies and community space, you could offer masked movie nights in the common room (don’t forget the popcorn!) or help those in long-term care choose a movie to watch in their room.
Many cable channels (like the Hallmark channel) offer great holiday programming that’s both heartwarming and seasonal. Check listings and let residents know when holiday specials are coming up, so they can tune in. PBS often shows holiday concerts and theater. Other channels may feature holiday-themed television episodes.
Seniors may want to watch the classics—It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and White Christmas. Others may prefer the more modern comedies like Elf, Scrooged, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Be sure to keep a variety available for check-out, so seniors can enjoy a piece of cheery entertainment.
7. Summon the Community’s Help
Many community members are eager to assist senior care facilities with their needs but aren’t sure how to help during this challenging time. Putting out a call on your Nextdoor group, or through the local news outlets can help get the word out.
Ask locals to donate gently used puzzles, books, or games to help seniors stay entertained during these long winter months. Many people may have holiday DVDs and CDs as well. Be specific in your request, to ensure you get quality, usable items for your residents.
You can also ask the community to send letters, cards, and artwork to center-bound residents. Some folks may be willing to volunteer for Zoom chats or calls with lonely seniors too. Often, simply asking the community for assistance can start a chain reaction. During this time when so many people feel helpless, many are grateful for a clear way they can bring about holiday joy.
8. Encourage Distanced Visits
Of course, for most residents, there’s nothing quite like a visit from friends or family members. With recommendations against travel this year, and people encouraged to stay put, many seniors will be wishing they were “home for the holidays.”
Depending on the policy of your facility, you may be able to allow some distanced visits on the patio, outside windows, or masked in a well-ventilated space. It’s a good time of year to send out a reminder to families and post your policies in prominent areas of your facility. These notices will help everyone stay safe and follow the best practices.
Remind everyone—seniors and their families—that the goal is to keep everyone safe and healthy until we get through the pandemic. As experts continue to give us hope that a vaccine will be available in the early part of 2021, it’s important not to give way to pandemic fatigue. If we continue to remain diligent, we can ensure that seniors have a happy holiday this year and for years to come.
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