The following blog was written by Rev. Howard L. West III M.Ed., M.Div., Executive Director of Spiritual Life Services of Country Meadows Retirement Communities.
The holiday and winter season is a very difficult time of the year for many older adults and their caregivers. Getting through the holidays can be painful and tiring when facing age-related losses like death, declining health, and demanding medical/caregiving schedules. It is still a good idea to try and experience the holidays as a joyful and meaningful season. However, we need to make allowances for the impact of losses and the demands placed upon caregivers.
My recommendation is to adopt the motto “LESS is more!” Regrouping with less focus on activities can lead to a more meaningful and spiritually-fulfilling holiday no matter how difficult the family situation. LESS is also an acronym that contains four elements that should be considered during the holiday season:
- L — losses
- E — expectations
- S — support
- S — spirituality
Many people feel that talking about their losses during the holidays will only spoil the mood and ruin celebrations. Truth be told, most people are already aware of your losses. Talking about them during the holidays can lead to more meaningful and supportive relationships that provide healing and self-care opportunities.
Robert A. Neimeyer, Ph.D., a psychologist and grief expert, points out that when we avoid and deny our grief, it damages our connections with other people who could be a source of love and support. Avoiding grief usually equates to putting up emotional walls that damage relationships and keep them “shallow and noncommittal.” A great example of this is seen in the old curmudgeons in movies like “Grumpy Old Men” with Walter Matthau and “Gran Torino” with Clint Eastwood. The solution is simple but not easy and it cannot be achieved alone. Talk about your losses. Caregivers in particular need to talk about the losses that have come with caregiving — lost time, lost finances, lost activities, and lost relationships.
Expectations are the second challenge that we face during the holidays. All year round, and especially during the holidays, unchecked expectations accumulate metaphorically like an older adult’s prescription medications that are not regularly reviewed by a physician. Without a periodic review, expectations, like too many medications, can become toxic with unforeseen side effects and interactions. Therefore, I encourage people to question their expectations with the help of a trusted friend, counselor, or clergy. Ask yourself “What do I need to drop so I have time to take care of myself?” and “If I don’t do it, what is the worst thing that could happen?” Remember, the real goal of limiting expectations is self-care and burnout prevention!
This takes us to the third element, which is support. Talking about losses and limiting expectations requires other people. We need people to listen, show empathy, provide love, and just help out with day-to-day needs. I am saddened when I meet caregivers who tell me that they can go months and even years without having a good talk with someone about their stress and loneliness.
My favorite Bible quote about help is Matthew 7:7 — “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” It gives us hope that God will provide help, but it also reminds us that we have to take action and seek help. Check to see if there are any support groups in your local area that deal with aging and dementia or contact local churches about grief and caregiver support groups. In addition, don’t overlook naturally-occurring relationships within your circle of family and friends who may be willing to help when you reach out for help.
The second “S” in LESS stands for spirituality. We often hear people mention that the holidays are not what they used to be, that people don’t care about going to church and things are too materialistic. I also frequently hear people say they aren’t religious, but they’re spiritual even if they don’t go to church. Dr. James L. Griffith, an expert on the link between religion, spirituality, and mental health, writes that “Spirituality can be regarded as a person-centered corrective” for religious life and that personal spirituality is a religion for the person. Spirituality focuses on a personal search for purpose and meaning, and that can come in handy during the holidays.
I know someone who cannot make it to church anymore due to her mother’s medical issues. Her spiritual focus will be inviting the light of the spirit into her home during a dark time of illness and caregiving. She has invited old friends and family to stop by and bring a snack for a visit. That’s when they reminisce about their family’s holiday history. The daughter will get a break from caregiver loneliness and her mother is finding meaning and purpose by sharing stories with visitors. So, while they cannot fit church into the schedule, they are still enjoying a spiritually-meaningful and joyful holiday.
During this holiday season or any time of the year remember…“Less is more!”