Most of us think about pleasant celebrations and gatherings with family members and friends during the holidays, but for many seniors, ’tis the season for sadness, loneliness and even depression.
There are many reasons for these feelings. In some cases, the holidays remind seniors of those no longer living with whom they have shared holidays in the past. Widows and widowers – or seniors without close family connections or a good network of friends – may have a particularly difficult time.
If you are a senior who is having a difficult time this holiday season, or if you know a senior who may be experiencing loneliness or depression, following are some tips that may help lighten the mood.
• Celebrate with others. Make an effort to get together with family members or friends. If this is not possible, join a group of seniors or go to a celebration at church or another community organization.
• Volunteer your time. Studies have shown that people who donate their time to help others reap valuable rewards. Sign up to help cook or serve meals to the homeless, adopt a family for the holidays or organize or contribute to a toy or food drive.
• Don’t hide your feelings. Many seniors try to conceal their sadness during the holiday season because they don’t want to put a damper on other people’s festivities or joy. But it’s important to talk about your feelings. Remember that most people will appreciate the opportunity to listen and help.
• Don’t spend too much money. Many people, including seniors, try to make up for feelings of emptiness during the holidays by overspending. This will not work, and it may even backfire when you get the bill at the end of the month. Besides, the best gifts are from the heart, not the pocketbook.
• Go for a walk. Exercise is incredibly beneficial to both the body and the mind. It improves balance, gait and flexibility; enlivens the brain; and provides cardiac and pulmonary benefits. It also stimulates the release of endorphins, which positively affect mood and act as an antidepressant. You should maintain the level of exercise intensity recommended for you based on your medical history.
• Catch some rays. Light therapy is used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sometimes called “winter depression.” Try going outdoors during the daytime when the sun is out or keeping your home environment bright. Talk to your doctor about which SAD lamps are most beneficial.
• Try to avoid alcohol. Many seniors rely on alcohol more after retirement or the loss of a loved one, but alcohol is a depressant and may increase feelings of loneliness or sadness.
• Eat a balanced diet. In general, malnutrition and dehydration are common in seniors. Especially during the holidays, seniors may feel sad and not want to eat. To feel good, you must eat a diet consisting of lean meats, whole grains and five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. On the flip side, you should also resist the urge to overeat during the holidays. Gaining too much weight may lead to diabetes, heart disease or other serious medical conditions.
Dr. Minerva Navarro is a geriatric medicine physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Mountain View Center.
The Palo Alto Medical Foundation and editor Arian Dasmalchi provide this monthly column.